We cannot ignore the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust. Nor can we be ignorant of how it happened. These are the lessons I believe Christians, in particular, should be mindful of.
But people of all faiths (or none) will also find it important. Because to ignore them is to invite such a tragedy to happen again.
The lessons here are what I believe to be the most essential, having engaged with some of the history and from visiting sites associated with the Holocaust. No doubt there could be more points but the following are of great importance.
Christians should know how easily evil is normalised.
A visit to the Dachau memorial site will confront you with some uncomfortable truths.
The very first Nazi concentration camp is located in a pleasant green leafy town just outside of Munich.
And that is the first horror.
Barbarism existed among the most civilised of neighbourhoods.
Dachau was the first centre to isolate, imprison and humiliate “enemies of the state”, as they were labelled.
Political opponents of the Nazis and others who were considered undesirables were held. Among them were pastors and priests.
Dachau was a working prototype for what was to eventually become a system of hundreds of subcamps and eventually extermination camps.
And ordinary people knew about it.
Newspapers reported the “removal of enemies of the Reich to concentration camps”
People would have heard of fellow Germans, neighbours, even relatives being taken away. A small minority initially, but enough for it to be accepted and normalised.
Over time this gradual process of isolating and removing individuals and then groups desensitized the general population. What followed were the Nuremberg Laws that legitimised racial discrimination and then a significant turning point was Kristallnacht in 1938.
This was the first major deportation of Germans of Jewish descent and was consistent with how the State had been acting.
Consistent and normalised.
And by then few ordinary citizens felt able to challenge it.
As Christians, we must be aware of how evil takes hold in any society and that it can too easily be ignored until it’s too late.
A lesson on the power of fear and the Holocaust.
Fear has a paralysing effect. People feared the widening control of the Nazi state but also feared other ‘enemies’, be they real or imagined.
There was a widespread fear that Communists would take control of the country. It was not unjustified but it was exaggerated.
The other fear, which was entirely irrational, was that the ‘Jewish race’ was threatening the survival and well-being of the nation.
Anti-Semitism, a poison that had always been present in Europe had returned in its most violent and virulent form.
I believe if places like Dachau were stopped by ordinary citizens, who were able to overcome their fears, the holocaust would not have happened.
And the most effective time to do that was in the early days of the regime. But few, including Christians, choose to do it.
Christians ignoring lies as a cause for the Holocaust.
In desperate times people look to their leaders for guidance and hope. Sometimes they seek out a saviour-hero.
Hitler fulfilled that need.
As a demagogue, he knew how to exploit a crowd and to play up the deep resentment many Germans felt. He knew how to lie effectively.
People were looking for someone to blame for the loss of the First World War, a harsh peace deal and a generation of young men who had lost their fathers in battle.
They looked for scapegoats.
Conspiracy theories were just as popular then as they are now. Blame was mostly projected onto ‘international Jewry’ who were seen to be the cause of Germany losing the war and for Communism.
So it wasn’t so difficult to blame fellow citizens who were Jewish for all the problems the country faced.
When Nazi rhetoric and propaganda encouraged hate against ‘the Jews’, it is sadly predictable that violence was acted out with broad cooperation from fellow citizens.
Fake news is not new. The Nazi regime perfected it and it served an ultimate purpose to isolate, separate and murder.
‘The bigger the lie the more likely people will believe it’ wrote Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels.
Our challenge today is to expose lies that are used to serve political purposes. And there are many being created.
Rumours and outlandish claims now reach thousands of people in seconds via social media. This is now a real and present threat to our democracy. Christians need to be proactive in exposing lies and ensuring the truth is heard.
A lesson for Christians; the teaching of your church can be wrong.
Christian witness in Nazi Germany and in most occupied countries was largely a failure.
There were a few leaders who understood the seriousness of what was happening and who were proactive in their protests. Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are among them who belonged to the independent Confessing Church movement. They were eventually to become victims too, Niemöller was interned in Dachau and Bonhoeffer martyred in the closing days of the war.
Tragically the majority of the Protestant church were largely happy to adopt Nazi ideology into Church teaching, despite the fact that it clearly contradicted it.
The expulsion of non-Aryan members and the rewriting of the Bible to edit out more ‘Jewish’ texts were permitted and promoted.
It seems unbelievable and absurd to us today. But it happened.
Any crazy belief is possible when Christianity departs from its roots and historic teachings. And when it also cooperates with the state for reasons of power and influence.
A similar problem occurred with the Catholic Church. The concordat signed by Hitler and the Vatican remains controversial to this day.
The problem was that churches were more concerned with protecting themselves from state interference.
They did not extend their protest to the evil of the whole regime.
Had ordinary Christians been strong in their faith and were properly discipled, churches could have changed the course of history.
But they didn’t. And that’s a terrible lesson we must always remember and reflect with sadness on.
The hardest lesson for Christians about the Holocaust; where were the righteous?
This all leads me to ask, had I been alive at that time and place instead of today, what would I have done?
The terrible truth is that I would have probably been like everybody else, living in willful ignorance.
You are likely to be not as good or moral as you think you are, especially when under fear for your life.
Yad Vashem has done a remarkable job of documenting those who were considered to be ‘righteous among the nations’. They have a more precise number of those who showed kindness and love to their Jewish neighbours. People we know of such as Oskar Schindler but thousands of others we don’t know who are honoured.
But the total number is just 26,120.
Looking back and remembering we can see that history could have been so different. Where were the faithful witnesses? These questions remind me of the passage in Genesis, where Cain asks God, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ The reply is convicting us all.
We must be our brother’s keeper.
As Christians, we can learn the lessons of the Holocaust for today.
When we remember the horrors of the Second World War and the killing of millions upon millions of innocent men, women and children, we should remember the real cause of it, nationalism fuelled by Anti-Semitism.
The Holocaust saw the killing of six million Jews, one million of whom were murdered in Auschwitz alone. It also included other ethnic groups and minorities considered inferior by the Nazi state.
But since the war genocide has not stopped. The horrifying atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and now even Myanmar are a reminder of the dark depths that humanity can so easily sink.
So we must remain vigilant. We must call out and expose the modern forms of antisemitism, wherever it appears.
And we must be prepared to be our brother’s keeper.
The words of Jesus are these:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25: 35-40.
And these words are for us, today. They have the power to save.
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays.