I recently visited the national exhibition, Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away, dedicated to the history of Auschwitz and its role in the Holocaust. It offered an exploration of “the dual identity of the camp as a physical location—the largest documented mass murder site in human history—and as a symbol of the borderless manifestation of hatred and human barbarity.” The exhibition provided one answer to this awful question: “How long does it take for human beings to dehumanize ourselves?”
The reign of Hitler lasted only 12 years (1933 to 1945), but his government was able to exterminate over 11 million people. His rise to power took less than a decade and the death of democracy in Germany took only four years (1930-1934). All of this was state sanctioned and happened with the overwhelming support of ordinary people. The unfolding of the Holocaust occurred step by step, each injustice paving the way for an even greater atrocity, a case of creeping normality.
Fueled by the grief, rage and humiliation of defeat and the painful after effects of World War I, many Germans were vulnerable to the seduction of an aggressive leader who stoked their resentments, whose racism provided them with a convenient scapegoat, and whose propaganda promised a return to law and order, pride and prosperity. He offered them an explanation for their struggles that placed the blame squarely on “others” and he used crises, such as runaway inflation, the Great Depression, and a fire at the parliamentary building, as political opportunities. This social context, along with an abuse of power, catapulted Hitler from the leader of a fringe group of extremists to an absolute dictator authorizing state sponsored mass murder in a very short span of time.
As we explore the factors that contributed and the steps down the slippery slope to atrocity, this process may start feeling eerily familiar to you. In 1923, about 2,000 of Hitler’s supporters attempted a failed government coup resulting in the death of four German police officers. In this time of social unrest, his aggressive action earned him celebrity-like status among some citizens. As he rose to power, civil liberties throughout Germany were suspended. His party infiltrated the police and military and developed a propaganda machine for their own glorification, as well as for spreading disinformation. Little by little, Hitler was able to undermine Germany’s democratic institutions and eventually he dissolved all other political parties.
Although Nazism was popular with most Germans, a few dared to speak out against injustices and atrocities at the expense of their lives. In winter 1942, a group of young people called the White Rose printed leaflets and created graffiti denouncing the mass murder of Jews. The group was brought to mock trial by the Nazis and executed by guillotine the very same day. There was also a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – and of course, there were many uprisings (100+ of them armed) and acts of rebellion in the ghettos and concentration camps.
I recently watched a 2020 documentary called Final Account in which some of the last living generation of everyday people who participated in Hitler’s Third Reich are interviewed (it can be viewed on YouTube and Amazon Prime). The interviewees speak of an unspoken knowing, of doing what they were asked to do, and of the short-term benefits (economic and ego enhancing) they experienced at a cost that is now hard to comprehend. Around 1:18 in the film, some participants state their disbelief in the Holocaust. One says, “I would dirty myself if I were to admit that. And I don’t want that.”
therefore it can happen again:
this is the core of what we have to say.
It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.
-Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor
These types of atrocities have happened all over the world, including my own country. British colonizers of the US wiped out 90-95% of Native Americans. Centuries of injustice and cruelty, such as enslavement and long-term discrimination, as well as lynchings, massacres, experimentation and compulsory sterilization, disproportionate imprisonment and police brutality in the US resulted in higher death rates and shorter life spans for black people. In other parts of the world, the Pakistan/Bangladesh genocide of 1971 killed upwards of 3 million people, the Cambodian Genocide lead to the deaths of between 1.5 and 2 million people from 1975 to 1979, and the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 claimed upwards of over a million lives.
“If we deny or refuse to accept reality as it is, we won’t be able to cope with it. We will keep on making the same mistakes again and again. Our losses, if we don’t accept them, can destroy our lives. To attempt to relieve our pain by identifying evildoers and vowing to wipe them out, as if that will remove the loss’s stark grip on us, won’t work. It will only add to evil’s mounting pile.” – Norman Fischer
There’s a fair amount of optimism to be found in research showing rates of violence have actually declined worldwide throughout history, despite the devastation of the aforementioned events. It seems to me that some of the interlocking causes and conditions that contributed to the horror of the Holocaust (and perhaps generalizable to other acts of mass violence) include:
- A fight reaction to suffering – we instinctively lash out at perceived enemies, “others” who we blame for our pain. The grief and anger from war casualties, losses, and economic hardships endured by the German people made some of them vulnerable to manipulation and created a desire for a target for blame and ire.
- The delusion of violence as a solution – hatred begets hatred and violence is a blunt instrument that creates collateral damage. The ripple effects of WWI, which was sparked by an assassination and eventually subsumed much of the world, causing millions of deaths and disabilities, laid the groundwork for WWII, and some say ushered in an age of totalitarianism.
- Ego defense – we reflexively act to protect our preferred self-image (I, me and mine) from perceived threats. The shame of losing WWI and the ripple effects of war led to denial, rationalization, projection and displacement. Some took pride in the “elite” status granted them for their complicity.
- Greed – miswanting can cloud our judgment and nudge us to act in self-dealing ways. Everyday citizens benefited from the exploitation of “others”, including their co-opted goods and wealth, jobs created by the Holocaust complex, and the fruits of slave labor.
Fortunately, its possible to rehumanize ourselves. Improvements in the fulfillment of basic needs and increasing rates of literacy, education and political freedom have been crucial steps in the process. In addition, the dehumanization that can lead to mass violence and collective suffering might be further mitigated through a paradigm shift – a change in the habitual ways we see ourselves, relate to one another, and inhabit the world. Mindfulness can be a part of this paradigm shift by helping us:
- understand our fundamental interconnection
- cultivate compassion for ourselves and others
- develop resilience and emotional intelligence, so we might relate to suffering, attachment and aversion in more skillful ways
- become more conscious of our intentions so we might align our actions with our values
- reduce cognitive and social biases so we are less prone to manipulation and othering
- adopt a more universal sense of morality that is inclusive of everyone
The Integrity of mindfulness requires we be of benefit to our collective humanness, not simply to our personal being… – Larry Yang
look at your hands
your beautiful useful hands
you’re not an ape
you’re not a parrot
you’re not a slow loris
or a smart missile
we all start human
we end up human
or we’re nothing
nothing but bombs
and poison gas
nothing but guns
nothing but slaves
of Greed and War
if we’re not human
look at your body
with its amazing systems
of nerve-wires and blood canals
think about your mind
which can think about itself
and the whole universe
look at your face
which can freeze into horror
or melt into love
look at all that life
all that beauty
they are human
we are human
let’s try to be human
– Adrian Mitchell, Human Beings from The Shadow Knows