Have you ever been to a concentration camp? I’ve stood on the site where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenburg camp in Germany. On this occasion, I felt evil as a tangible presence. The lingering effects of evil which inhabit a concentration camp make visiting such places (for me) almost too much to bear.
I know people who were inmates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I have heard their first hand stories and accounts of life and death behind the barbed wire and guard towers. No matter how our most gifted filmmakers seek to dramatize history or documentarians recount reality; nothing will adequately convey the depths of human depravity which existed in these camps. From the perspective of concerned observers, we are only able to see slivers of the reality others have experienced.
Industrial scale, mass produced genocidal evil must dehumanize its victims in order to function on the level seen in Eastern Europe’s death camps. Invariably, this process does not begin with guns, revolutions, or politicians. It begins over comfortable dinners at home and in the innuendo of casual conversation. Regardless of the camp, survivors all relate some version of this truth. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem demonstrates how one man exemplified this belief at the heart of Nazi ideology. The Jews of Eastern Europe were sub-human and didn’t share values in common with the wider civilized world; this is what Eichmann and millions of other Germans believed. If someone is unable to see other people as human beings with feelings, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears like their own, they’ve taken the first step toward being able to commit genocide. However, the moment victims become “people” in the eyes of the perpetrators, morality can only be suspended indefinitely.
What can we learn from this day and the memories which remain? How much of our current political discourse exists with this same sub-textual (and subtle) message under every word that’s spoken; whether from the right or left? Read the back and forth between the two sides of any contemporary political issue. You will see both sides use echoes of the language of dehumanization. It might look something like:
People from one region of the country (or country itself) are ethically more superior/or worse than those elsewhere
People of one race or religion aren’t like us and need to be marginalized to the fringes of society
When we dehumanize and imagine others as being so vastly different from us; so that they aren’t “one” of us and our larger culture, we’ve taken the first steps toward reopening the mentality which led to the gates of Auschwitz.