So Why Didn’t They Do Something?

I spoke with my dad on the phone the other day. He was studying for an exam (he’s doing an Arts degree at uni), and was telling me about some of the texts they’d covered in the unit, specifically about Primo Levi’s ‘The Grey Zone’.

‘I wanted to ask you about German attitudes to the concentration camps,’ he said. ‘When you were there, it was almost ten years after Levi had published that book. What were the attitudes of the German people you spoke with, about the war and the camps?’

‘They were very well educated about it,’ I said. ‘The children learnt about it in school–they covered it several times, in fact–and there wasn’t one person I spoke with, who didn’t think it was a terrible occurrence. There was very much an attitude of ‘never again.’ They absolutely wanted to mark this as a dark part of their history.’

‘A lot of the students in the course thought that the Germans must have known what was going on–that they must have known,’ Dad said. ‘And why didn’t they do something about it?’

‘Well, some of them probably had an idea,’ I said. ‘But you know, most of them didn’t. And the official line was that the Jews were being ‘repatriated’, and it was wartime. You didn’t ask too many questions. As a teenager, I always thought that I’d be one of those people to hide people in my attic. You know? I thought, oh, I would have been brave, and gone against the regime, but really, I probably wouldn’t have. I would have kept my head down, looked after my family, tried to stay alive.’

Most of the German people really didn’t know the atrocities of the Holocaust, and when they discovered them, were horrified and appalled that this could happen, least of all that it could happen in their own backyards. And although many did during the war what I imagine I would have done, others formed resistance groups, and even conspired to assassinate Hitler. These were people who, despite knowing the risks to themselves and their families and friends, tried to stop the tide of fascism.

It’s very easy to look back at the past and criticise people for their inaction, but it strikes me how we fail to consider not only the historical context of that past, but also how little perspective we have of the present.

Consider wartime Europe in the 1940s. Propaganda was everywhere; each side felt justified in its aggression. Anti-Semitism was a prevalent sentiment long before it was used to justify the ghettos, and the idea of the German race as physically and mentally superior was used to justify the removal to camps of homosexuals and people with disabilities. Does this excuse a whole population? Of course not. However, it certainly illustrates just how well the Nazi propaganda machine played on the fears and prejudices of the German people, just as the propaganda machines in every other country did the same for their populations.

We would do well to ask, to which kind of information did the average person have access? Did most people have the opportunity to read or listen to independent media? What kinds of details about the war were available to people on street? This was the 1940s. There was no television. There was radio, and there were newspapers. The media was tightly controlled. Those who really wanted to ask questions as to what was going on, may have been able to access information other than that which was state-sanctioned, but it was dangerous and difficult to do so.

In the years since, our world has become much, much smaller. We live in a global age, where that which happens on the other side of the world is instantly reported in news and social media. Sadly, the Holocaust was not the last tragedy or genocide in our recent history. Since then we’ve had any number of examples of human cruelty. Consider just a few which have happened in my lifetime–conflicts which have occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are recent enough for me to remember nightly reports on the news. That’s the mainstream news, not just small independent groups. We saw it whenever we turned on the television. Everyone knew.

We knew.

So why didn’t we do something?

Why didn’t we call our politicians immediately and tell them that action needed to be taken to prevent this? Why didn’t we insist that peacekeepers weren’t doing enough?

The treatment of asylum seekers by my own government appals me. The fact that the average life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is ten years lower than for Australians of European descent is inexcusable. Mining companies are using questionable techniques to extract gas from beneath the ground, and polluting earth and water, and getting away with it. I read and see and hear disturbing news, everyday, and how often do I act on it? What do I do?

Sometimes I write a blog post. Sometimes I retweet an article. Sometimes I write to a politician. Most of the time, I sigh, shake my head, and then focus back on what I need to make for tea, or how I’m going to fit the purchase of new shoes and school supplies into the weekly budget, or whether the baby’s recent illness is of enough concern to take him to the doctor, or whether we are going to all have clean underwear tomorrow. Those are the immediate, relevant, important things, for me right now. We do what we can for those around us, and then, when we have energy left over, we do extra for others. We focus first on ourselves and our families and our friends, then on those outside our circle. It sounds harsh and uncaring, but that is survival. And in times of war or conflict, surviving is all the more difficult. Knowing this also makes us truly realise the bravery of those who have made the decision to stand against an imposing and threatening regime.

We might well look back at all the times when people have stood by and done nothing, and lament inaction or ignorance. But we certainly are not in a position to judge them for it, unless we are willing to stand up and push for change in our own imperfect world.

A friend reminded me that this past Monday was both the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is so important to mark these anniversaries, as a reminder that we need to think outside our own circles, and be brave. When we see wrongdoing, we need to speak out, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it makes us unpopular, even when it’s dangerous. Only then, will we be able to look back at the past, and admit that we really did all we could, and that we affected change. We can say proudly, that we did something.


16 thoughts on “So Why Didn’t They Do Something?

  1. This resonates me, because people ask the same about South African Apartheid a lot… I wasn’t born then but I know that the censorship was so bad here that it was very easy not to know what was going on. Yes, TV existed then, but South African TV and radio were so well-censored that virtually no international news reached here.

    But now: now we often know of things that go wrong and still do nothing. Everywhere in the world, I think. The problem is that knowing how to bring about change and how to demand humanity is sometimes easier said than done… As in, I’m not entirely sure how one goes about it.

    • That’s interesting to hear. I remember apartheid being an issue of which we were really aware. The trouble with censoring outside news as well as that from the inside, is that the country grows an identity without outside perspective. I think it’s kind of important to have the world hold up a mirror to your actions as a nation.

      Part of not doing anything is also how overwhelmed we feel, I think. We get a lot of information about all these issues around the world, and yet, what can we do about it? And even those on the frontline, those in, say, Syria or South Sudan, or the Ukraine… their quandry is even more serious and difficult.

  2. I remember, when living in Germany, talking to our landlord about WWII. He’d actually served in the army and spent time as a POW later. He would only talk about skiing in France in the mud in Russia. It’d make sense for him to be traumatized by it, but he actually seemed more embarrassed. In our village, the only locals who would talk to him were his brother down the street. I wonder what his story was …

    The younger generations were, of course, exactly as you described.

  3. Deep thought. Yes, I totally agree with you that for many occasions people decided to keep their head down. And as a citizen in, well, a big city (the city where I’m living contains approximately 10 million people – Sai Gon), I witness this attitude a lots. People ignore when they see traffic accidents, when they see other people are beaten on the streets or when someone lays unconcious on pavement. They don’t want trouble, nobody does, and maybe they think other stuff has given them enough burdens, why to take on more, police/ authority should take care of those stuff.
    I myself find it dangerous. What it the affected ones were our relatives? Will we not be angry at those who refused to help our relatives? What if that became our HABITs? Karma always makes it way, what if we were the affected ones next time?
    So I always try to DO SOMETHING for small/ simple incidents that come across my life.. I hope, a little crazy here, that if war occurs again, I will be able to stand up and protect what is right.

    • Yes, I think most people are looking out for themselves and those closest to them, when it’s important to remember that that person who’s being attacked or who is unconscious is also somebody, even if you don’t know them. Straying from one’s comfort zone in order to do something about it is difficult, though. I’m impressed that you have the courage 🙂

      Thank you for stopping by!

  4. And it never changes. We as humans are happy to hide from the truth until we can’t. It’s part of our genome. I’d have to hate an awful lot of people if that was my metric.

    • Oh, definitely. And having the dialogue is important too… because we often imagine we would be heroes in any given situation, but the majority of us would probably be very reluctant to risk our lives, if push came to shove.

      • I often wonder what I would do–endanger my life for another? I have no idea. I’ve started trying to force myself to be braver (which in my case is walk downstairs at 2am in the dark if I hear a noise–oh yeah, I’m brave).

      • You’re braver than I am! I just hope that the dog will growl and put people off!

        I guess I can imagine endangering my life if it came to my children. But if it were a person I didn’t know? Or just for a higher cause, or for a group of people I didn’t know? Hmm. I’d like to think I would be brave enough. But I’m not sure I would be.

  5. In “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” book by Daniel Goldhagen, he makes a compelling, well-researched argument regarding how many Germans willingly participate in the atrocities of the holocaust even in cases when the Jews slaughtered didn’t necessarily have to suffer or be killed. Many countries held a strong anti-semantic viewpoints. Eugenics also became very popular at the time, many American scientists thought Hitler was a hero. I am not in any way anti-German, my main point is that many Germans citizens knew what was going on and American scientists inspired Hitler when cultivating his Aryan race ideals. Reading the book I mentioned and researching on eugenics taught me how evil people truly became when they combined prejudice and eugenics.

    • The widespread anti-semitism is something that I was interested to learn about, too, although I didn’t include that discussion in this post, mostly because I like to keep them around 1000 words and I knew it would lead me onto a tangent which would take me away from the point I was trying to make (comparing how we respond to unethical, illegal or reprehensible behaviour nowadays). I just don’t know how many average people knew about the details of what was going on–they would obviously have known about the removal of Jewish people from their homes and word about the camps would have got out, but from a personal perspective, I didn’t talk to anyone who said they knew what was happening… of course, what 60-70 year old German is going to suddenly launch into a discussion of what she did or didn’t know about this aspect of war, with an 18 year old Australian, when it had been 50 years ago?! Your point about eugenics is also very sound–as humans, we go with the flow a lot, and when certain behaviours become permissive, we’re unlikely to ask why, rather just accept that that’s how it is. This happens today, all the time, and will continue, until we are willing to stand up to it.

  6. Also, when Daniel Goldhagen first published the book at first many Germans were enraged, but after actually reading his book he earned a lot of praise and many readers even thanked him for his excellent research. I truly respect Germany. It takes true character to rebuild your country after a tragedy like that. Thankfully, America has changed drastically as well.

    • I was discussing this with another friend who has also spent quite a bit of time in Germany, and we were talking about the way that East Germany’s history was basically rewritten, so that they could sidestep the ‘blame’ of the war, whereas West Germany really spent the 60s and 70s, especially, coming to terms with it, having to accept responsibility and to look at why it was allowed to happen. Their laws governing political parties and division of power is a result of wanting to temper extremism, because they simply don’t want this kind of direction for Germany anymore. So yes, I think they should be commended for really addressing their history, in a way that many countries are reluctant to do. Australia, for example, really is still coming to terms with the way its Indigenous population was treated… the trouble is, the discrimination and prejudice still exists, and is something that our governments (both conservative and liberal) appear reluctant to address.

      Thanks for stopping by with such thoughtful comments 🙂

      • Thanks for such a great post! I think America (my country) has definitely addressed the poor way it treated slaves, and even though there is still tension in some areas (and perhaps there will always be some tension) I think overall blacks and whites are really coming together.

        However, unlike Australia, I don’t see a reconciliation with our Indigenous population. It seems as though they’ve been forgotten. In our history classes, slavery was presented as wrong and an evil we overcame, but we hardly spent any time at all over how we treated the American Indians. The trail of tears is really the only incident covered, which is frustrating.

      • Sorry it has taken so long for me to reply to this–it’s been crazy this week!

        It’s interesting to hear about the Indigenous population from your perspective, because it certainly isn’t something we hear about over here. I hear about racial issues with regards to the black and Hispanic populations, but that’s really where it ends. Not that I think we are the posterchild for stellar race relations, at all. But I hope we are moving in the right direction. I feel like there is at least a greater respect for the fact that the Indigenous peoples were here first, even though there is still a lot of racism and prejudice in our culture.

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