An extraordinary traveling exhibition and lecture series from the US Holocaust Museum, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, is in my community now. The presentations describes the events leading up to the arrest of Jews and other minorities in Nazi Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and then the depraved acts – medical experiments and genocide – that were carried out in the name of “cleansing.” There can be a tendency among Jews, like me, to focus on our own victimization, but there is a larger message and opportunity here.
It would be a mistake to think that this exhibition is only about Jews or Germans. Rather, it is about a deep sickness that all societies – even the most enlightened – can fall prey to. In recent years alone, we’ve seen horrific mass murders in Nigeria, Bosnia, Cambodia, Uganda, Armenia, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo and throughout South America, always as more stable nations stood by and watched.
There are patterns that typically occur before and after these disasters. The persecuting groups organize in ways that make them more powerful and effective. They portray the people they hate as threats, inferior, less worthy, unfeeling and sub-human. As atrocities become known, they orchestrate messages that deny any wrongdoing and deflect blame back onto their victims.
As the campaigns get stronger, the assumptions about the victims become more mainstream and the boundaries of behavior change. Acts of violence that, in normal times, would have been considered outrageous, even criminal, grow organically and become acceptable. The societal rules that limit our actions are perverted or go by the wayside. All bets are off on the ways people behave toward one another.
Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany was among the most advanced, open, enlightened societies in Europe. Jews thrived there for hundreds of years. Hard work allowed many to attain positions of comfort and respect. But as difficult economic times emerged, they became easy to blame. Restrictions began, minor at first, but then grew, eventually becoming catastrophic.
It is hard to not worry about this kind of process here at home. We have a passionately bitter political environment, leveraged 24/7 by politicians and pundits. Many groups – minorities, gays, immigrants, Muslims, the poor – are stereotyped and portrayed in threatening terms. It becomes easy to lump them together. And sometimes the discussions edge dangerously to excess. It may be that Saturday’s Tucson attack was related to just this kind of sentiment.
The Holocaust Exhibition will not be pleasant. For most of us, its images and ideas will directly conflict with our deeply held sense of fairness and justice.
But it carries a profoundly important message that we all should hear. All nations, ours included, are capable of the kinds of acts carried out by the Germans. All people can lose their moral balance, and do things that their great-grandchildren will be tainted by and ashamed of for life.
The perpetrators will always believe that they’re right, that their actions are justified.
So, informed by the overwhelming evidence in history, it falls to the rest of us to resist.
The mission, then, is safeguarding our society, its values and all those within it. The Holocaust Exhibition provides a very focused window into what happens when that mission fails.