Ordinary human beings
“June 16, 1915. To: Staff Medical Officer. Dear Dr. A., The battery regrets to have to inform you that your son, Volunteer N.C.O. Kurt A., died a hero’s death for the Fatherland on the morning of June 13th. He fell defending the gun entrusted to his care. With you the battery mourns the death of this exemplary and courageous comrade. May God help you to bear this pain and give you comfort. With deepest respect…”
“June 1, 1933. To: Dr. Hans A. Dear Sir, I have to inform you that as a non-Aryan without the qualification of service at the front you have been removed from panel practice. You are to refrain from all participation in panel practice. Your accounts will no longer be settled. Your attention is expressly drawn to the inevitable consequences of failure to adhere strictly to these instructions. Heil Hitler!” (A Prose Anthology of the Second World War, Robert Hull, 1992).
The above quotes are from actual letters sent by the German government to a German Jewish doctor. Two of Dr. A.’s sons had died fighting for Germany in World War I. The German government called them heroes. Just 18 years later, in 1933, Dr. A. was being restricted in his medical practice because he was Jewish.
1933 also was the year that Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, opened. In those few years, German Jews had gone from being respected and valued members of society to being considered sub-human enemies of the Third Reich. How did this happen?
To promote loyalty among their followers, many authoritarian leaders create an enemy, a group they blame for the country’s problems. This gives followers a clear goal: eliminate these people and their lives will improve.
A paper titled “Eight Stages of Genocide” describes this process. The first step is to create an “us” versus “them” mentality. Open discrimination is then endorsed, and hate speech promotes the idea that members of this group are sub-human.
For the Nazis, the Jews were the ethnic group of choice on which to blame most of Germany’s problems. Germans were taught that Jews were Untermenschen, or sub-humans. In 1939, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, “They are not humans; they are animals.”
Once enough Germans believed that the Jews had caused Germany’s problems, the Nazis implemented the next step. They began the systematic extinction of not only Jews but disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists, socialists, Gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone else who didn’t fit the ideal of the “Aryan race.” Ultimately, about 15,000 concentration camps were established to deal with these populations; over 11 million people died in these camps.
By the end of World War II, Germany had deteriorated from a cultured, educated country to a symbol of one of the most horrific episodes in history, the Holocaust. The Nuremberg War Trials began on Nov. 19, 1945. They exposed the rotten foundation on which the Nazi philosophy was built. Prosecutor Telford Taylor said this about the Nazi defendants: “To their murderers, these wretched people were not individuals at all. They came in wholesale lots and were treated worse than animals.”
Why is this important now? All over the world, white supremacists and other groups are promoting the same ideas. In America, we are told Muslims want to destroy us. We are told Mexican immigrants are “infesting” our country. Infesting is a word used about vermin; it should never refer to people.
On May 16, 2018, President Donald Trump echoed Goebbels’ comment, saying, “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in…. These aren’t people. These are animals.” He later claimed he only meant MS-13 gang members, but his words are what they are. By using this language, he is creating an atmosphere where hate seems reasonable and hate crimes can be disguised as patriotism.
It’s easy to blame a group of “others” for our problems. It’s hard work to actually fix those problems. Those who fall into the trap of blame and hate show they prefer the lazy method instead of finding real solutions.
During an interview on NPR, March 29, 2011, author David Smith said, “What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.”
As we celebrate this season of Thanksgiving and promise, let’s remember we are all made in God’s image. Promoting hate and dehumanizing others diminishes us all. In 74 years, I hope we’ve learned at least that much.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.