It didn’t start with the concentration camps. It didn’t start with gas chambers and the ovens.
It started with existing racism. Anti-Semitism was widely pervasive in Europe, North America, anywhere where Jewish people existed really before the Nazis came to power. Even after they did, many countries refused Jewish refugees the right of entry. Many established restrictive quotas regarding how many Jews would be allowed to enter the country in a given year. This included both Canada and the United States.
When Hitler was rising in the political wing of his party, he seized onto that existing racism to propel him into power. He used the fear of the stranger, the fear of the other and the unknown. He used Jewish people as a scapegoat for all the misgivings and problems felt by post-Great War Germans. There was all sorts of propaganda spread around, including rumors that Christian babies were kidnapped and used to make Matzo. Rumors of how they used their access to gold to corrupt governments and control institutions. Access to gold that was granted to them when money lending was deemed an unchristian profession and best left to Jewish people.
Like Donald Trump and the racist myths of the scary Mexican Alien or the Radicalizing Muslim, Hitler tapped into the underlying systemic racism already present and used it give the people someone to blame other than the established failing and outdated systems. He took the defeat and subsequent punishment of Germany during the Great War and turned it into a story of unfair persecution of the German people.
His bigoted ideology was praised as him “speaking his mind” and “saying what everyone is afraid to say”. He gave the common German, who was struggling during a time of post-war scarcity, something to be proud of. Without having to work for it, they were told that they were part of a superior race. That they were Aryan. But then he also threatened that pride, by telling them that it could be taken away from them. Hitler ran on a campaign promise to make Germany great again.
His seizure of power in turn was a signal to others that hatred of Jews was not only ok but encouraged. What followed was a dramatic upswing in hate crimes against Jewish people, and other visible minorities. This happened before any laws were passed. Before Jewish people were made to give up their businesses, their property, before they were deported to ghettos and camps.
It started with vandalism. Jewish homes, businesses, schools, and synagogues were tagged with slurs, and threats. People in the neighborhoods would shake their heads and blame it on bad apples, overexcited youth, or just a few extremists. The same would be said later when people started being targeted. When prominent Jewish people would be beaten, when women and children would be taunted and harassed on the streets.
When they were forced to wear arm bands identifying them as Jews, the violence escalated. Anyone with an armband could find themselves the victims of Hitler youth or soldiers, or policemen. They would find themselves cursed as dirty. They were refused entry or service into stores, including groceries and other essentials.
When it escalated to Jewish people being forbidden to own businesses or work in professions many people would tell their neighbors how terrible it was. They would shake their heads, but do nothing. It was the government, not them. What could they themselves do? They had their own problems to worry about. When the taunts on the street happened, they turned their heads so they could pretend they didn’t see.
By the time they came for the people and forced them to relocate, it was much too late. Those that still believed that the acts were horrible were too afraid to do anything about it. Most however, didn’t spare it much thought. How many were even grateful, thinking that even if the people they knew were ok, surely there would be some that were as bad as the stereotypes said. So the good ones suffered too, it was worth it to keep everyone safe right?
If you wait until the camps are built, it’s too late, but before then people are able to excuse anything. “If only they followed the law they wouldn’t have been killed.” How many people said that about Jews who were sent to Concentration Camps, often on made up charges or laws made specifically to target them?
“If they just keep their head down and don’t bring attention to themselves, they’ll be ok.” How many people said that about prisoners in the camps?
The recent global trends have been scary for those familiar with the history of past genocides and pogroms. The rise in hate crimes, the fact that people identifying as and with Nazis are out in the open and without fear, that countries across the globe are electing fascist and authoritarian reactive governments, all parallel the same trends that predated World War 2.
There are pictures going around of vandalism that has been on the rise in the last two months. Pictures that could have easily come from 1938. Pictures of gravestones with Jewish names tagged with swastikas and phrases like “Fucking Jew”. Pictures of Synagogues desecrated and the Menorah bent into a swastika. Pictures of slurs painted on Mosques. The homes of both Muslims and Jews has been targeted.
There has been violence too. Muslim women are having their scarves ripped off. People who look like they might belong to Islam are called terrorists, and in some cases beaten and/or killed.
There have been calls for laws to force registration of Muslims, and those of us with a memory of our history scream in despair and warning.
Just like before and during WW2 refugees are being refused entry to countries as they try to escape violence. People who have lived through unimaginable horrors are turned away at the borders because there might be one terrorist hiding among thousands of victims. Children who have had everything torn away from them are left drowning, or starving, or in further danger, because of existing racism.
It is not enough to say Never Again. It is Important to learn how these horrors start. It is important to remain alert and vigilant against the seeds of fascism, of spreading hate, or choosing fear over empathy. Never Again means stopping things before the camps are built, because by then it is too late.