My Austrian-born Great Uncle Johann was executed in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. Why? Was he a Jew? A gypsy? Gay? None of the above. He was gassed for being a political dissident. He died for disagreeing with the Nazis.
My Austrian father was pulled out of school as a teenager by the Nazis toward the end of the war, along with his friends and the old men in his village. The Nazis were running out of soldiers of fighting age and conscripted my dad and the others as expendable “cannon fodder” on the front lines. My dad was almost immediately injured and spent the rest of World War II in an Army hospital right next to Bergen Belsen, the infamous concentration camp. When the Allies liberated the camp and its victims, my father watched out his hospital window and bore witness personally to the depths of inhumanity human beings are capable of as the full extent of the atrocities was revealed.
This family history has given me a rather unique perspective on what contributes to the leadup to war and its horrors, and a wholehearted commitment to doing what I can to prevent it here in America, my beloved homeland.
In the lessons of Nazi Germany, we see how easy it becomes to attack or even kill fellow citizens when those on the other side of the conflict are seen as a dehumanized “other,” someone so seemingly different from you that you no longer see them as a human being with hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses just like your own. You come to view them as evil and monstrous, as so completely wrong in their views and utterly vile in their intentions that you no longer recognize or acknowledge their humanity. You turn them into enemies, deserving of punishment, or even violence and death. This is what killed Great Uncle Johann.
I see this dehumanization happening every single day around me, including in the online comment sections of this very newspaper. The derision and contempt I see and hear daily is exactly what fuels our creation of hated “others.” This verbal violence all too easily escalates into physical violence. This is how violence toward our fellow citizens (and non-citizens) starts. It has already begun.
But each of us has the individual power to put the brakes on adding to the hatred and division. We can each choose to stop feeding and fanning the flames of conflict. I hear the drumbeats of war around us, with some actively calling for armed conflict and civil war. Please pay attention to these warning signs of escalating division and choose another path. Please commit to finding productive rather than destructive ways to engage with your fellow Americans, however different their views might be from yours. Please take a lesson from my Great Uncle Johann’s death and help to move this country toward finding solutions for our very real problems, not adding to the growing fear, anger and violence around us.
United we stand. Divided we fall.