Every year on the 27th of January, people from around the world will mark the Holocaust Memorial Day – and I believe this is a good time for us to ask the question: Why should Singaporeans care about the Holocaust?
After all, it was something that happened to people that we have very little relation to; and it happened very long ago, in a far away place. We neither have any shared cultural experiences with these victims, nor do we have a similar history of brutality. In Singapore, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and many more from other communities is just another genocide – it merely sits alongside Armenia, Rwanda, and Khmer Rouge, as another tragedy of the modern world.
I believe that the Holocaust is something that every member of every society ought to know about. This includes Singapore. This seminal tragedy of the 20th century is important to all of us not because it led to the most deaths – the Holodomor, a 1932 artificial famine in Ukraine was estimated to kill 7 million. It was not the rate of killing either – the Rwanda Genocide fell its 1 millionth victim faster than the Nazis did.
Instead, this seminal tragedy of the 20th century has something to teach us about our humanity, our systems of governance, and how the ultimate safeguard to any society lies in the conscience of each and every citizen. These can be summarized into three ‘lessons’.
Lesson 1: Our Humanity and Our Brutality
Between June 1941 and Janruary 1942, as Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, the German SS organized killing squads behind the front lines to round up and execute undesirables – Jews, communists, gypsies, homosexuals, just to name a few. Between 1941 and 1945, these Einsatzgruppen killing squads killed around 2 million people, including a million Jews.
After the war, the actions of the Einsatzgruppen was often written off as an SS action. The SS, being the military wing of the Nazi Party, was always seen as the radicalized armed forces – and it was not surprising that they carried out the violently racist policies of the Nazi Party.
However, research by historians such as Christopher Browning have came to shatter that myth.
These men were upright German citizens with regular jobs, and many with family and children.
The Einsatzgruppen, while under direct SS command, was heavily manned by old reservists from the First World War. These men were upright German citizens with regular jobs, and many with family and children. Most of them were middle-aged – too old to serve on the front lines, but young enough to serve in other capacity. They lived most of their lives before the Nazis came to power, and the records of the Gestapo pointed out that they were largely skeptical of party propaganda. These men were tasked with the most brutal objectives of the Nazi state: to kill racially inferior civilians.
One such unit was Reserve Police Battalion 101, sent to Poland to liquidate 1,500 Jews by shooting. Their commanding officer Major Wilhelm Trapp gave his men the option to opt out of the unpleasant task. Only 12 of 500 decided not to kill. This small unit will eventually be responsible for 83,000 deaths. This brutality was repeated all across the front lines, and the psychology of these soldiers continues to be central to research about the Holocaust.
The Holocaust reminds us that none of us are inherently immune to brutalization.
Ordinary men were induced to willingly kill innocent civilians. The Holocaust reminds us that none of us are inherently immune to brutalization. There were even the appearance of execution tourism, where soldiers visit mass execution sites on their days off to watch the spectacle.
The ease of inducing someone into doing ‘evil’ was later replicated in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, by Philip Zimbardo. In this experiment, all participants were from middle-income backgrounds, university educated, and had no criminal records of any form. Yet given the wrong incentives, they started abusing each other by the fourth day of the experiment.
The Holocaust reminds us that our humanity is fragile, and we can easily slip into brutality. The induction to do evil can come from various sources, such as the de-personalization and demonization of the ‘other’ (Jews in this case), or the strength of camaraderie (POW interview records showed that many did not opt out because they did not want to abandon their friends to do the dirty work). We all can become brutal given the right constellation of factors.
Lesson 2: Society can go wrong
The previous lesson reminds us how violent individuals can get. However, to a large number of us, we find comfort in our systems and structures. Surely if there are some evil people around, our systems will stop them. Systems such as our government, our social code of morality, our overall level of education, and most importantly, our fair and just laws.
In many ways, Germany met all those criteria in 1939. Germany was a developed and highly-educated nation. The vast majority of her citizens were Christians of one denomination or another, professing a universal faith of love. She was the birthplace of the reformation and secular government, and home to a celebrated legal system that was emulated by countries such as Japan in the 19th century. Despite the intellectual and cultural endowments of Germany, it was this society that was about to cast off the shroud of humanity, and soak her hands in the indelible blood of millions of innocent Jews.
The best example of the failure of all the safeguards of society could be seen at the Wannsee Conference, where high-ranking German officials met to discuss the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Two-thirds of these men were lawyers by training – yet they found the decision to persecute German Jews to be completely legal and consistent with the principles of the law. A fair number held doctorates – yet the outright talk about killing another human did not right any alarms. The ‘best’ in a society can fail. The various safeguards that we hoped will prevent a civilized society from inching towards the abyss can fail.
Lesson 3: The Conscience of Every Citizen
So we can be made to do evil, and our societal safeguards might fail us. That is what the Holocaust reminds us. However, the Holocaust also teaches us to listen to our own conscience. If anyone identifies the failure of our societal safeguards and the incentive structures that makes us do evil things, it is our duty to speak up against them.
Of all the death and destruction of the Second World War, there remains one unique bright spot – the Rose Street protests, well explored by Nathan Stolzfus in his book Resistance of the Heart. When the 6,000 Jewish residents of Berlin were rounded up and prepared to be deported, Berliners turned up on Rose Street to protest this round of arrests. Between February to March 1943, protesters held vigil outside the Gestapo’s holding site. The number of participants in the protest got larger by the day, and the Nazi government eventually gave in and released all 6,000 Jewish detainees. They were not arrested again for the rest of the war. This protest by German citizens in defense of their fellow man was unique, and only raises the ultimate question: what if more Germans did the same?
it only takes a small handful to do the right thing in order to break the spell.
We will never know, however, what we do know is these protesters followed their conscience even in the face of the failure of the state and all the intellectual and cultural endowments Germany had. They followed their conscience even when the negative incentives induced others to partake in the senseless murder of Jews.
This is the third lesson – while individuals and systems can fail, it only takes a small handful to do the right thing in order to break the spell. We should not be afraid to do the right things for our fellow citizens.
Why should Singaporeans care about the Holocaust?
The answer is in essence simple: it tells us something about what we might become. All societies can fail, and all individuals can be induced to do evil. However, when all lights fail, perhaps our last hope is to fall back on our humanity.
With that, I hope that this Holocaust Memorial Day, we not only mourn the dead, but reflect on our humanity and our society to avoid losing our way again.
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