I recently had the opportunity to tour the museum of A Topography of Terror in Berlin, Germany. Located in the former headquarters of the Gestapo and Nazi Germany intelligence units, the museum outlines the rise of National Socialism and of Hitler’s Third Reich which unleashed inhuman evil on millions of people.
I came to this museum because I wanted to understand once more how the German state and its great Germanic civilization could descend into such barbaric, anti-Semitic behavior. Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jewish people led to the systematic murder of 6 million Jews in Europe, 3 million Soviets and half a million gypsies.
This terrifying extermination campaign, known as the “Final Solution,” came out of the Nazi Party’s belief that all humans are not equal — and once all humans are not equal then any kind of violence is justifiable. Humans have a great capacity for evil.
Unfortunately, this dangerous belief has not been exterminated from our societies as evidenced by the present-day rise of anti-Semitism across Europe and the U.S., not to mention in the U.N. It is particularly alarming that members of the U.S. Congress would engage in anti-Semitic rhetoric and call for the destruction of the State of Israel.
How can the world so quickly forget what happened barely 80 years ago? As history shows, genocides such as the one committed by the Nazis against the Jews are not committed against one people group alone but against all of humanity.
We must beware of losing sight of the lessons museums such as the Topography of Terror are meant to preserve in our social consciences. For as it has been said, those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
The pattern for the emergence of something like the unspeakable horrors of the Third Reich is always the same.
It begins with public hate language. Before the ghettos, pogroms, and concentration camps, comes the propaganda. Joseph Goebbels, the architect of the Nazi Party’s propaganda, was able to use hate language to fuel anti-Semitism among the people, curb free speech, and unleash violence against civilians.
With hate language comes the creation of a perceived enemy who is responsible for a nation’s social and economic ills. This reinforces the “us vs. them” mentality that feeds into the idea of ethnic or racial superiority.
Finally, when hate propaganda has paved the way for indifference and animosity, the state — with the full support of its people — begins to violate the fundamental human rights in incremental measures. It might begin with small things, such as designated government registers or permits for specific people groups, until it reaches full-blown discrimination and violence.
The rise of new anti-Semitism is deeply concerning because, as it happened in Germany, it will try to devour not only the Jewish state and the Jewish people. It can quickly degenerate into other forms of racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and discrimination. The rise of religious bigotry against Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, the unresolved animosity between races — both against blacks or whites — and the discrimination of disenfranchised groups such as India’s Dalits and low-castes are but a few examples.
This is why it is appalling and concerning to hear U.S. members of Congress supporting the boycott of Israel or trivializing the Holocaust by comparing the immigration detention centers near the border to concentration camps.
Another example is the language of the war on terror. Since 9/11, governments and political groups have appropriated the anti-terrorism language to target minority groups and civil society activists who contend for fundamental rights such as free speech. There is a proliferation of anti-terrorism laws which are intended to help governments prevent and respond to terrorist threats but often are used to silence opposing voices.
Branding people as “terrorists” or “enemies of the state” provides legal cover to carry out gross violations of human rights. The one million Uighur Muslims held in Chinese reeducation camps is a salient example. China uses this same tactic to target Christians and destroy churches. Even now, as pro-democracy protests continue in Hong Kong, the Chinese state has begun to describe some of the protesters as terrorists.
The world needs a quick reset on the terrorist language or else innocent citizens and voices of freedom will be classified as terrorists, imprisoned, and killed.
A Topography of Terror also points to the danger of rising nationalism around the world. While Patriotic nationalism is legitimate, xenophobia is categorically and undeniably evil.
We need to recognize that unemployment and lack of access to education, healthcare, and an opportunity for upward mobility provide fodder for political leaders to exploit people’s sense of victimhood. Unscrupulous politicians know that the most effective way of stoking extremist nationalism is to create an enemy that diverts people’s attention from real causes behind economic problems.
Israel’s remarkable economic and scientific success is not the reason why some areas of the Muslim world are lagging behind in development. Neither can the rest of the world blame either the West or the U.S. for its economic problems. And in the same way, the West should not blame China or India for the economic downturn.
Israel is a great example of what can be done in a country when the people take responsibility to develop their nation and are determined that “never again” they will expose themselves to the kind of annihilation they experienced. Israel has risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust and has become a functioning democracy in the Middle East.
History teaches us people have the capability for both great good or great evil. The question is, will we remember from our past mistakes?
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