HOW ON EARTH earth could a civilized, 20th century country have demonized an entire religion to the point of justifying deportation, genocide and the holocaust? Not just those of the Jewish faith, but homosexuals , migrant gypsies, and the mentally/physically disabled – anyone deemed by the powers-that-be as foreign, or weak, or not just not “us.”
In 1933, Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany after the Nazi Party won a significant percent of the peoples’ vote. The Nazi’s took advantage of an economic recession and political unrest to preach German purity as the solution. They conducted a ruthless propaganda campaign against the Jews whom they blamed for Germany’s woes. The Nazi Party claimed the Jews corrupted the German way of life with their external influence. They portrayed Jews & gypsies alike as evil and foreign, while the German people were hard-working and patriotic. They expertly exploited our base human emotions of both fear and hatred. They claimed the Jews were weakening Germany’s culture and security. A relentless propaganda machine preached to the population year after year in both the press and radio.
In 1933, German Jews numbered around 500,000, or 1% of the German population. During the next six years, the Nazis attempted to purify Germany, liquidating Jewish-owned businesses. Under Hitler’s 1935 law, anyone with 2 Jewish grandparents was designated Jewish regardless of their faith. By law, Jews could now become targets for bigotry and persecution. The majority of Germans who were not Jews swallowed the propaganda whether out of fear or belief, and turned in their Jewish neighbors to the Nazi party.
The culmination for the average German citizen was KRISTALLNACHT in 1938 or the “Night of Broken Glass,” when the Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish businesses, burned synagogues to the ground, and arrested thousands who resisted. Jews were now required to wear arms bands with a yellow Star of David with the word Jude inscribed.
In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and WWII began.
The Nazi military forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews into ghettoes, confiscating and redistributing their property. Surrounded by walls of barbed wire – poverty and hunger made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease and starvation. More than 10% of the Polish population was Jewish, numbering over three million. By 1941, the Nazis had in effect sealed off Europe to migration. Whether Jew, gypsy, gay or disabled, you were now trapped in Hitler’s Third Reich with no escape. Forced deportations to concentration camps soon begun.
While we humans can and do learn from history, there are many aspects about the Holocaust, specifically its genesis with demonization and propaganda, that we have yet to evolve past. People in authority have the power to create an institutional framework that can harness people to hatred. They prey on conformity, deference, fear, superiority, and bigotry. We know from past examples that it doesn’t require centuries of gestation. In fact, in today’s digital age of instantaneous social media, it can be accomplished in a matter of weeks. So what can we as humans do today? “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”