Sunday, 6 September 2009

Lessons from History

70 years ago this week German troops marched into Poland, starting the bloodiest and deadliest war in mankind’s history. In the years before that fateful early autumn day, Germany had battled through depression and anarchy to become a European superpower once more. In the eyes of many Germans the Treaty of Versailles signed in the aftermath of the First World War, ostensibly to punish Germany for the War, was preventing Germany from rebuilding an economy badly damaged by defeat and economic depression. Widespread resentment of their mistreatment at the end of a war which many Germans believed had not really been lost harboured extremism.

In the midst of this wounded state, a young Austrian recovered from a mustard gas attack in a field hospital. He had joined the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment at the start of the war and went on to receive the Iron Cross First Class; one of the highest decorations a german soldier can receive. After the war he remained in the army and moved to Munich, where he joined the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919. The DAP was one of many extreme parties to appear following the creation of the democratic Weimar Republic following the War. Its founder, Anton Drexler was a fervent nationalist and an Anti-Semite, Anti-Marxist and anti-Capitalist to boot. He believed that the Weimar Republic was out of touch with the German people and wanted a return to the good old days of the Imperial Reich. Our young Austrian changed the name of the party to the National Socialist German Workers Party (or the Nazis) and swiftly moved up the party structure. Soon he became leader of the party and, through the power of his oratory, made the party one of the largest in Munich. The name of this enigmatic Austrian war hero? Adolf Hitler.

In 1923 Hitler let a failed coup against the Bavarian government. While the coup massively damaged the party’s reputation, the public spectacle of his trial only increased Hitler’s popularity. During his one year in prison he wrote Mein Kampf in which he outlined his extreme, nationalist ideology. When he was released, on the back of his increased popularity, Hitler wet about rebuilding the Party, determined to win power legitimately through the democratic system he so hated.

Over the next decade, due in part to Hitler’s oratory and his appeal to the good old days before the War when Germany had been a major European power, the Nazi’s power grew until they controlled the largest single section of the vote in the Reichstag. By 1933 Hitler was Chancellor of the Wiemar Republic. The centre-right parties in power had tried to compromise with Hitler, believing that they could keep the political extremist under control. However Hitler refused to compromise and forced President Hindenburg to appoint his Chancellor.

It did not take long for Hitler to introduce Bill to make him the effective dictator of Germany. By July 1933 Hitler’s Nazis were the only legal party. Through political culls instigated by the SA, all political opposition was removed; Hitler was the Absolute ruler of Germany. Over the next 4 years Hitler’s Germany grew in wealth and power, openly flaunting the Treaty of Versailles. Despite clear signs of aggression, other nations did nothing to stop the growth of Germany. They thought they could negotiate with Hitler, they were wrong.

In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Over the course of the next 6 years, 6 million Jews were ‘evacuated’ to camps in the east, where they were either worked of gassed to death. All told the war cost the lives of 70 million people, the majority of whom were civilians. The war led to the creation of the Nuclear Bomb, two of which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing thousands and damaging the area with deadly radiation for years. At the Nuremberg trial, the Nazi officers on trial said that they were only following orders.

This is not an excuse. The Nazis never received the vote of the majority of German citizens; they ruled Germany not by the consent of the German people, but by the apathy of those who saw that Nazis for the monstrous affront to freedom that they were and did nothing. When Hitler’s foreign policy was so obviously warmongering and anti-Semitic, the world stood by and did nothing, not because they agreed with Hitler, but because standing up against evil would have been too hard, oo politically risky. Instead they attempted to compromise with Germany.

Evil is not something that can be compromised with. It must be stood against with unwavering conviction. If we learn anything from the Second World War, we learn that apathy in the face of unremitting evil is almost as bad as evil itself. While the monsters who tortured and killed Jews in the camps are unforgivably evil, what is more disturbing to the refusal by Germans, who simply followed the crowd and did what was easy, to think for themselves and see past the propaganda, to discover the true evil of the Nazis and stand against it. The responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust lies, at least in part, with those army officers who ‘were simply following orders’, because simply following orders is not good enough. We are all responsible for our actions, it is our responsibility to stand up against injustice, not simply fall in and go along with what everyone else is doing.

As rational humans being we have a responsibility to ourselves to stand up for what we believe to be right, if we do not then we give sanction to those who would commit acts as monstrous as those committed in the holocaust. If we sanction these acts, can we really claim to be any better than those who commit them? History is littered with examples of evil, committed because of the unthinking consent of people who should have known better. Conformity may be safe and it may be easy, but as free thinking, rational being, we should seek to do what is right, not what is easy. Evil is almost never in the majority, evil is the insanity of a few, sanctioned by the apathy of everyone else. The insane we cannot stop; the apathy we can. The consequences if we do not are painted vividly in history; the events of 70 years ago are only one example.

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