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.
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.