What makes sane, intelligent people choose to follow a Hitler? To assist in rounding up, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering an entire race of people?
The war to stop Hitler ended a mere fourteen years before I came on the scene of humanity, and it has held a sort of painful fascination for me most of my life. I suppose it began when, in my early teens, I came across a copy of Night by Elie Wiesel, and devoured it. Since then, there have been many more: Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and other individual stories similar to theirs; Anne Frank, and other accounts related through magazines or media. It just seems I never tire of reading the stories of individual bravery in the face of unbelievable atrocity.
The war many of my contemporaries were fascinated with in my growing-up years was the last one fought on our soil. “The South’s gonna rise again” and Rebel flags abounded. I felt odd being unable to connect with those sentiments so common at the time. I suppose I harbored a certain level of discomfort with the tales of glory from the Civil War days, though I didn’t fully think through the reason for my feelings. I knew I didn’t like the premise the war was fought on. I lived, shopped, and eventually went to school with the people who my forefathers fought to keep enslaved, and nothing about that seemed to be a cause for celebration. Still, I loved the South, and still do.
Perhaps if I hadn’t waited so long to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriett Beecher Stowe, I’d have felt more clearly aligned with the persecuted, and the whole thing could have come clearer to me earlier on. (It wasn’t exactly required reading in school, as I recall). As it is, I recently finished the book that legend says was declared by Abraham Lincoln to have “started this great war”, and with good reason.
Stowe lived the conflict within the nation in the years leading up to war, wherein the Northern states where she lived were trying to come to grips with the insistence of the Southern states that slavery was not only acceptable, but vital to their economic survival. Debates raged on whether newly admitted states would be slave states or free states. Slaves escaping to the North, crossing into Ohio, became free by virtue of being in “free states”, until the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, requiring them to be handed over to their “owners” or the bounty hunters sent to retrieve them. For this to have been the case in the land where we live just 150 years ago is appalling and baffling to me.
As I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the stories of human beings relegated to the state of property burned deep into my heart. Stowe more than accomplished her mission of making at least Northern states’ residents (and many in the South as well) to see that the pain of one human being is not more or less than that of another under similar circumstances. No one thought much of separating families for the personal gain of the slave trader and plantation owner, or even of using physical violence to force one group of people to be subservient to another. This was defended politically, and eventually with military force.
I’d never thought of the two scenarios — slavery in the U.S. and the Holocaust– as having so much in common until reading Stowe’s book. The common element between the Holocaust and slavery seems to me to be the dehumanization of the unfortunate group having been targeted in the minds of the dominant one. It wasn’t a problem for them to treat others inhumanely, because they’d deemed that they weren’t “human”, in the same sense that they, the Aryans or the Whites were. People bought into a “reason” why the system had to be in place: a pure race to be established in Germany, or the economic superiority or even stability of the South to be maintained. They used lofty words like “destiny”, and “rights” to justify what we now see as unreasonable and cruel (even criminal) behavior.
History helps us see that there are no good reasons for enslaving or annihilating other people groups, and certainly no reasons that can stand up to the scrutiny of civilized thought or Christian teaching. Yet the churches in Germany cranked up the music to drown out the noise of cattle cars rattling by with human beings screaming for help inside. Churches in the American South somehow managed to concoct a doctrine that said some races were just meant to serve others, and Southern pulpits proclaimed “God is on our side” as Confederate soldiers marched off to war.
The underlying truth is this: human beings are fully capable of being persuaded that wrong is right, as long as it is proclaimed and practiced by enough of the people around them, so that to make any change from that practice or ideal becomes radical and dangerous. As a people, we are as capable as ever of believing a lie, even a mass lie, or worse yet not fully believing but silently assenting to evil.
Where does this put you? How will you know if you’re obeying truth or following a lie? What’s the standard for which is which anyway?
The first step in the truth test is to examine where we are in relation to the teachings that the world itself was founded on: God’s word. We can find ourselves “earnestly contending for the faith that was once delivered to the saints”, by searching out and obeying the doctrine of the Book of Acts church (the original doctrine of the church), and using the boldness that doctrine produced in the first believers to go against whatever tide we find in society or the religious world that may be contrary to God’s plan.
You see, your history is in the making right now. You can choose to be enslaved to what is contrary to the word of God, and promote the same. Or, you can opt for the freedom he provides through obedience to the gospel and change your world and those around you.
So what do you think? Have you ever connected these two periods in history? Where would you have found yourself had you been caught up in the events of those days? I’d love to hear from you, if you’d like to leave a comment.