We do ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about atrocities. When I was in school, genocide and totalitarianism were taught as things that happened “long ago” or “far away” (or both). Dictators, we piously pretended, could never rise to power here in America: our robust systems of checks and balances, plus red-blooded freedom-loving citizens, would never allow it. Genocide was presented as something done by very different people than us. Of course Americans would never ever do that! (Never mind what happened to indigenous Americans, that was all war and disease and totally different because reasons.)
Atrocities committed by white people were considered aberrations. Something extraordinary must have caused them to happen. My teachers were very uncomfortable trying to explain the Holocaust. They had to turn the Germans into people strangely hypnotized by an exceptionally evil man. The whole thing was a regrettable freak occurrence. Ordinary Germans weren’t really involved – it was those monsters in the SS. They didn’t actually know the extent of what was happening until after the war, when the camps were liberated. Ordinary people could never do such things, would never condone such things.
Only, they could. And did.
We are not well served by the way history is taught in America. The national myths pounded into our brains are adept at covering up our bloody hands. We did bad things in the past, but it was a different time. We did bad things in the past, but they weren’t that bad. We did bad things in the past, but we fixed them and everything’s fine now. We did bad things in the past, but that was just a few bad apples. We did bad things in the past, but those other people did things that were so much worse, and so we are good and noble. Let us talk about how good and noble and just we are, and how because we are good and noble and just, we fixed the bad things, and liberated the oppressed, and are the best in the world. By no means let us talk about the bad things we are still doing. We are good people, and good people don’t commit atrocities.
Only, they do. We are. And these myths we’ve told ourselves prevent us from seeing that.
We believe that nothing like the rise of Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust could happen here in America. And because we believe that, we refuse to see the parallels between us and the Germans in the early 20th century. Because we refuse to tell ourselves the truth, we have left systems in place that arose from oppression, and rely on oppression, and those systems have now been utilized by a fascist con man and his white supremacist friends and followers to seize power. Because we refused to be honest with ourselves, admit we are just as fallible and racist and prone to do terrible things as those infamous others, we let the conditions here breed the kinds of beliefs necessary to make people think a bigoted blowhard is just the man this country needs to make it great again.
And now we’re in a situation where survivors and historians of Nazi Germany are experiencing a horrible deja vu.
We like to believe, perhaps need to believe, that only monsters can commit atrocities, and because we don’t see a monster when we look in the mirror, we’re fine.
The Germans who allowed – often helped – the Nazis seize power didn’t see monsters in the mirror, either.
It’s time we understood the conditions and conscience that allow atrocities to be committed. It’s time we faced the fact that ordinary people with, if not full awareness, then at least enough of an idea of the situation to know that something is catastrophically amiss, still allow and enable terrible wrongs to be done. It’s past time we realized the monsters are just people who thought they had good reasons for what they did.
So we’re going to start with Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience. We’ll find it uncomfortably familiar. Americans are saying things now eerily like what Germans said then. Their leaders knew how to play to their prejudices, as ours do, and get them to accept an outrage at a time until they were ready for the extremes – as we’re seeing now.
Reading this book is hard. There’s no real distance between us and them, no illusion that they were monsters without a conscience, something we could never be. But we need to understand the humanity of the perpetrators and enablers so that we can try to stop what happened to them from happening to us. We must realize that of course it can happen here.
It already is.