It looks like it’s becoming a cherished tradition. For the second consecutive year, I was fortunate to go on a bus trip to D.C. for Veteran’s Day. It is an experience I recommend highly. The opportunity to meet and hear from the many Veterans of foreign wars who congregate at the battle memorials on the National Mall that day is profound.
I never served in the military. The instant connection and camaraderie shared between veterans tells me that it means a great deal to them to connect with another human being who truly knows what their experiences were like. It also means a lot to them when they see many people take a day out of their busy lives for the purpose of remembering and honoring their sacrifices and service. It’s the least we can do.
This year our group began the day at the Holocaust Museum. I worked for a professional a/v company in the D.C. area in the 1980’s we provided the equipment and installation for the many displays when it was first built. But I had never seen them. I had been to the concentration camp at Dachau on a high school trip to Germany. The year was 1977. Thirty two years after it had been liberated and the gas chambers and incinerators closed and destroyed, the place still had a tangible pall. It was as though you could feel the psychic trauma that had taken place there on an unfathomable scale. I have never experienced anything like it since. (That experience is now further away in time than the span between my visit and the camp’s operation. I wonder if that pall remains – I’ll have to visit again someday to see.)
According to the official positions of the governments of Iran and Syria, along with other organizations like Hamas, the Holocaust is a Zionist fabrication. Holocaust denial has long been a worldwide discussion – on American campuses and in publications around the globe. It’s understandable. I would rather this horror not have happened too.
But it did. And the true horror is not specific to Germans. Or Nazis. Or even Jews. It’s what this historical reality says about human nature. All of us, every single one, have the seeds of angelic good and demonic evil within. Evil is actually the path of least resistance. The German people, in the midst of fears of privation and even starvation in a crippled economy as well as residual anger about what they saw as vindictive treatment in the Treaty of Versailles in the wake of WWI, slipped down this path.
When people are fearful, they are vulnerable to their base urges. Stoking fear is the number one tool of the despot. We must remember that Hitler did not appear on the scene as a cruel mass murderer. In the eyes of some but not all of his countrymen, he represented hope and a means to return former greatness and glory. President von Hindenburg didn’t like Hitler. But he believed that he could control him when he appointed him Chancellor of Germany. As Hitler rose, his charisma won the hearts of many. Those who provided political opposition? Well, they typically didn’t live long enough to pose a threat. By the time his true aims were evident, it was too late to resist.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
A concept such as Hitler’s Final Solution does not spring immediately into place. It is incrementally built over time. When you see the horrific images of what was done to fellow human beings, it’s jarring. The first instinct is to vilify the perpetrators. But the deeper, scarier, and more pertinent truth is that it can happen anywhere, anytime.
This brings us back to our American fighting forces. It is this force that liberated Europe three times. It is the sacrifice of our veterans that helps keep us off of the slippery path of tyranny. But they can’t do it alone. The fate of a people inexorably lies in their own hands. That’s why we must know the truth of human nature. That’s why we must remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. As a South Korean General said in an impassioned speech honoring and thanking the USA and its fighting men at the Korean War Memorial this Veteran’s Day, “we must always remember than freedom is not free.”