We have to challenge injustice and hatred when we see it, or risk a slow slide into genocide | Opinion

May 7, 2019 6:30 am

By Karl Qualls

As the world turned its attention last week to remembering the Holocaust, we were reminded by a reader of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star that it was all a Zionist conspiracy, and a myth that millions of Jews died:

Screenshot of a comment sent to The Capital-Star last week.

A recent CNN poll showed that two out of three millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was: Another poll shows that a third of all Americans don’t believe 6 million Jews were murdered. Our delusional commenter above is not only one of those 33 percent, but he also euphemistically used the word “died,” as if the Holocaust was a natural phenomenon in which millions of people expired peacefully.

As a history professor at Dickinson College, I teach because it is important to see, identify, call out and challenge injustice and hatred, because every path to massacre and genocide is slow and twisted.

Brutality may seem to pop up out of nowhere, but there are familiar signposts that begin with scapegoating, conspiracy theories and hate-filled rhetoric. Many people “believe” in conspiracy theories instead of critically evaluating historical sources.

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It is easier to “believe” than to think and study, to accept rather than to analyze. The conspiracy theorists who now chant “Jews will not replace us” in the streets of Charlottesville and who shoot our fellow citizens in synagogues are linked by many threads to the genocides of Armenians, Jews, Tutsis, Bosniaks and others. Fear of waning power and influence and new forms of communication unite and mobilize like-minded bigots.

World War I, the “mutilated peace” at Versailles, global economic collapse in 1929: these crises did not create the Holocaust. A decorated war veteran used relatively new media—film and radio—to bring a tiny fringe group into political power within a short period of time.

Hitler’s victory in 1933 came via the ballot box. He used rallies and media to play on people’s anxieties, to blame Jews and communists for Germany’s lost war, and then draw voters to his party. This serves as a warning that democracy requires our daily vigilance, our rational thinking and not blind belief.

During the nine years between Hitler coming to power and the Holocaust, Nazi Germany followed what one scholar called the “twisted road to Auschwitz” as violent words turned to beatings, expropriations, disenfranchisement and eventually ghettos and gas chambers.

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The murder of millions of Jews—and millions more Slavs, “Gypsies,” communists, homosexuals, and others—was not pre-ordained, nor was it the fault of one madman and his henchmen. Everyday men and women were complicit in the slaughter.

They voted, actively killed, made train schedules to move the “cargo” to the gas chambers, and turned a blind eye and chose to ignore their persecuted neighbors’ disappearances.

Fast-forward five decades to Rwanda, 1994: remnants of colonial racial categorization left a legacy of violence and hatred. Armed with clubs and machetes and mobilized by the eliminationist rhetoric of Hutu Power radio, Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsi men, women and children in only three months.

Nazi and Hutu killers believed their cause was just, that Jews and Tutsis had co-opted power.

Today, men armed with semi-automatic rifles and mobilized by social media and conspiracy radio propagating myths of “white extinction” terrorize their fellow citizens. The methods of killing and media of mobilization change, but irrational fear and scapegoating are constants in times of perceived crisis.

For those of us unwilling to delude ourselves that the grievances are just or who refuse to put on blinders and pretend that the worst can’t happen, we can bear witness that the mantra “Never Again” is a hollow phrase.

Time and time again we have allowed the vulnerable to be persecuted. Violence, whether a synagogue shooting or a genocide, is not the act of the deranged, it is the act of humans who are unwilling to speak up and stand up for our neighbors or those we will never meet.

Holocaust deniers and eliminationist white nationalists mask themselves as patriots and defenders of freedom.

If you want to live in a land of freedom, fight for the freedoms of all. Because history shows us how quickly one group’s grievances and beliefs that they are being replaced can turn into the marginalization and massacre of others.

This white man has no fear of being replaced. My fear is that people will continue to kill in my name rather than embrace our common humanity.

Karl Qualls is a professor of history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. This is his first appearance on The Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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