By Sahar Amarir
By Sahar Amarir
Paris – Today the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp from the Nazis.
It is a strange and cynical spectacle to watch how so many people talk about this tragedy on this day, but it speaks volumes about our ongoing delusional mindsets and our tragic ignorance as Westerners.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, most people speak as they were taught, but mostly as they have understood — and I emphasize “understanding,” not “learning.” We, in France have all repeatedly learned extensively about World War II and the Holocaust in our curriculum. But learning about the Holocaust is not quite the same as understanding the lessons of the Holocaust, and this is where we all failed.
I remember being in middle school when we first learned about it in history classes. I was in a very mixed middle school with people from all backgrounds, with as many people living in fancy houses as people living in the projects. My classmates didn’t seem particularly horrified by what our teacher was telling us, the first details of the horrors coming to us in history class. They did express their disgust at how inhumane it was, how they would be scared if it happened again and how they would all feel terrified.
I remember feeling completely alone in my much stronger reaction of utter shock. I thought back then as a justification for my oddness exactly what people used to tell me: maybe they are right, maybe I’m just too sensitive about this history class. But still, as far as I remember, since the day I learned about it, I became obsessed with politics and minorities and the history of the jewish people, and to the great dismay of some of my close ones, that obsession has never faded away and has only grown stronger as time has gone by.
A couple of years later, I ended up in a quite prestigious high school with a majority of students being from a typical upper class Parisian background. By that time we all knew why the war happened and how the genocide and systematic extermination of Jews, “gypsies,” disabled people, and political opponents was planned and carried out by the Nazis. And I remember very vividly being in history class while our teacher told us he’d show us a documentary with videos from various archives.
And as I psychologically braced myself for the horrible scenes I was about to watch, he repeated again this speech that all history teachers tell us about how we should learn a lesson from this genocide, how we should strive so that it never happens again, how we have to keep in mind this could have been any of us, and how we should never let fascism return.
And then I slowly realized something was wrong. It reminded me way too much of middle school. Something was off. My classmates watched the documentary, with blank eyes, occasionally yawning or checking their cellphones. Afterwards, they talked about it for five minutes and how horrible it was, and how they would feel terrified if it happened to them and then went back to normal.
And then it struck me: they don’t get it. They learn about the Holocaust — in fact we all learn about it, but most of us simply don’t understand.
This isn’t about how our teachers do their job or how much we as students engage in our studies; this is about how the whole society programs us into one mindset. I realized that whether in middle school or in high school my classmates could only express feelings of horror by associating themselves with the victims: “If I were a jew…,” I realized that people were thinking history could never repeat itself, because we are part of the great western civilization and by virtue of that association we simply would not make any more mistakes such as letting Nazis rise to power again and plan another genocide.
The people who don’t believe that history will repeat itself are right. Because we can never recreate the exact same conditions and situations we witnessed in the past. We will never have the exact political, economic and social context that we witnessed in Germany in the 30’s. We will never see people murdered wholesale in gas chambers again.
But they’re wrong in thinking we’re not capable of committing atrocities or turning a blind eye to atrocities any more. They’re wrong in thinking people will not be able to reinvent their past horrors. They’re wrong in minimizing humanity’s capacity to be creative in its cruelty.
And because history never repeats itself, they’re wrong in thinking they are able to realize when things have gone too far the next time and be able to stop them. Because they are waiting for the past to happen again, they don’t wake up. But it won’t happen the way they’re expecting it. And that is because they have learned about the holocaust, but don’t understand it.
People who find It normal that our military does a parade to celebrate a national holiday have not understood one of the lessons of the Holocaust, which is that we should stop idealizing an amoral institution like the army which celebrates as its most important quality a soldier’s ability to be disciplined and particularly zealous in his unconditional obedience to the orders of his superior officers.
People who have allowed it to become normal for politicians and some fringes of the population to characterize all black people as “criminals,” all Latinos as “drug dealers,” all Muslims as “inherently violent,” and all “gypsies” as “genetically programmed” for theft have not understood that the Holocaust taught us that extrapolating from facts and generalizing is the sign of a sick society and that permitting those ideas to spread willy nilly out of political opportunism or lack of interest is as dangerous as believing in them.
People who have put security ideologies above humanist values have not understood that sometimes our fears are made up or greatly maximized by people who can take advantage of a frightened and thus easy to manipulate population.
People who claim that the benefits of human rights and the rule of law only apply to them and not to other people have not understood that it’s precisely the idea that only some people deserve certain rights that have made dehumanization and the labeling of other people as “inferior races” possible and thus have ideologically enabled and justified their extermination.
People who excuse their demonizing and bigotry toward minorities by saying they are trying to invade us demographically, socially, culturally, politically, and economically have not understood that if we are letting our selfish interests and materialistic individual needs win over human rights and respect for fellow humans, we are already falling into the trap by recreating a hateful mindset.
People who think they are exempt from the notion of the sanctity of human life in the name of any nationalistic, religious, ethnic or political ideology have not understood one of the lessons of the Holocaust that no ideology merits the spilling of innocent blood.
People who think they need to imagine themselves as jews or gypsies, or as part of those people, to feel horrified have not understood that we shouldn’t have to imagine ourselves as the ones being persecuted in order to feel empathy for fellow human beings. And that it’s precisely because we are spreading the idea that we should or could only care about Jews if we’re Jewish or about the Roma people only if we’re Roma that we are creating a mindset in our societies where feeling empathy is only possible for “our” people, where the only death or suffering that counts is the one we can relate to as being a direct victim.
This is how we as Westerners end up with a temporary and selective indignation, where we only care when it’s about us. And this is how we let the genocide in Cambodia happen, how we let the genocide in Bosnia happen, how we let the genocide in Rwanda happen, and how we are now allowing crimes against humanity in Syria to happen.
People who choose to conveniently live in this bubble of denial and keep on claiming we are so amazing, so civilized and have learned our lessons so well that nothing bad can ever come from us again or that we could never let anything bad happen again while standing still have understood nothing from the Holocaust.
We will have all understood its lessons the day we will be able to systematically question state authority, nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric, and uphold the sanctity of human rights above any nation-state and above any political ideology. Until then, we will not have the right to congratulate ourselves with our “never again” mantra. Not until we are truly committed to it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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