Blind to History, Stumbling into the Apocalypse — Reflections on a Recent Exhibition at UH-West Oʻahu

By Louis G. Herman, PhD

Note: University of Hawaii West Oahu Library was one of 50 U.S. libraries selected to host Americans and the Holocaust, a traveling exhibition from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that examines Americans’ responses to Nazism, war and genocide in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. In this essay Louis Herman, PhD, Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu, reflects on the value of the exhibit in understanding the current rise of neo fascist politics globally, and how vital it is for us to respond boldly.

Americans came perilously close to colluding in the mass evil unleashed on the world by Hitler and the Nazi party. We have never been in more urgent need of learning from our past blunders. After World War I fascist delusions gripped large sections of the traumatized population of Germany. By 1933 the Nazis were elected as the largest party in the Reichstag.

In 1941, the Nazi’s Wannsee Conference coordinated every branch of the German government and mobilized the resources of some of its best engineers to create a production line of death dedicated to exterminating all the Jews of Europe. By the end of World War II, the Nazis had succeeded in murdering some two thirds: six million Jews. Altogether, tens of millions of people perished because of the Nazi driven insanity of World War II. Today in these same ‘bloodlands’ of central Europe, another delusional dictator, Vladimir Putin, is waging war against the entire population of democratic Ukraine.

The Holocaust has become the paradigm for evil in modernity. But in a recent poll of Americans under 40 — Millennials and Gen Zs — 63% did not know six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. In New York, the state with the largest Jewish population in America, almost 20% of those surveyed thought the Jews caused the Holocaust. We now live in an age of compulsive consumption, continuous distraction and cynicism about established authority. As a result, too many have given up on the hard, but deeply humanizing pursuit of wisdom seeking. Education — knowledge of, and love for, the truth of the good of the whole — has now become an urgent survival issue.

The traveling exhibit, Americans and the Holocaust, gives a vividly curated glimpse into the American mindset of the late 30’s and 40’s. We are shown patterns of fascist and racist thinking, chillingly close to what we see on the rise today in American and global politics. We see how in the 30’s many Americans slipped into fascism through greed, ignorance, and bigotry. The great Henry Ford was a conspiracy theorist who funded the Jew-hating Dearborn Independent with a circulation of 100,000.The Nazis approvingly bound and published copies in Germany, with Hitler citing Ford in Mein Kampf as an inspirational figure. For others, ignorance allowed fear and hatred take over.

The Nazis approvingly bound and published copies in Germany, with Hitler citing Ford in Mein Kampf as an inspirational figure. For others, ignorance allowed fear and hatred take over. In 1939, some 20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden, organized by the pro-Nazi German American Bund, to cheer “Heil Hitler” and boo Roosevelt. Throughout the war, IBM supplied the computers and punch cards used in the Nazi’s administration of the extermination centers.

By 1939, 300,000 German Jews had applied for visas to America. But the immigration quota system allowed no more than 27,000 Jews a year, and even that was never filled. Many of those left waiting were killed in the death camps. In May of 1940 after the Nazis had invaded Poland, and occupied Czechoslovakia, Austria and France, a poll revealed that 93% of Americans opposed entering the war to fight Hitler.

When global leadership has never been more critical, we are regressing into the murderous narcissism of autocrats and hypermasculine strongmen. As Anne Applebaum put it in a recent article, liberal democracies are in retreat, ethnonationalism is advancing and “the bad guys are winning”: we have Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Kim Jong Un in North Korea and Bolsonaro in Brazil (who is escalating the destruction of the Amazon rainforest). Then there are a host of autocratic rulers on the sidelines, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Bashir Al Assad in Syria, Duterte in the Philippines, Maduro in Venezuela, and the generals of Myanmar, who grabbed power through strategic terror, shooting dozens of student demonstrators, and imprisoning, torturing and murdering opposition leaders. Such dictatorships are only possible because of the blind obedience of individual soldiers and police. Thoughtless obedience to authority — Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ — is encouraged by a population made submissive by fear and stupefied by propaganda.

Today, civic space is increasingly infiltrated by propaganda brigades, bot factories, and troll farms, churning out fake news and grotesque and bloody conspiracy theories. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder put it, “if you want to rip the heart out of a democracy directly, if you want to go right at it and kill it, what you do is you go after facts. And that is what modern authoritarians do. Step one: You lie yourself, all the time. Step two: You say it’s your opponents and the journalists who lie. Step three: Everyone looks around and says, ʻWhat is truth? There is no truth.’ And then, resistance is impossible, and the game is over.”

In the 2016 election in the USA, the ratio of professional news to junk news on Twitter was 1:1. An internal leaked Facebook report revealed the scale of a massive disinformation campaign engineered by Russia and its allies. For example, of top 20 Christian Facebook sites, 19 were fake, located in Russia and Eastern Europe; it was a similar story with a majority of the top native American and African American sites. Altogether, during the 2020 elections, troll farms regularly reached 140 million Americans a month.

Without a shared narrative of meaning, without some sort of truth-grounding, democracy is dead, and the world becomes chaotic.

In these critical times, it is important for us to take courage from those who are willing to fight and die for the ideal of a deep democracy; not simply a democracy of elections, but one based on a culture which nurtures truth-loving activists. We see something of this in the extraordinary armed resistance of Ukrainians led by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Vladimir Putin claims to be de-Nazifying Ukraine. The absurdity of Putin’s lie is revealed by the fact that Zelensky is Jewish and the combined list of Ukraine’s fascist and right-wing parties in the 2019 election received a mere 2.15% of the vote, with no seats in parliament. This means Ukraine actually has the lowest political support for fascists of any European country. The tragic irony is that it is Putin who is the fascist. Virtually an entire Ukrainian people, with an army outnumbered eight to one, are fighting furiously, defending their young democracy, holding off the tyranny of Putin’s kleptocracy. We see a comparable nobility of purpose in the resistance of the Hong Kong youth to the brutality of the Xi Jinping regime of China; we see it also in the determination of the thousands of students in Myanmar who kept demonstrating for democracy in the face of the bullets of the Generals.

This extraordinary exhibition of Americans and the Holocaust reminds us that to be human is to always walk on the edge of falling from order into chaos, mass murder — evil. We are fortunate in Hawaiʻi to be more sensitive to issues of domination, colonialism, and the pathologies of corporate elites controlling the lives of the many. Indigenous wisdom and the deep spiritual traditions of humanity offer a healing response to the pathologies of fascism. They teach us that our primary moral imperative is to wake up; to seek truth in the service of caring for, and loving, all life; and they teach us that this spiritual foundation needs to be the beating heart of a deep democracy.

Further Reading and Resources:
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
The Bad Guys are Winning by Anne Applebaum
Survey finds ‘shocking’ lack of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z by Kit Ramgopal
In 60 Seconds, A ‘Daily Show’ Guest Brilliantly Exposed The Danger Of ‘Post-Truth’ by Maxwell Strachan
Internal Alarm, Public Shrugs: Facebook’s Employees Dissect Its Election Role by Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel
Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows by Karen Hao

The author of this piece, Louis G. Herman, grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in apartheid South Africa in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The two poles of his formative political experiences were shock at human caused suffering and the beauty and healing power of Southern Africa wilderness. At the age of 12 he left South Africa with his family to receive a rigorous science education in England. He obtained degrees in medicine and the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University and then took a break from academia for three years to get some deeper experience of life.He emigrated to Israel to explore life on a kibbutz — the agricultural commune which built the country — and then volunteered for military service in a paratrooper unit. His participation in a Middle East war confronted him with two hard facts — the futility of war as a solution to political problems and the recognition of Palestinians as an indigenous population.

He returned to academia at the Hebrew University to contemplate the deeper questions of life — “How should we best live together?’ What is the Good Life?” He was invited to complete his PhD at the University of Hawaiʻi, where he found the perfect vantage for developing a global perspective on the human condition. In 2013, he published Future Primal: How our Wilderness Origins Show us a Way Forward, which presents the politics of indigenous and early hunting-gathering societies as offering profound insights into truth seeking and righteous living which industrial society has lost touch with.

The article also appeared on the Hawaii Reporter website.

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