The Holocaust and War
What I saw changed me forever. Over the course of our lives, we all have moments when something profound happens that alters our perception. Two such events occurred in my life during the summer of 1974 while my wife and I were vacationing in Europe.
The first happened traveling by bus from London to Paris. It was a warm, summer afternoon and we made a prearranged stop for rest and refreshment at a roadside café somewhere between Calais and Paris. I ordered a ‘limonade’ (a combination of beer and lemonade) and walked outside to stretch my legs, breathe the fresh air, and survey the surroundings.
My awareness was drawn to neatly arranged rows of little white crosses stretching as far as I could see. I was looking at a World War I cemetery, one of many that dot the countryside in this area of France. As I stood mesmerized by this scene I began to think about war and its meaning. The Vietnam War, still in progress, was fresh in my memory. I realized regardless the justification one’s government presents, each of us is obligated to give it the most serious forethought. War is no casual matter and requires our most sober and assiduous attention. We must carefully weigh its potential consequences. The prospect of becoming a participant and willing accomplice in the killing and slaughter of ‘others’ to protect or expand the interests of the ‘empire’ and its shadowy promoters, as occurred recently in Iraq, requires careful scrutiny and the highest degree of skepticism. We can no longer afford to go off to war simply because our leaders and corporate media wave the flag and play on our emotions to ignite nationalist sentiments to demonize other human beings.
The scene that sunny afternoon was darkness, and it has stuck with me. It has had a profound impact on my view of war, conflicts, and violence as promoted by governments to achieve ‘their’ objectives. Most importantly, it has kept me grounded with an awareness of who actually pays when governments commit themselves to use violence to achieve their ends. All governments act in pursuit of their narrow amoral ‘interests’ that really are but a guise to hide the real perpetrators, which in our case is a narrow group of corporate and oligarchic sponsors standing in the shadows driving conflicts at our expense for their benefit.
The second and more intense moment occurred a couple weeks later when we visited the Dachau death camp on the outskirts of Munich, Germany. At the time, I was an aspiring historian, and this was my laboratory. I relished the opportunity to actually see what I had been reading and studying in books and watching on screens and seeing in movies over several years. I looked, read, watched, and listened to all the stories and presentations about what had taken place. I only learned later how several of the key doctors involved in human experimentation escaped punishment for war crimes and were instead brought to my own country, the U.S., to continue their ‘vital research.’
The Nazi complex was covered with a layer of dull brown colored pea-sized gravel bestowing the entire Dachau site a feeling of emptiness and despair. Roaming the grounds, we noted where the various camp buildings and individual barracks had once stood, taking in the scope and size of the operation, walking and standing where thousands took their last steps and breathed their last breath, and finally and most powerfully, witnessing the ashes and bone fragments, the remains of the last victims still lying in the crematorium ovens.
These things provided proof and testimony to what Dachau was, and a reminder it was one of many such camps in Hitler’s Third Reich, the prime function of which was to eradicate a whole people and erase their memory from the history of the world. I remember passing through its gate and seeing the cynical slogan “Arbeit macht frei” — “Work will make you free.” I felt revulsion and rage mixed with pain. Returning to Munich we tried to soothe our feelings with a liter of beer. How ironic we chose the Hofbrauhaus where Adolf Hitler gave his first speech to a large audience in February 1920. It was the beginning of the National Socialist German Workers Party, The Nazi Party. The beer was cold; it left a bitter taste.
I cried, and tears often well up involuntarily whenever I read, see, or remember what I saw. Once you see such things it is impossible to ‘unsee.’ The change is irreversible.
At that time, I naively believed the world had changed and this kind of brutality and inhumanity could not, would not be tolerated, would not be allowed to happen anywhere ever again. Then Pol Pot engaged in genocide on his own people in Cambodia while the world idly watched. It was the ‘Communist’ Vietnamese who invaded and finally put an end to it.
At that same moment, the Indonesians were conducting genocide against the people of East Timor. East Timor had been a Portuguese Colony since the 16th Century until Portugal decolonized the enclave in 1975 and it declared its independence. Nine days later it was invaded by Indonesia who claimed the territory and proceeded to conduct war and annihilation against its residents, with U.S. blessing and benign indifference. The war lasted for 24 years during which one-third of East Timor’s citizens were killed.
That was only the beginning. There was Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Darfur region of Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar. We ignore Palestine where indigenous Arabs are denied their basic human rights and suffer under an illegal occupation and system of apartheid made possible only by an overly generous large infusion of cash and weapons complements of U.S. taxpayers, and Yemen where millions face famine and death from our support of Sunni Saudi Arabia’s crusade against the Yemeni Shia Houthi.
Human welfare means nothing in a world where nations led mostly by men, think in narrow terms of what is ‘their’ interests. It is a lingering form of tribalism, an intrusion of our primitive past that continues as part of human behavior into the 21st century. To those who ‘lead,’ the world is one big zero-sum monopoly game being played out on a big board where the objective is to own or control everything or have enough ownership and control to dictate the rules of how the game is to be played to the others. The effect is to devalue all that truly has significant meaning on this planet or in this existence.
The effects are predictable and demonstrable. In man’s endless quest to extract the last gram of ore or the last drop of petroleum to make and distribute an endless stream of consumable throw-away products, we foul the water, the soil, the air, the oceans, and by our activities strive to make the earth, our home and that which is necessary for all life, especially our own, unlivable. In doing so we have absolutely no remorse about the consequences we impose on the planet, ourselves especially included because what is important is ‘winning’ the game and controlling the board.
In thinking about this all I can do is ask rhetorically, when it’s over and humanity is either extinct or replaced by one of its clever creations, will it really matter who won?