Forgetting the Holocaust
In the 1930s and 40s, six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis. But amazingly, this would be news to many among us. Just about the only unequivocal example of evil most Americans can agree on are the Nazis. It’s why what’s known as “Godwin’s Law” holds that the longer an online argument about some issue goes on, the more likely it is that someone is going to invoke Adolf Hitler: We all agree that being like Hitler is bad. But as a disturbing new report suggests, an increasing percentage of Americans don’t really know why Hitler and his henchmen are considered to be evil incarnate. A study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or “Claims Conference” for short, found that forty-one percent of all respondents, and two-thirds of millennials, could not correctly identify Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, 45 percent couldn’t name a single concentration camp. Only half knew that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. One-third put the number murdered at two million or less. Even worse, “Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.” Paradoxically, nearly three-in-five of those interviewed “believe the Holocaust could happen again and half think it could happen in the United States.” Given the overall level of ignorance about the Holocaust itself, it’s not clear what they’re basing their opinions on. The head of the Claims Conference, Julius Berman, told the Times of Israel that, “We are alarmed that today’s generation lacks some of the basic knowledge about these atrocities.” The Conference’s vice-president added that “there remain troubling gaps in Holocaust awareness while survivors are still with us; imagine when there are no longer survivors here to tell their stories.” What makes this report especially troubling is that there has been a rise in anti-Semitism both in the United States and, especially, abroad. While anti-Semitism is, in the words of historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “The Devil That Never Dies,” it was, for a while at least, driven mostly underground by the Third Reich’s crimes against the Jews of Europe. Now, to paraphrase the book of Exodus, a generation has arisen that knows not Auschwitz. On the left, criticism of Israeli policy, some of which is arguably warranted, has fostered alliances with loathsome anti-Semites, Hamas, and Holocaust deniers. One prominent left-wing British politician even called Hitler a “Zionist.” I wish I were making that up. On the right, ask any prominent Jewish commentator about how quickly his or her comment boxes fill up with anti-Semitic bile. Sometimes, you don’t even have to be Jewish: David French of the National Review, who is an Evangelical Christian, was subjected to pictures of his seven-year-old daughter in a gas chamber. On a personal note, when my father was a teenager, German troops massacred thousands of their former Italian allies on his home island of Cephalonia in Greece. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Growing up, especially in the New York area, I can’t imagine that people could ever forget the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust, much less not know what Auschwitz is. Well, it appears that people not only have forgotten the past, they never bothered to learn about it in the first place. It’s an ignorance that leaves us, effectively, without a Devil, which makes it as dangerous as it is inexcusable.