Since “The Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust” is usually proclaimed by Congress in April or May, I’ve been reflecting on my visit to the main museum in the U.S. dedicated to the Holocaust. As the reader might conclude from yesterday’s column, I can’t say that I “enjoyed” going to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but it was interesting.
I was intrigued by the background of how Hitler came to power and the actions that he took to ensure his rule would not end. Most of us know that Hitler was a lowly corporal in the army during World War I and had no status in life. How did he go from that to dictator of Germany — especially when he was actually Austrian?
I knew the basics of Germany’s problems: going bankrupt trying to pay the repatriations imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, hyperinflation making the mark so worthless people used it to wallpaper their rooms, a feeling that the country had lost the best of a generation while fighting World War I, etc. The exhibit went into more detail about the problems and their causes.
I learned how Germany was pulled between socialists and communists and pro-business people. People were looking for leadership, for something solid. Few people actually shared Hitler’s beliefs; they just wanted stability and an end to riots and demonstrations and a weak economy. When General Paul von Hindenburg, an elderly WWI hero, appointed Hitler to office in January 1933, his advisers had convinced him that Hitler would be easier to control if he were in office under them.
Instead, within six months Hitler had eliminated all of his political enemies by putting them in concentration camps or killing them outright, and the Nazi Party’s SS troops, which were loyal to Hitler, began engaging in activities once belonging to the police.
Hitler made radios available free to all families and used the radio to build an audience and make the nation feel united and proud again. He and Joseph Goebbels ran an incredible propaganda machine.
Hitler didn’t implement all of his anti-Semitic laws at once. He began gradually, and over the course of six years built them up. For years, the concentration camps were home to political enemies of Hitler and to homosexuals. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that Jews were sent there.
Of course, Hitler had been making life miserable for Jews for years prior to that. I guess to average German citizens, it didn’t seem like a big deal when Hitler decided that Jewish children could no longer go to school with the others or that people should carry identity cards.
Then through law after law, year after year, Hitler reduced the status of Jews. Limiting their educations, reducing the jobs they could hold, defining what a Jew was in racial laws (i.e., by determining how many grandparents were Jewish or by measuring the sizes of noses, ears, eyes and foreheads) and deciding who they could and could not marry were just some of the steps he took.
Even more vulnerable in German society were the Roma (gypsies) who, unlike Jews, had no friends or wealth or positions of power. Most Germans were more eager to go along with persecutions of Roma because they were seen as having no value to society at all.
If a person was homosexual, something was “wrong” with him or her, too, and homosexuals needed to be separated from society in concentration camps.
Hitler and his team of race scientists and doctors began to provide “evidence” that the Nordic and Germanic people — the Aryans — were the pure people of mankind and that all other breeds, especially Slavs, were only fit to be their slaves — or should be eliminated from the earth entirely. To people who felt ashamed and discouraged after their defeat in World War I, there was a strong need to feel superior and to reestablish their worth. The idea of taking over Russia, Poland and other Slavic lands and using their populace as slaves was appealing.
It seems impossible that all Germans believed that Hitler was right. Maybe they thought he was partially right, but not entirely. Or maybe they thought he was completely wrong. But what happened in their society that those people allowed things to get so out of control?
Every citizen might not have known about the true situation in the concentration camps, but countless others did. Millions of people were in those camps. That means that thousands of people built the camps, guarded them and built the crematoriums and gas chambers. They must have told at least some friends or family members.
Who can explain the “ordinary” German businessman who used slave labor in his factories? How many “normal” Germans worked in those factories, supervised people and visited those buildings occasionally with parts or supplies? How many saw the slave laborers — obviously sick, in tattered clothes and starving — and said nothing?
Where does such hatred come from? Even more difficult to understand is where such indifference comes from. Hatred is a passion and something that one feels and has an opinion about. I doubt that many German citizens had a real hatred towards the Jews or Roma or homosexuals or Slavs or disabled and thought that what happened to them was justified.
So, why the massive indifference? Who has the ability to not care? I think that this will be one of the biggest mysteries of all time.
A. J. Ralls resides in Columbia and enjoys history and traveling.