Germans own up to their dark past

Having been a loquacious debater on multiple continents, both in structured and everyday situations, I am well aware that the first rule of debate is universal. That is, never bring up Hitler or the Holocaust. Never liken any current event, or potential future event, to either of those two stains on history. Doing so draws eye rolls, scoffs, and an instant loss of credibility, especially when in discussion with non-Jews. Independent of the situation, the argument is always viewed as hyperbolic and unrealistic. To most, the Holocaust is uniquely terrible, and therefore has no business being brought up in intellectual discourse.

In the past, whether as part of a debate team or simply as a heated college student having an argument with a friend, I found this cardinal rule to be comforting.  The atrocities committed by Nazis during the World War II are not something that can be easily connected to everyday life. The world should remember the uniquely unspeakable cruelty the Jews, among others, had to endure in the not so distant past; the victims deserve at least as much. The multitude of memorials and museums in a myriad of countries around the world suggest the egregiously tragic event holds an especially infamous place in history.

Recently I traveled with several of my peers to Berlin. As it was my first time in Germany, I had made up my mind that I would spend my time trying to better understand what my ancestors had been forced to endure at the hands of Nazis.

I had expected the stories to be buried, but much to my surprise, it was an incredibly easy task to accomplish.

The Germans not only own up to their dark past, but they feature it prominently. In doing so, they provide a glaring warning to all never to get swept up in uncontrollable nationalistic fervor, never to value one life over another, and never to forget that the unthinkable can happen even in the midst of a seemingly civilized society.

It is something the US government would never properly do with regard to slavery, Japanese internment camps, the Trail of Tears, or any number of other horrible yet sanctioned institutions.

Seeing the German sentiment made me think twice about my comfort with the first rule of debate. Perhaps the Hitler argument should actually be used more often. Limiting the argument to suggest that what Jews, Catholics, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, and others experienced during World War II was unique goes against everything for which the new Germany fights. While the country has dedicated some of its most centralized spaces to remind us that we must always be wary of the evils man can commit, a de facto banning of the argument reinforces the idea that the Holocaust was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Unfortunately, that simply is not the case. Throughout history, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Rwandan genocide, multiple racial and ethnic groups have been experienced Holocaust-esque suffering. If anything, the Hitler argument must be given more credibility in order to stave off such horrors in the future.

And for the many who still cling to the idea that the Holocaust was one of a kind, for those who take a perverse comfort in the cult of victimology, imagining a future with similar terror is not difficult. After all, Nazis did not simply appear and call for the extermination of all who were not Aryan. For example, when the Nazis first starting implementing what we now know to be forced sterilization programs, they required “patients” to “voluntarily” request the procedure. We must recognize the beginnings of tyranny before tyrannical decisions are openly mandated, for at the latter point, it is already too late.

If we are afraid to use the Hitler argument for fear of being out of touch with current reality before injustice descends, we may be forgoing the chance to make the argument at all.

At the entrance to the Holocaust museum in Berlin, a quote by Primo Levi greets visitors: “It happened before, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.” Instead of holding the Holocaust to be a unique phenomenon, instead of claiming it was a perfect storm of circumstances and that current government structures would never allow for anything like it again, we must realize that it can happen again.

But most importantly, we must keep that message alive not only through museums, but through the arguments we accept as valid in everyday discourse.

I gained a lot from my travels to Berlin. I learned how even the most civilized can be brainwashed. I learned how easily stable democratic entities can be overrun.

But most impactfully, I learned that the way to prevent future atrocities is to realize, accept, and propagate through our discussions that “it happened before, therefore it can happen again.”

Alexander Chaitoff is pursuing his Master of Public Health at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom as a 2013 Marshall Scholar. He will return home to Cleveland to begin medical school in July 2014.