I am soon to re-release an early short story of mine on Amazon to include the following essay:
What’s really scary about the Nazis?
Different people will have different answers, but to me it comes down to this; the Nazis ware human. It wasn’t space aliens, or vampires who committed such heinous acts of hatred and death. Nor did Hitler possess any magical “philosopher’s stone” to compel the citizens of Germany to turn on their neighbors and then on the world. Nope, it was all done by people who were just as human as you or I.
What is it about people that can turn them into such beast? How can any sane and rational person watch children being murdered and then go home to dinner? Few survive who remember that time but even the black and white photographs profoundly disturb us today. So why did people do it?
My answer is one word; perspective.
Let me explain with a true life example: I once knew a decent man who once took part in an angry mob. It was back in the 1960 and it was in Poland. Anti-Soviet sentiment was high, and an anti-communist rally was taking place—when four, stupid Russian soldiers took a wrong turn and found themselves before a crowd of hundreds of angry Poles. Were these four draftees responsible for all of communism’s woes? No. Would their death change anything in world events? No. But the crowd turned hostile and charged these four schmucks anyway, and my acquaintance was in the middle of it, screaming for blood.
So what happened to the four Russians? An unknown Polish man jumped in front of the mob and shouted them down. In moments my acquaintance realized that what he was about to do was wrong. The unknown man had given the mob perspective to understand how their actions would create bad consequences for all (including the mothers of four, stupid Russian soldiers).
This story has stayed with me for thirty years now. I remember every detail that was told to me, yet I wasn’t even born when these events took place.
Because the story gave me perspective. Stories have power and they have effects in the real world. Thanks to my acquaintance of long ago I now know something crucially important. That is, when you stand in the middle of the mob you cannot see the future, you can only see the now. Now you are scared. Now you feel threatened. Now you are acting as part of a group, not as an individual.
John F. Kennedy said, “There is something immoral about abandoning your own judgment,” and who would do such a thing?
The answer, of course, is people. People like you and I do it. We get caught up in the now and fail to see tomorrow’s perspective on things. I look at the anti-Muslim hysteria in America right now (2015), and I see scared Americans who feel threated by some fellow citizens whose beliefs they do not wish to understand. There have been some random acts of anti-Muslim violence, but thankfully no mob has formed yet. But it begs the question; are we abounding our own moral judgement out of fear? Perhaps, but there is still time to give ourselves some perspective, and that’s exactly what history is for.
History serves no other purpose than to teach us the successes and failures of the past so that we may have more of the former and fewer of the latter. It is said that those who study history are doomed to watch other’s repeat it. Therefore, it is up to us to be the teachers. You and I, and every other moral person we know, must understand humanities’ history and explain it to others. Will you someday find yourself in a mob, or will you be the brave one who stands before it and gives the mob perspective?