There is a question I’ve asked myself for years: why are the Nazis the paradigmatic symbol of evil for our civilization?
WHAT? (outraged) Don’t you know history?
Yes, very well thank you. In fact, I know history well enough to realize that the Nazis come in a rather poor third in the 20th century mass murder sweepstakes, right after the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. The murder toll (the deliberate killing of helpless civilians or POWs) of the USSR is, at minimum ten times greater than the Holocaust.
Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison, because the Third Reich had only 12 years to accomplish what the USSR did in 81 years and the PRC in 62. Still one has to wonder, why nobody calls someone whose politics they don’t like, a “Lenin,” “Stalin,” or a “Mao”?
Well one reason could be that the Nazis mostly murdered Europeans. The Chinese and the Russians were more distant peoples whose history and culture we knew little about. Perhaps it’s the same reason we don’t call someone a “Tojo,” though the Japanese killed Chinese in numbers far exceeding the European casualties of WWII.
Another could be that the Nazis made the mistake of picking on a literate people capable of telling their story to the world. We all know something about Jewish history because it is part of the history of Western civilization, but how many in the West know or care about the history of the Crimean Tartars, Ukrainians, or Tibetans?
And, a bit of unconscious racism/culturism might be at work as well. Perhaps we expect Asians and Russians to behave with what we think of as “oriental cruelty,” but Germany was a European nation whose contributions to Western civilization are considerable.
But sometimes I get the depressing impression that the most important reason may be that it’s safe to beat the Nazi horse, because it’s a dead one. They lost.
The USSR was until recently, and the PRC still is, a terrifying reality in the present. And they had and have numerous apologists and defenders in the West. Neo-nazis are a small group of pathetic losers nursing a neurotic need for attention, who don’t really scare anyone anymore.
I hear “Hitler” and “Nazi” tossed around by people who would never say “Stalin” or “Mao” or “communist.” Is it because they are afraid of these kind of people? Or worse, is it because they admire them on some level?
And why is it that when you compare someone like Ahmedinejad to the Nazis, who admires them and simultaneously denies the Holocaust while promising that next time he’ll do it right, you get accused of being an “extremist”?
But probably the biggest reason that the careless use of the “Nazi/Hitler” insult sets my teeth on edge, is — I’ve been to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz (Oswieciem (Osh-vee-en-chiem) in Polish) is a small town about an hour from Krakow by bus, in a rather remote rural area. Today the town has essentially two industries, camp tourism and a furniture factory on the other end of the main street. It makes me wonder what it’s like to grow up there.
Before the Second World War, it was an ethnically German town. When Polish army reserve forces assembled there at the invasion, townspeople were taking pot shots at them from their windows as they retreated to the east. Because it was remote, had a railhead and an army base with lots of three-story barracks, it was convenient to convert it to the largest death factory of the whole concentration camp system.
Since Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe (approximately 15% of the country’s population) it was most efficient to transport Jews from the much smaller communities of other countries there to be murdered.
I was told before I went there that it could make you sick. It didn’t. Instead what I felt was numb. Like I’d had a shot of novocaine in my emotion center.
I had pictured it differently, more like the image of Stalag something-or-other in The Great Escape. You know, wooden barracks on stilts. These were actually three-story brick buildings that looked like they’d be perfectly comfortable dorms or barracks — if they hadn’t been full of starving, brutalized people. I’m told the extermination camp nearby, now almost totally gone, was more like that.
The gas chambers: square buildings divided into a smaller square in one quarter of the floor where the crematoria were, and an L-shaped room around it — the murder room.
I had imagined the crematoria as larger. These were like commercial ovens in size, with a slab big enough for one corpse. This was a shock to me when I realized that the sonderkommandos had to pull out and process each body one at a time. (I also didn’t see any of the fake shower heads that I’d read about. A myth, or did they just not survive the years?)
There were exhibits from every country which had citizens who died there, each country was given a building to create their own. Some of the exhibits were devoted to countering holocaust denial: blankets with lab certificates confirming that they were made of human hair, canisters with certificates showing that they contained residues of Zyklon-B crystals, photos kept of experiments in starving humans to death.
Everyone who visits the camp probably has their own memory that time will never erase. Mine was from a wall of mug shots. Two of them near each other were of young girls, whose faces I will never forget till the day I die.
One is a Polish-looking girl with long blonde hair, covered with a kerchief and dressed in peasant style. She looks into the camera, afraid but not really comprehending what is happening. The other is a girl of about the same age, 14-16 I’d guess, dressed in prison stripes with her hair shaved to a buzz cut. She’s looking into the camera with a terrified expression, like she knows exactly what’s going on.So unless you can show me something like that — don’t tell me you live in a “Nazi state.”