As we observe an anniversary of the end of World War II, it's intriguing to ask "Could the Third Reich have survived the Iphone?" The all-pervasive social media's use of iPhone video created an instant universal awareness of the Boston Marathon bombings. It also created a bittersweet reflection on how world history could have been profoundly different had it been available in the early 1930s.
It was an era when the Nazi Party began its ascent to power in Germany, ruthlessly destroying a fragile democracy through meticulously staged and managed attacks that portrayed itself as a popular rising of the "people's will." These efforts at manipulating world opinion reached their crescendo during the Berlin Olympics where international visitors barely saw the venom of state sponsored anti-Semitism. The Nazi's street attacks on Jews and others were far more selective and parades of smiling stormtroopers suggested a nation merely intent on restoring "order." It was meant to buy them time as they prepared their war machine and the death camps that would follow.
Yet there were instances of Americans who became eyewitnesses to street attacks on German couples whose crime was that one happened to be Jewish. There were also foreign visitors who witnessed the raids that saw the regime's opponents vanish literally overnight. Few, if any of these actions, were reported by an indifferent international media or were believed when they were. They were dismissed as unsubstantiated reports from unreliable sources.
Yet consider how a handful of digital camera phones could have revealed the savagery of Kristallnacht as state-sponsored terrorism destroyed thousands of German synagogues, businesses and homes in one night alone while thousands were hauled away to concentration camps. Think of how a barrage of tweets read worldwide, written by those watching books being burned by stormtroopers, would have left the Reich with no place to hide. Their mask of civility would have been revealed as a cynical ploy. The world would have had no choice but to see and understand the emergence of absolute, undiluted evil. They could look away if they wished but no one would be able to deny they didn't see, they didn't hear and they didn't comprehend what was occurring because the avalanche of images would be inescapable and undeniable.
In today's world where murderous regimes seek to engage in a 21st century version of genocide, the new weapons of war include digital devices that make our indifference unforgivable. The state's total control of the media mastered by the Nazis has been shattered by providing every citizen with the power to be an observer who can instantaneously share his experience with the rest of us. In Boston it helped apprehend terrorists. It also reminded all of us that this technology comes with the responsibility of conscience and an understanding that turning our recording devices away from terrorism in any form makes us complicit in these murderous actions.
Far more important than any Facebook friend count or trending tweet is the fact that the digital technology we own and the social media world it has created may finally allow us to break the curse of mankind being doomed to repeat history.
Co-authored with Hy Horowitz, 93, a tanker in General Patton's 7th Armored Division, and while attached to the British 2nd Army, helped liberate the Bergen-Belsen death camp. He is an associate member of the Museum of American Armor.