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Harrison Ruess: People tried to 'contextualize' things in the 1930s, too
We all would say that the Holocaust must 'never again' be repeated. It's time to act like you really mean it.
By: Harrison Ruess
There are some people in our society right now who feel that we urgently need “contextualization” for all that’s happened since the October 7 attack on Israel.
Fine. Let’s do that.
In the early 1930s, the global economy was in turmoil. This was especially true in Germany, where the population felt — with some justification — that they had gotten a rough deal after the Great War. Reparations bills were big. The German economy was in shambles. Inflation was running rampant.
Where the blame landed for the situation varied, though the Jewish population was a regular target. Some of the blame stemmed from simple, though vile, long-standing antisemitism. Some of it stemmed from new stereotypes, ranging from blaming Jewish people for starting the war, to the Jewish community benefitting disproportionately from democracy, to Jewish people being disloyal to Germany during the fight (in fact, in reality the ranks of the German armed forces during the war had a disproportionately high number of Jewish Germans).
Within this context came a relatively unknown political party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazis, for short. They had a pretty effective and charismatic leader, sadly. The Nazis rose to power democratically, with relatively broad popular support (their best electoral result was 37 per cent in July 1932, though by November of the same year they dipped to 33 per cent). We are obviously compressing a lot of history here to keep this column moving along, but through some constitutional and parliamentary maneuvering and outright criminal acts, over the following couple of years, they were able to effectively create a dictatorship.
Once their power was established, the Nazis continued to capitalize and build their popularity by stereotyping and gradually excluding the Jewish population from German society. It must be remembered however that they did this because it worked. The German population went along with it. Some were even active participants. Enough believed the Jewish population really was to blame, at least somewhat, for the unrest and hardships in Germany. Many other people — perhaps out of fear or out of apathy — simply stayed silent.
Outside Germany, there was further apathy or rationalizing about the situation facing Germany’s increasingly beleaguered Jews through much of the 1930s. Underlying antisemitism existed throughout much of Europe, and there was perhaps even a sympathy that the German population really was having a rough go of it. So nobody really said, much less did, anything about the increasingly overt persecution of the German Jewish population. In some cases, countries even introduced their own antisemitic policies.
As noted above, this is an extremely concise summary and simplification of a decade or more of some of the worst examples of human behaviour in history. But it’s important to bring it up — to contextualize this — because this is how the groundwork for the Holocaust was laid. The Nazis had created a lethal combination of active participants, soft supporters and silent onlookers. And it took time. It didn’t start with death camps. Those came later.
The early phase of the campaign against the German Jews came to a head on November 9-10, 1938 — almost exactly 85 years ago. Over this brief span, the Nazis undertook the Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). This was the first direct, widespread physical assault on the Jewish population, including arresting 30,000 Jewish men simply for being Jewish. These souls were the first sent to concentration camps. The initial rationalization given by the Nazis for the Kristallnacht was that it was a response to the killing of a German diplomat in Paris.
While there was outrage about the assaults and arrests, there were no real consequences. The outrage faded. The Nazis kept their hold on power. And for Germany’s Jews, the beginning of the end was at hand.
I sometimes find myself wondering, and I know others ponder the same thing when seeing atrocities or disasters play out, What would I do in this situation? Surely I would have done something to try to stop it? But at the time, not many did. You all know what happened next.
Are we morally superior today? Do we have the benefit of learning from history?
Or will leaders of our society today, as many did then, rationalize — or perhaps even contextualize — atrocities?
In reading history, and watching the news, it’s not difficult to see the parallels that have and continue to play out. We have a region where this is genuine turmoil and hardship. There is undeniable, shameful antisemitism. Increasingly, antisemitism is alarmingly overt. There has been a massive assault on the Jewish population, with brutality that is difficult to fathom, by a fanatical death cult. The Jewish population is sometimes being blamed for the situation. Not enough people are calling it out — much less doing anything to stop it. At one school in Norway, it’s now not possible to separate condemning Nazi atrocities from political disagreement over modern foreign policy.
There is today, however, one important difference versus November 1938: Israel has the capacity to defend itself in a way the Jewish population in Germany never did. This is, obviously, important. Israel’s focus on defence is partially tied, of course, to the simple, pragmatic reality of where it exists, and the security challenges it faces every day. But it’s also a function of the history I’ve summarized above, because Israel remembers better than most of us that when Europe’s Jews needed help, no help came. Millions of people found a way to avert their eyes or even took part, and the Holocaust happened.
Parts of our society, and influential parts at that, have an ongoing inability to find moral clarity on a struggle between a pluralistic, democratic country and a murderous death cult. I will grant however that there are glimmers, for example these remarks from German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck. If you’ve got 10 minutes, watch that video. But such moments are notable mainly for their rarity.
Anyone interested in peace in the Middle East should be among the loudest supporters of Israel’s attempt to rid the world of Hamas. Israel can and does co-exist in the region, and has made impressive progress in recent years in building relationships with other countries in the area. Hamas, not Israel, is the enemy of peace — and by extension, of the Palestinians.
So next time someone tries to rationalize the events of October 7, 2023, with words akin to “Yes, Hamas raped and murdered their way through unsuspecting communities, but…” let’s hear those words in their true, historic context. This is a moment where we all have to ask ourselves: which side of contextualized history do you want to be on 85 years from now?
Don’t try to rationalize atrocities. Instead call those that do out and support those trying to bring the perpetrators to justice. In the West, we’ve all agreed that the Holocaust or something like it must never again be allowed to happen.
It’s time to show we really mean "never again."
Several times in this piece I linked to resources from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is a powerful resource worthy of your exploration, most particularly the ‘Must Reads’ section within its Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Harrison Ruess is Senior Account Director at spark*advocacy in Ottawa. He’s also a former senior political staffer in Ottawa.
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