Of course, we all want to believe that we would fight back against genocide. Who would want to admit that they wouldn’t or don’t know if they would? I have always tried to avoid calling people such Adolf Hitler and the Nazis “monsters.” They have certainly committed monstrosities, but they were human beings, they were simply men. Any human is capable of committing horrible things, and to separate those who have by calling them inhuman or monsters not only fails to acknowledge that society, in some way, influenced this person’s actions, as it does everyone’s, but it implies that normal, everyday people are innately good and incapable of committing monstrous deeds. And this is simply not the case. On the opposite side of this, ordinary people resisted the Nazi regime or have done what most of us would consider heroics acts in the face of monstrous human action. And it’s easy to be outside of the situation and look into the past and say “I would have helped the Jews” or “I would have done whatever I could have to stop the Holocaust from happening. But there’s a reason Charles Manson was able to convince a group of others to murder people and there’s a reason that genocide keeps happening, and that ordinary people commit unspeakable immoral acts in mass. Doris L. Bergen summarized it best when she wrote, “This history (of the Holocaust) has no uplifting message of redemption. It leaves us only with human beings, their startling capacities for good and evil, and with an awareness of the complex ties that connect the fates of people and nations all over the world.”
Bergen’s summation suggests that there is no end or beginning to good or evil. Those who resisted the Nazis or risked their lives to help Jews or Roma or others persecuted by the regime made a choice that, in my opinion, anyone is capable of making. Some may consider it selfish to not have resisted but there are infinite factors that go into a choice. One risked their own lives, the lives of their families, and perhaps the question became “We may all die, or I could choose not to help and we may all live or at least my family and I will live.” Others may have viewed it as a moral obligation to resist the Nazis and help the Jews. Socialization and the threat of torture and death are likely the most influential factors in choosing to resist a fascist regime bent on genocide. One may believe in the message being spread, even if they do not necessarily believe in the mass murder of entire groups of people. They may feel that it simply is not worth their trying because they will be caught anyway and themselves and those they are trying to help will both be executed. Every single person in the world has the capacity to do miraculous good and unthinkable evil. It all comes down to context and choice.
People make choices every day to act or not. We may hear someone use a racial slur and let it pass. We may speak up and say something. Our decision likely hinges on several things. Could calling someone out for their misstep result in us being made fun of? Ostracized from a group? Potentially shot and killed? Are we secure in our beliefs? Maybe we have low self-esteem and are uncomfortable expressing opinions. Or maybe we’re uncomfortable for numerous other reasons. All of these factors can impact our decision. While it may easy for some to make the choice to say, “Hey man, don’t use that word,” it’s not so easy for everyone. We may also think of such gestures as uttering a slur or making an offensive comment as being relatively harmless. We may often not think of those small actions being a part of a larger problem, especially in a society like the United States where the individual is emphasized. A man who refuses to marry a woman who wants to work outside the home and who expects only his wife to do housework may seem like an individual choice on the part of the man rather than a belief existing with a set of gender roles and social norms that has existed for centuries. Most of us would probably feel that this man is ridiculous and will have a hard time finding such a spouse and that his ideas are outdated and ridiculous, but he is not alone in his desires, and there is certainly a woman who would be into his idea. The same is true for extreme nationalists.
Just last year, a group of White Nationalists carried tiki torches and signs with racist messages, shouting “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blacks will not replace us!” Many people, myself included, believe this to be an early warning sign of genocide. So what are we to do? Nazis did not begin rounding up Jews and gassing them in the killing centers the day Hitler took power in Germany. The Holocaust was a gradual process. In our current era, I would argue that we have the power of the internet and social media connecting us all globally and that this gives us an advantage that the world did not have pre-Holocaust. Many people did not believe that Hitler was actually having Jews rounded up and exterminated because it sounded utterly insane. But we are able to capture video and sound with our smartphones and instantly upload them for the world to see. The Neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville were national news almost instantly. That being said, it’s much easier to record a video from the sidewalk than it is to break up a fight between a White Nationalist and the victim of his or her hate crime. So, would we do it? Would we put our bodies in harm’s way to stop a hate crime? What if the Neo Nazi has a gun or a knife? What if you and the victim are the only two people in the street other than a group of ten Neo Nazis? Now amplify that and imagine those Neo Nazis are in military uniforms, banging down doors with machine guns and loading your neighbors onto their trucks. I certainly wouldn’t argue that recording a video isn’t a good idea, but I think that most people would like to believe that we would do something to stop our neighbors from being beaten or arrested or rounded up but the reality is, it’s not so easy, and there are a multitude of reasons for that, perhaps the most important being fear. I also don’t believe that not doing anything makes one a bad person or an immoral person. However, I think that we should all do SOMETHING, before it gets to the point where we do have people banging down doors with guns. It may not be easy, and it may take some practice and a lot of courage, but it truly can make all the difference. Stop that person from using a racial slur or making a racist joke. Talk to that guy about why women should be able to work outside the home. And even if you don’t stop that Neo Nazi from committing a hate crime, at least call 911 immediately and make sure that someone does. Because if we don’t, it will happen again and again, until there is no one left to fight back.
Rebecca Morales is finishing up her Master of Arts in applied sociology and the certificate in women’s studies at ODU. Her research and writing interests include issues that impact American Indians such as cultural misappropriation and representation, domestic and sexual violence, and neocolonialism. She currently works at the Richmond SPCA and although not relevant to her degree, is currently pursuing a career in the field of animal welfare and rescue.