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The Stone Crusher Speaks
Why do nations turn to evil, and what is a citizen's duty in these moments?
Earlier this year, I read The Stone Crusher, the true story of a father and son, Austrian Jews, and their experiences in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. They were not the only ones suffering persecution, of course, and some, including their wife and mother respectively, were murdered as part of the Nazi state's campaign. Their story is important to today.
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Although not covered in detail, the story begins with the fall of Austria on the very day of a national referendum on whether Austria would remain independent or join in alliance with Hitler's Germany, with the expectation of an overwhelming vote for retaining independence. A somber radio address by their president ended all hopes when he announced that the government had capitulated to a massive German military threat rather than fight a bloody and doomed war, which would not have lasted more than a few hours at best. From there, the family endures a series of demoralizing episodes, each taking them deeper into darkness.
This story is heartbreaking, but it is also illuminating in the questions it raises.
Most of the world decried Hitler's persecution of Jews, yet countries would not allow many to immigrate. Britain and the U.S. were complicit in this, bowing to public opinion and fear mongering. Roosevelt wanted to allow them in, Congress would not see it.
The main issues driving public opinion were: 1) Antisemitism, which was in no short supply; 2) fear of losing jobs to the immigrants (nations still coming out of the Great Depression); 3) lumping all Jews into the Socialist/Communist category; and 4) fear of Jews as Fifth Columnists/spy’s on missions to undermine the nation.
One of the lasting impressions as I read is how quickly, easily, and profoundly neighbors and friends turned against Austrian Jews, and how vile that turn often was. Austria was and is a Germanic nation, but it was also proud of its independence, cultured society, and peoples. I see three main elements to its rapid recalibration: 1) antisemitism was in place just below the surface in many cases, 2) people acted out of fear, and 3) the immediate presence of a large brown shirt contingent evidences a well-organized, prepared, and mobilized base of Nazi's and their sympathizers. These conditions supported an underlying hatred and jealousy, quick to rise when the opportunity came. This proud and cultured nation descended into evil toward their fellow man quickly and fully. This is not to say that there weren't those who disagreed and even resisted the turn to evil, but they were vastly overwhelmed in every manner.
Coincidentally, there is a connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the father and son's story, as they were held for a long time at Buchenwald before being moved on to Auschwitz. I do not know if they were there at the same time, but the difference in how they were treated is stunning on its face. Bonhoeffer was of a leading German family, his father being the preeminent psychiatrist in the country at the time. Dietrich had what amounted to a small studio apartment as his cell, was allowed his books, allowed to write and even to preach. He was allowed visitors, and even developed relationships with some of the prison staff. He was, of course, executed just before the Nazi surrender, but his life in imprisonment was not so harsh. Not so the Jewish prisoners. They were routinely tortured, humiliated, and murdered. Some of the medical experiments on them are gruesome. One can only wonder how a person could do such to another, regardless of their feelings for them. Sadism was on grand display in these places. Its face is horrific and repugnant.
As I think about how and why Germany and later Austria lined up with the Nazi's, I come to the conclusion that 1) anger over being treated unjustly after the end of WWI, 2) what that meant for the nation, 3) jealousy of those who were not like them, 4) fear of what might happen if Jews were left to grow in wealth and power, and finally, 5) fear of what might happen to them personally if they did not follow the Nazi's lead were the main culprits. These factors combined to lead proud nations of lemmings over the cliff. Proud nations, indeed.
Why is this important to today?
It is a lesson for our time. There is much in this story from history that we are familiar with today. Fear mongering and character assassination lead to ideology when they achieve scale, and ideology can lead to demagogues or evil policy, or both, resulting in "political truth" that is really deception. That, in turn, leads to a society based in fear, manipulation, control, and persecution of anyone who does not conform to the perverted political truth. False ideology, manipulation, and persecution are their own kind of imprisonment. That sounds like America today in many ways, and it sounds like America on both sides of the Blue/Red divide. We have good reason to be worried, not just for the now but where now could take us.
As history speaks, it is time for us to listen and act. How do we, as individual citizens, act to protect our democracy and values?
First, we must make sure that we know what our personal beliefs and values are. This requires independent critical thinking and transparency with ourselves, without outside influence. Who are we on the inside, really?.
Second, knowing our beliefs and values we can now judge the sources we engage with and the information that is presented to us.
Third, having informed ourselves with trusted sources and information, we can now speak clearly and confidently.
Fourth, we can speak with courage to our own sphere of influence. Not many will have access to local or national media, but … we all have family, friends, and associates. This is not about being “out there on a mission.” It is about having the courage to speak our true thoughts in a cogent manner when moments of opportunity come.
Bottom line: It is time for citizens to declare their independence. We have the ability to change our society. The question is, do we have the desire and will?
My Goodreads Review
I've never read a book on the Holocaust before, but I picked a good one to start with. A very good one. There are many reviews, I doubt I can add to them. I will say this, however:
If there is beauty to be found amid the ugliness and horror of war, it is in the humanity of those who persevere and endure through it to sustain and even elevate their better selves. That is what this story is about, and it resonates today with full force. This work is a treasure of man's spirit in the face of persecution, and it gives us reason to be humble and hopeful. Sometimes, mere men become giants.