Our current technology and society have converged to provide more ways than ever to assault the truth and persuade people to accept alternate realty as fact. I also believe they provide us with more means than ever to push back against that assault. However, today I encountered one more assault. A subtle variation on Holocaust denial, that doesn’t deny the Holocaust. And my heart hurts.
Warning: This post contains some graphic, or disturbing photos.
As I watched an ad, I realized just how effective these attempts to alter narratives can be. How enticing it is to just let go. To embrace without resistance a fairy tale as truth. Because the fairy tale doesn’t require any accountability for past acts or future trends. And I’m not standing for that.
AN AD THAT DIDN’T DENY THE HOLOCAUST AND YET…
It started innocently enough. I selected a video to watch on YouTube. As usual, an ad ran at the beginning of the video. Nothing from my normal YouTube viewing habits, or the subject matter of the selected video should have triggered this particular ad choice. I have to assume the ad has been released into the American YouTube mainstream.
After the ad played, I sat in shock. I never got around to viewing the video I had originally selected.
Recently Poland passed a law criminalizing any reference to Poland, or its people, having any complicity in German World War II atrocities. This ad supported the ideas behind that law, and revealed what the law was really about. That there are such things as alternate facts. That telling only half of the story is good enough to be considered accurate, or called the “truth.”
I am providing a link to the ad. I do so not to endorse it, but rather to expose it. I will not embed it, as I have other videos, because I find the message it sends abhorrent.
But here’s the thing. None of it is overtly offensive. Or overtly false. That’s the subtlety in play.
The ad stresses how Germans did horrible things to Poland in World War II. Germans did bad things to Jews and Poles alike. And Poles, as a country and as citizens, helped those people against the Germans. That they stood for truth, and that they still do (an implied reference to the recently passed law I mentioned). The end hashtag was #GermanDeathCamps. The concept: That the only truth is that the Germans built the death camps. End of story.
That ignores the events in the Warsaw Ghetto. That ignores the acts by some Polish citizens to aid the Germans, whether willingly or under coercion, and to use the opportunities presented to get rid of Jewish neighbors and rivals.
The ad does not technically lie. Yet at the same time, conveniently tells only some of the story. In the process, it sends a dangerous message.
It’s an ad deliberately trying to assault the full story, by only telling a part of it. It’s a subtle form of Holocaust denial. Not denying it happened. Just denying the full truth of what happened. Leaving the blame of it on the long dead, whom we have nothing to do with. And so, we need learn nothing from what happened. Except that Germans were bad.
It’s not a denial that it happened. It’s a denial that it has any importance.
I can’t express how deeply this disturbs me. Not just because the horror visited on millions of innocents should not be discounted. But also because I can see this more subtle form of denial easily being very effective.
POLAND’S NEW LAW
First, some background. Poland’s government has been shifting more and more toward an authoritarian state. One of the rules of authoritarianism: Don’t question the state.
Recently, Poland passed a law making it a crime to say that the Polish people or the Polish government were “responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” The law sets aside harsher penalties for referring to the concentration camps built in Poland specifically as “Polish Death Camps.”
Now such a law in the U.S. would be a violation of free speech rights granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Even if the law were for the prevention of telling lies. Which it is not.
Nazi Germany certainly bears responsibility for building the concentration camps in Poland. They were, as many in Poland have complained, German death camps. Not Polish ones. But that’s only one way to look at the phrase, isn’t it?
If I refer to something as being a “Polish death camp” that tells you I am referring to a German concentration camp established in Poland, as opposed to other areas in Europe. It does not mean I am blaming Poland of the past for the camp’s existence. It is a useful means of distinguishing location, especially when common knowledge already tells all of us that the Nazis created the “death camps.” If you still need clarification, it can be given. So, the term “Polish death camp” is not really inaccurate. Why then should it be illegal?
POLISH HISTORY IS NOT QUITE SO CLEAN
As for the historical record, my friend, Ed Chusid, makes a good point in his Fist of History blog that the Polish government itself was not actually responsible for or complicit in Nazi actions. But that’s not the whole story either.
As Ed pointed out to me, the Poles may not have formed a collaborative government under the Germans, but they also were not given the opportunity either. It is likely that, if they had been given the opportunity, that government would have collaborated, like the others under the duress of German rule. It’s not really like there was much choice in that regard. Collaborate, or be crushed.
German persecutions also targeted Polish citizens who were not Jews. The Polish people were victims of German occupation and oppression. They also suffered. They also died. But, for the most part, they were not rounded up into ghettos or camps to starve, work to death, or flat out be exterminated like they were vermin instead of human beings.
Polish people tried to help Polish Jews, often at great risk to themselves. Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations, “which commemorates non-Jews who risked their lives to aid Jews during the Holocaust, includes more citizens from Poland than any other nation.
But to claim there was no collaboration with the Nazis, forced or willing, is ludicrous. Records document that some collaboration occurred, as it does in any occupied nation. Further, some areas of Poland enacted their own pogroms against Jews during and after the war, inspired by the Nazis’ actions.
I remember being shocked to discover that there were Polish citizens pleased with the segregation of Jews into ghettos, to be worked and starved slowly to death. The most infamous of these being the Warsaw Ghetto.
Also, indifference thrived. If Jews were taken, what business was that of their neighbors? I distinctly remember interviews about the ghettos, where Poles of the time expressed in one breath that locking up the Jews had been terrible, and in the next, expressing how nice it was not to have those Jews around the neighborhood any more.
Poland’s record is not spotless.
The ad tried to push forward an antiseptic view of a nation’s history. To make us question the value of even thinking about that history. The nation was not complicit. It was entirely a victim. Nothing to be seen here. No questions to be asked. No analyses to be done. No trends to apply to current events. Move along.
We do ourselves no service by white-washing events. Especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Because one of the biggest lessons the Holocaust teaches is that normal people can do truly monstrous things. That is a lesson we ignore at our peril.
SOCIETY’S ASSAULT ON HISTORY
The ad came across to me as an utter denial of history’s value. The thing I faced in one form or another since I was child.
The argument that history lacks any real value. A dead subject about past events. Useless. Why teach it? Why learn it? Why pay attention at all?
Even in my youth, people sneered at my affection for history as anything other than a dabbler’s hobby. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A useless adage, people argued. History is never the same twice, in the same way that identical twins are not really identical. Therefore, history has nothing to teach us.
Today, the counter is that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Implying there are still lessons to be learned from it. Trends to be gleaned that can help us make decisions about our futures.
But I encounter push back on that notion too in today’s rapid-fire world. That was then; this is now. Everything is different now. Nothing to see from history. Move along.
I work for some very smart people. Many of them are highly educated. Many are avid readers. I don’t know if any of them give any value to studying history.
One of my very smart co-workers looked over at me one day, after I had relayed some historical tidbit. I recall it being a fairly obvious bit of history. She knew nothing of it. She told me she thought it was “cute” that I knew anything about history. Still the subject only for dabbling, as a hobby, in her eyes. Of no value outside of that. Relegated to a pat on the head. Nothing to see here. Move along.
THE DENIAL OF HISTORY’S VALUE
This is our world view. This is, too often, cited as our republic’s view. I have said before that republics, such as the United States, require citizens’ active involvement in order to work. That is the whole point. Government for the people, by the people. To do it right, we have to be informed. About current events. And where they might lead.
How can we do that if we don’t know where we are or how we got here? Or how similar events have played out in the past?
Trickle-down economic theories have been repeatedly employed in this country at state and federal levels. They have never worked, and usually result in making situations far worse. Yet we keep employing them, most recently in the federal tax laws passed at the end of 2017. How is it that politicians and, more importantly, the citizens who support their election, keep buying into these theories, despite their miserable track record?
Because many of us don’t want to look, even at recent history. And so, many of us are unable to learn from the lessons it can give us.
We are made up of our experiences. Nothing happens to us in the exact same way twice. There are always variations. But we still learn from those past experiences. We use them to shape our understanding. To make, hopefully, better decisions for ourselves in the future. We put value on that knowledge. We call it wisdom.
History consists of the collective experiences of the human race. Of this planet even. It is a pool of wisdom we could, and should, be using to help us, hopefully, make better decisions for all of us in the future. Why deny that value and all that benefit?
It is far easier to not have to bother with a host of messy information. It’s hard to take in. It’s even harder to seek it out.
It’s much more convenient, at least in the short run, to deny something may be a problem than to deal with it. Maybe it will just clear itself up. This way, we don’t have to feel guilty. Or challenged. Or scared. Or confused.
The lure of just letting go. Of just falling into the soft cushioning of false narratives, or no narratives even, is enticing. All too understandable. And dangerous.
DANGER IN HOLOCAUST DENIAL
I don’t claim to be a Holocaust scholar. But let’s at least cover some basics.
The Holocaust happened. Period.
We don’t get to deny this.
Or this. There was no concerted effort by millions in Europe to fabricate some elaborate deception of a nightmare. This horror was real.
As a result of the Holocaust, about 6 million Jews were killed, or about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
Other targets of the German persecutions included the Roma (a/k/a “Gypsies”), homosexuals, the mentally ill, those with physical disabilities, Jehovah’s witnesses, political opponents, Soviet prisoners of war, and ethnic Poles. Jews remained the biggest targets.
One estimate of the total number of those killed, including Jews, comes to about 17 million (e.g., numbers noted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Some put the number as high as 20 million.
This was a cataclysm. The enormity of the horror was too much for those who bore witness to handle. Liberators of death camps rarely wanted to talk about what they had seen. Traumatized survivors likewise had difficulty. I highly recommend reading the graphic novel Maus (references: Wikipedia and Amazon) to get some insight into both survivors and their children’s struggle to comprehend their parents’ experience. But even as witnesses struggled to express the monstrous events, the effects were undeniable in the war’s aftermath.
However, as decades passed, the immediacy of events, even ones as enormous as those, faded. First-hand witnesses died off as part of the inevitable flow of life. And it became easier and easier for people to listen to the siren song of letting it go. Denying it happened.
Denying means no need to feel guilt at a national or cultural level. No need to feel like a group of people, who is inconvenient to you now, ever had a sympathetic story to call upon. Certainly, no need to use it as a cautionary tale for your own anti-Semitism. No need to check yourself to make sure you aren’t falling on the same type of path that others before followed, culminating in the death of 17 million innocents.
Because that’s one of the biggest “inconveniences” about the story of the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust and other persecutions that followed. That they were not committed by a small group of abnormal monsters. A huge number of normal, everyday people, for all too understandable reasons, turned down this path and then rarely looked back. Enlightened, educated, moral, rational people committed this horrible evil.
If they could find themselves doing that, can’t any of us, at any time? The bitter pill of this particular history is that, not only did horrible things happen, but that they were done by ordinary people just like you, or me.
That is a lesson that we should never ignore. This is not just about specific events leading to unique results. This about how humans react in more general situations. Genetics tell us, people throughout the centuries have remained the same. We still have certain behaviors and psychological hang-ups that we had in centuries past. If humans can behave in a particular way once, chances are they have done it in the past, and will do so again.
TAKING A STAND AGIANST DENIAL
One defense against that type of behavior is awareness. I have a temper. I tend to flare up at people. But I am aware of it. As a result, I try to keep my temper in check so that I don’t lash out unfairly. And when I do lash out, I am much more likely to realize I have done so and pull back before I go too far.
Awareness and checking behavior against that awareness are key to being good citizens of a republic. Denying history prevents us from having the former, and thus adequately doing the latter.
Which is exactly what authoritarian states, like what Poland is becoming, want out of its citizens. Do not question. Don’t be aware. Just accept. Let go. Be swaddled in the fairy tale rather than confront the messy reality.
Poland’s people were more German victims than collaborators during World War II. It is a disserve to forget that. But there were some who did collaborate. And atrocities were done on their soil. By ordinary people as well as monsters. And we do a disserve to the victims and ourselves to forget it.
I reject attempts to paint some cleaned up, single faceted view of history. To chastise me for suggesting there may be more than that to the story. Because the real purpose of white-washing the history is to render it unimportant. To convince me it has no relevance. No value.
If the Polish involvement, and lack thereof, in German crimes against humanity on Polish soil is really so pure and innocent, why pay attention at all? Other people committed those atrocities. A group of horrible monsters long dead with no relation, except nationality of origin, to people from today. Nothing from that past has any bearing on this present in any way. Thus, it has nothing to teach us. No trends to be found. Nothing.
17 million people died. Whole swaths of people were wiped out for no crime other than religion, or accidents of birth. They were killed in horrific ways. I will not stand by silently and let that be forgotten. I will not let my friends’ sad family histories, filled with gaping empty spaces made void before their time, be passed off as unimportant. It was ordinary people, for what, to them, were ordinary and proper reasons, who did this. I will not let that be so easily overlooked. Nor will I childishly pretend that ordinary people are incapable of doing similar again.
I am always urging people to push back against certain messages in my blogs, it seems. I am doing it again. Too often, of late, we let these backdoor assaults on the truth stand.
When people deny that which we know to have happened, reject the denial. When, as with the ad, they try to instead deny that the events have any real meaning or value, push back against that as well. Don’t swaddle yourself in a made-up fantasy of someone else’s design. Seek out knowledge and awareness. Through it gain wisdom. And use to make better decisions about where you want to go and where you want your country to go.
I can’t speak for you on this. But speaking for myself, I don’t want to be someone who can’t look at our messy past, see mistakes made, and with awareness, check where I, or our country, are heading today. I want to be a better citizen than that. I want to be a better person that that.
I reject denial. Because I don’t want to live in denial.