On 11 April 1945, my uncle, a tank driver for a forward observer in the 3rd Armored Division, witnessed the horrors of Dora-Mittelbau labor camp in Nordhausen, Germany. He had only recently returned to his unit after having enjoyed a 30-day furlough with his family while recovering from burns received when a German artillery shell pierced the fuel compartment of his M5 Stuart tank. He left home and family and returned to his duties only to see the camp where about 60,000 slave laborers were forced to build V-2 rockets in an underground factory for the Nazi military machine. Those poor prisoners had lived in inhumane conditions and were literally worked to death.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Although it is generally commemorated as a remembrance of the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews, and although the word holocaust is now generally thought of in only that context, it extends far beyond that one religious group and race. It was just one part (albeit a major part) of Hitler’s desire to eliminate all people who threatened his belief in and plans for the “Aryan” master race. He would use those people, abuse them, and then exterminate them.
Anyone whom he perceived as a threat to himself, his beliefs, or his continuance in power became a victim of the Holocaust. The oft-cited estimate of six million victims is woefully short of the real figure. Six million (and that is probably a conservative estimate) represents only the Jewish victims. There were millions of non-Jewish victims as well, including gypsies (aka, Roma), Christians, the physically and mentally impaired, political opponents, and others. Hitler was especially virulent against anyone (even members of his master race) who opposed his regime on moral or religious grounds (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
But such atrocities are not unique to Nazi Germany. They are part and parcel of all totalitarian regimes throughout history. Think of the many examples from just twentieth century: Consider life in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and their labor camps, gulags, and mass executions. Think of Mao’s murdered millions during the Communist revolution in China and the later purges of the Cultural Revolution. Think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Idi Amin in Uganda. And repression in Communist Cuba. Think of the radicalism of ISIS and all of its forerunners and clones.
Think of those historical events and consider: It could happen here, and more quickly and more easily than we think. Consider the virulent hatred exhibited toward people of faith today. Consider the violence committed against various segments of our population when juries don’t return the “right” verdict or the “right” candidate is not elected.
German pastor Martin Niemoller wrote the following during the broader Holocaust, and it is food for thought even today:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (attrib. Thomas Jefferson).