Last week, we had to endure the pundit analysis about why six million Jews were slaughtered by average people who lived in European cities with names like Auschwitz and Treblinka. It was a week devoted to the remembrance of the Holocaust. What surfaced in those discussions was often superficial and almost cliché. Pundits talked about religious intolerance, engrained prejudice, ignorance and man's capacity for evil. You might have even heard the term, "schadenfreude." That is a term that developed out of studies that show that some people were so character defective that they took pleasure in watching successful Jewish businessmen, intellects, doctors, and lawyers fall from their position of success to a bottomless hell.
Powerful political propaganda was also suggested as a key reason why average citizens morphed into something heartless and barely human. But it wasn't so much defective hearts as it was defective spines that caused silent bystanders to watch as their Jewish neighbors were marched off to be gassed and incinerated.
The tragedy that took place during the Holocaust years was slow growing. It began as early as 1922 when timid indifferent people sat by quietly while an unstable right-wing madman began preaching hate. His fringe crowd described Jews as liberal socialists who were responsible for killing Jesus. He told his dull-witted crowds that Jews hated their fatherland because their politics were not a mirror image of his. Hitler was able to work the average German into a frenzy over issues that were often fabricated by wealthy industrialists who were the force behind his rise to power. Part of the mantra was that the liberal Jews were killing Germany with their outrageous "kosher taxes" and their peculiar religious culture.
Some historians doubt that Hitler would have prevailed without the assistance of German industrialists the caliber of Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz. But a solid majority of historians absolutely do agree on one thing. If average citizens had shown courage enough to speak up, the little madman would have been shouted down.
Right-wing extremism is on the rise in America. The similarities between the German madman at the podium then and the freakish bunch promoting their extremism today are astounding. Today, fringe groups are using issues like immigration, race, and big government as a few of their reasons for outrage. Just as they were in Berlin circa 1923, in America today fringe crazies are only a tiny minority with big mouths. But this time hate isn't only directed at Jews. It is hate that targets anyone who disagrees with this tiny minority's banal view of the world on topics like religion, politics and cultural mores. There is another similarity as hate politics rises in America. The overwhelming majority of citizens still lack the courage to shout down the hate talk of an absurdly small minority. That silence has been deafening these last eight years.
When revisionism history was written about the Holocaust, typical Germans lied to themselves by saying they would have protested, they would have been more vocal, they would have spoken up for their victimized neighbors, if they had only seen it coming. But that's a lie that is no less vulgar today than it was in 1922. We still lack courage.