We have just recently reached the 70th anniversary of the liberation of those interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
When I was quite young, there was a pizza parlor in my town run by a man who had been held in a concentration camp when he was himself a child. We’d surreptitiously (and likely very obviously) peer over our menus at his identification tattoo, but were too awed and terrified to ever ask about it.
I have always been saddened by the notion that one day there will be no one left with direct knowledge of the atrocities perpetuated by Germany (and Japan for that matter) leading up to and during World War II. We have such short memories, and just like we have as a culture entirely forgotten the roiling horror of the polio epidemic, I expect we will also handwave and marginalize the Holocaust into something that only happened in movies that starred that white dude who was Gandhi. We will remember it the way we remember President Whitmore’s rousing speech and the Battle of Helms Deep.
I came upon a little corner of the web which I find illustrates perfectly why, exactly, we all must be constantly vigilant about what sort of monsters we all, to a one of us, are:
I’m not entirely sure if it is meant to be simply a novelty, or something more. I found it incredibly powerful.
The German people of the time were modern, educated, and enjoyed life in a first-world country. They loved their children, they cared for their families, they wrote poetry and grand literature and gardened and were engaged in their trades. Some of them were right assholes, and some were beautiful souls.
The majority of these people, when confronted with great evil being perpetrated in their backyards, did nothing.
Many actively participated. One would think that an educated young man would notice that they’re forcibly cramming women and children into a boxcar, and that those crammed into boxcars are never again seen alive. That’s not something one can really normalize. I overwhelmingly doubt that the Germans as a whole were so passively trusting that no one ever thought to ask where the boxcars go.
There are a great number of theories that explain the participation or at least non-interference of the German people in what is clearly and obviously a moral blight. Most start from the point of view that no rational person would want to engage in this horror, and they were directly or socially coerced. Soldiers couldn’t disobey orders, ordinary people couldn’t risk speaking up. Perhaps no one knew that the small actions they were doing contributed to murder, which again, would require any given German to have the mental processing power of approximately 1.5 goats or one small houseplant.
I have a simpler explanation, and I love the simple explanation:
We are all of us monsters.
Inside even the most rational, educated person, there is a transponder with a direct radio to a time when surviving until tomorrow meant annihilating whoever stood between us and food, or sex, or shelter. This signals up great delight and triumph when someone we perceive to be our enemy is humiliated or harmed. No amount of moral education can stop the signal, we can only decide what to do with it once registered.
We are surprisingly hardwired to engage in and protect our tribes. Those who could form cohesive bonds with small groups had a greatly superior genetic fitness, and so here we are, our ancestor’s children. We love our tribes, and we hate to disappoint our cohort.
Look at this list of cognitive biases. It’s really interesting, I’ll wait.
There are 90 decision-making biases alone. (That we know of, of course.)
All of these apply to everyone. They are part of the hardware of every mentally functional human. No matter how smart you are, how educated, how morally pure, how modern and enlightened all of these defects will and do affect you.
I have personally participated in studies where we were able to activate the same cognitive errors in nuns, lauded professors, and meth-heads who didn’t graduate high school.
At the heart of every one of us is a creature who can be manipulated or even manipulate themselves to feel entirely righteous in the most outrageous acts of harm and evil.
The most dangerous of all monsters are the intelligent, educated, modern individuals who refuse to believe they’ve a dangerous creature inside.
I am terrified by the smugness that emerges when people ponder the why and how of what happened with the “ordinary German people.” They are discussed as if they are some defective element of humanity who all managed to end up living in the same country with nothing to do with anyone else.
ISIL and Boko Haram, those are also you. The Japanese in Unit 721, who undoubtedly thought they were doing a necessary service to their country, we’re them. Just people.
If we forget the faces and the names of the survivors, if we tear down the evidence of our crimes and build supermarket where the Bergen-Belsen memorial now stands, we must remember who we are. Because we’re always who we are, and we will do this again.