The Holocaust: A sinister history lesson

Editor’s Note: Recently Hill AFB observed Holocaust Remembrance Week with a luncheon, a showing of “The Boy in Striped Pajamas,” a candlelight vigil, a “silent mile” 5K and a shoe drive.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE  — I don’t have time. Lunch is too expensive. That movie is probably boring. These are a few of the things I heard in the run-up to the events of Holocaust Remembrance Week here. I was muttering them to myself. 

Thanks to a friend, I made it to the luncheon and the film, and came away certain of this: The Holocaust must never be lost among the long list of horrors in human history. 

We may think that the Holocaust is a horror that belongs to a different generation, that it could never happen again, or that humans have moved beyond that kind of brutality. We’d be wrong. The Holocaust holds lessons written in big, flaming letters, which cannot be trivialized or forgotten, especially by those who serve in the military. 

Here are three important reminders.

1. Humans are capable of great evil

“I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it …” — Elie Weisel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Holocaust survivor.

Never underestimate the depravity of man, especially when we dehumanize our fellow man. If we are ever tempted to an angelic view of human nature, we must fix in our minds the piles of children’s shoes, extracted gold teeth, emaciated bodies, sinister billows of smoke from chimneys of flesh — and the happy parade-faces of German enthusiasts, lapping up lies because they were eager for the “security” and prosperity of the Fatherland.

Do not doubt that evil exists, and as servicemembers, you exist to protect your nation from precisely this form of evil. Mankind has been killing each other since we could lift a rock — to believe that we are somehow now enlightened and beyond the capacity for another Holocaust is naïve at best.

2. Know your foundation

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” — Primo Levi, chemist, Holocaust survivor.

Servicemembers swear to protect and defend the Constitution, which is based on one bedrock principle in the Declaration of Independence, the value of human life. Make sure your orders line up with your oath. How many men — who thought they were good men, following the will of their country — put on their gray uniforms, pulled on their black boots, and prepared for another day of rounding up Jews, herding them onto rail cars, ushering them toward misery and death? 

“How could anyone follow these orders?” you ask. Why does it horrify you and not them? Because we serve a nation that instilled in you the ideal that every human life has value, a nation that says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” There have been times in our nation’s history when we have wavered from this principle. We can never waver from it again.

3. We must fight

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Weisel

Rarely are we presented with an evil as blatant as Hitler’s “final solution.” But even when we were, America had cold feet about entering the fight. There were political concerns. The nation was weary of war after fighting the improperly named “War to End All Wars.” As legitimate as the concerns were, history will never be on their side.

Our world is much more complicated and fragmented today. There are even more political questions to answer before we dive into a fight, and they mostly reside in gray areas of cultures that are unfamiliar to most of us. This should not stop us from seeking an answer. We must do what we can to put an end to the monsters in the world who believe that might makes right, who label people as infidels and apostates with no human value. 

How we fight these oppressors may be in question, but that we must fight for the value of human lives should never be in question.