BERLIN, October 29, 2005 – It all started with a lie. The annexation of Austria. The invasion of Poland. The foray into Russia. The genocide of six million Jews and elimination of six million others, and the abuse of millions more who survived long enough for the Allies’ liberation of the concentration camps and the countries occupied by Adolph Hitler’s Germany sixty years ago this year. This is the city from which the villains of the Third Reich ruled. Fifty million people died in World War II, and it all happened because of the lie that is racism.
Walking the streets of this city reunified in 1990 after the Cold War intersession, I was constantly reminded of the destruction and despair characterizing the 12-year reign of terror under-girded by the lie. Informed by “The Last Days of World War II,” a powerful History Channel documentary series airing this year, I imagined what life must have been like for those Berliners on whom Hitler turned after his demise was assured: for instance, the ragtag regiment of old men and boys ill-fatedly enlisted to defend this city that was supposed to have served as the governmental seat of a thousand-year Reich. Misinformation and historical inaccuracies were the currency of the war-waging era, and also of the communist period that kept millions of East Germans disconsolate for 45 years after the war.
Lies can be so costly.
For one thing, Hitler claimed that his volk were Aryans. They more accurately were Slavs. Not that it mattered, though; if he had known better, Der Führer simply would have asserted the superiority of the Slavic people – the way bigoted leaders in other parts of the world have done since World War II in other parts of the world. Fabrications and ethnocentrism are equal-opportunity visitors among cultures.
As disciplined liars, the Nazis corrupted the attributes of science and industry to build an edifice of evil the world had never known. Tens of millions of ordinary people facilitated the terror. And, although brave and brilliant German dissidents like Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought the regime, even orchestrating an assassination attempt on Hitler himself, they had little popular reinforcement. They were captured and executed.
The demise of fact
Before shuttling to Berlin on the cheap for three days during our annual fly-out week, I attended a lecture across campus titled “The Demise of Fact in Political Discussion.” Delivered on Tuesday by the highly regarded communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, it presented her argument that today’s political partisans are challenging what once would have been considered fact, molding their readings of fact to political goals and preventing real deliberation from taking place. Critiquing both major American parties, she convincingly called out the new tendency to disrespect facts in favor of manipulating evidence such that we “alter the deliberative domain” in a way favorable to our own policy positions.
Jamieson lamented adherence to facts “as convenient to ideology” and questioned the media’s “split-the-difference relativism,” which lazily reports as though certain facts are disputed simply because one side says that they are. The result is a political process flawed because adversaries are “anchored in their own ideological enclave, regardless of the facts.” (For an example of how this problem can play out, compare HLS Lambda President Jeffrey Paik’s denials (A Response to Amos’s Sermon, October 20, 2005) to the facts presented in my last sermon (On Carter G. Woodson and the Lambda-sponsored ‘sit-in,’ October 13, 2005). For the paradigm for intentional omission as the manufactory of self-exculpating evidence in the black-history context, see Dred Scott.)
While de-Nazified Germany and the world have risen above the treachery of Hitler, a new generation of Germans contends with the baggage of their forebears, whose actuality presents disputes over ill-gotten gains and reparations for what was stolen in the first place. As historian Brian Ladd emphasizes in his 1997 book, “The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape,” although the contemporary crisis of historical confidence is not unique to Germans, they may lead the world in agonized self-examination. The upside is that virtually everybody now agrees on the most elemental historical facts.
The costs of correcting
We can thank a number of dedicated journalists and historians for ensuring that the truth has come out. In many cases, it has taken them years to correct distorted records. Sometimes chroniclers of fact have found it necessary to confront and fight liars publicly. Exposing these most intransigent wretches rarely goes unpunished.
The cover of the current Emory Magazine features a triumphant Deborah Lipstadt, that Southern university’s Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, who in February released “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.” In this book, she recounts the landmark libel trial in the United Kingdom that resulted five years ago in her being cleared of charges brought by a famous Holocaust denier who claimed that she defamed him inasmuch as the Holocaust never occurred. The British legal system essentially required Professor Lipstadt, an unimpeachable authority on the Holocaust, to prove in court that the Holocaust happened. The trial was five years ago. She won.
A recent obituary in The Economist pays tribute to Simon Wiesenthal, a famed Nazi hunter who died on September 20 at the age of 96. The article began: “One of the stranger conversations in Simon Wiesenthal’s life occurred in September 1944. He was being taken by SS guards, in his faded striped uniform, away from the advancing Russians. Somewhere in the middle of Poland, he and an SS corporal scavenged together for potatoes. What, the corporal asked him mockingly, would he tell someone in America about the death camps? Mr. Wiesenthal said he would tell the truth. ‘They wouldn’t believe you,’ the corporal replied.” We know the rest of the story. Wiesenthal, a successful architect prior to the Holocaust who lost 89 family members in The Final Solution, eventually was released from the Mauthausen concentration camp, opened the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna, and helped to track down more than 1,100 Nazis. Since 1945, hundreds of Nazi escapees all over the world have been outted as fugitives, called to account for their actions, and punished. Wiesenthal’s concurrent pursuit was to remind the world about the dangers of Nazism and to warn on the lecture circuit and in books about motivating trends in far-right politics. Insisting that world leaders had a duty to combat racism, he faced constant threats. In 1982 neo-Nazis blew up his house. Yet Wiesenthal pressed on, because, according to The Economist, “his survival of the Holocaust gave him a duty to seek justice for the millions who died.”
On Monday, our own country paid tribute to Rosa Parks, the civil-rights pioneer who rejected white racism fifty years ago, December 1, when she refused to leave her seat for a white man on an Alabama bus. As E.R. Shipp of the New York Times wrote last week, black Americans had been arrested and killed for disobeying bus drivers. Inspired by Parks’s stand and directed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., blacks in Montgomery took the heat and fought the power, coordinating an impressive and sacrificial 381-day boycott that succeeded. Over the next thirteen years, the Civil Rights Movement forced America closer to fulfilling the promises it claimed on paper. The dark side of the story too often forgotten is that progress came at a significant cost. As the cradle of the movement, nearly ten of Montgomery’s black churches were firebombed the evening the court order forcing desegregation of the buses was announced. Once i
ntegrated, many buses were shot at terrorism-style. Within weeks of the integration, the Parks family had to leave Montgomery for good because of white people’s violent retaliation against them. The family would settle in Detroit, where Rosa Parks died at the age of 92, on October 24.
It was predictable that Lipstadt, Wiesenthal, and Parks would make bold enemies on their righteous missions to reconcile the human family. History reveals that liars hate the truth and the people who tell it. Recall that prophets tend to be murdered. Yet ordinary people, the backbones of mass social movements, often understand the challenge and appreciate the response.
Gazing at the Rosa Parks bus exhibit in the Detroit area’s Ford museum during chilly weather last week, 75-year-old Ruth Matthews, a black American, remembered the days when she could not sit at certain tables or in certain seats. She paused at the bus draped in black and purple bunting in Parks’s honor. “For once,” she told the New York Times, “somebody had the courage to stand up for the truth.” Marty Smith, who answers visitors’ questions as a guide in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a King-district tourism site in Atlanta, said of the early civil rights activists, “In today’s time, you can’t find people who will stand up and do the right thing for the causes they stood up for.”
Bill Pretzer, a curator of political history at the Ford museum, revealed how student visitors today often are in disbelief that what happened on the bus could have occurred in America: “They say, ‘What do you mean can’t sit there? That’s impossible,'” he told a reporter. “Which is why we need to keep looking at this. There is a danger that if we don’t spark peoples’ imaginations as to what in fact happened, we risk it one day happening again.”
Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at email@example.com.