Bystanders Don't Cause Genocides But They Don’t Stop Them

Lecture Attendees Learn What to Look For
By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 18, 2019
Source: The Birmingham Holocaust Education Center

Stafford Township — What percentage of the German people were members of the Nazi Party during World War II?

Maybe 60 percent? Possibly 80 percent, if you include members of the Hitler Youth organization?

The Nazis had to have wide support to wage war on two fronts and simultaneously conduct the largest genocide of the 20th century, the Holocaust, right?

Wrong. According to Steven Marcus, the coordinator of Stockton University’s Holocaust & Genocide Dual Credit Consortium, the figure was more like 10 to 12 percent.

Marcus recently delivered a free public lecture at Stockton University at Manahawkin titled “The Bystander: Then and Now.” He originally planned on addressing the roles of “bystanders” in not only the Holocaust but also other genocidal acts of the 20th and 21st centuries. But considering the number of genocides in just the post-WWII period, he would have had to talk for hours and hours. So he concentrated on the Holocaust, the killing of some 6 million Jews (and assorted others including Communists, Socialists, the “mentally defective,” the Roma and Slavs) by Hitler and his minions.

Several groups emerge in genocides, said Marcus. There are, of course, the perpetrators and victims. But there are also the collaborators (think of the WWII examples of the Quislings of occupied Norway or the government of Vichy France), rescuers (a prime example would be the Dutch who hid Anne Frank and her family), resisters (the French Underground), upstanders (people, for example, who would stand up for their neighbors before the Nazis dragged them away) and bystanders.

Bystanders, said Marcus, usually form the largest group in a genocide. . They don’t create genocides. But they help enable them.

Marcus went to Merriam-Webster to find a simple definition of a bystander: “One who is present but not taking part in a situation or event.”

“The vast majority of people in Germany and occupied Europe were aware, to at least some extent, of how the Nazi regime was treating the Jews,” his PowerPoint presentation continued. “Nevertheless, they took no active position on the matter. They did not openly persecute the Jews, but they did not actively help them either. This was sometimes due to anti-Semitic sentiments but primarily because they felt that it was an assault not on them but on ‘an other,’ even if this ‘other’ was a neighbor, partner or acquaintance. The Nazi policy of terror, which instituted the social ostracism, arrest and – in the final stages – execution of anyone who helped the Jews, was another reason for inaction. Furthermore, the benefits that many people received through the dispossession and murder of the Jews also contributed to the prevailing bystander.”

Niemoller Poem

Says a Lot

An often-quoted poem by Martin Niemoller, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, perfectly describes “the other:”

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

Niemoller wrote from experience. He had welcomed Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, believing the Nazis would bring a badly needed national revival in the face of the decadence and unrest of the Weimar Republic. But he himself was arrested in 1937 and spent 1938 through 1945 in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.

True Bystanders

Or War Criminals?

After the war, said Marcus, many ordinary Germans and Europeans claimed they hadn’t been involved in the Holocaust; were innocent bystanders. But he said that many onlookers actually were critical to the Holocaust’s momentum.

Civil servants became involved as part of their normal work. Finance officials processed property seized by the state, including homes and belongings left behind following the “resettlement” of Jews. Railroad workers switched the tracks to allow cattle cars full of the condemned to speed past regular freight and passenger trains. Clerks kept files of identification documents that included one’s race or religion so that the Gestapo had no problem locating the homes of Jews. School teachers carefully followed curricula that incorporated racist and anti-Semitic content.

Individuals in the private sector, too, became involved, when out of a sense of duty, or prejudice, or some opportunity for business or other personal gain, they voluntarily denounced their co-workers and neighbors to the police because of their alleged wrongdoings as Jews, anti-Hitlerites or gays. Many acquired Jewish businesses, homes or belongings at bargain prices; business competition was reduced when the Jew’s store down the street was burned to the ground by Brownshirts.

Even teens, Marcus said, contributed to the vortex, sort of bullies and bad girls on steroids.

“Teenagers in many communities became involved when they enjoyed their newfound power to harass with impunity Jewish classmates or even adults to who youth were generally taught to defer – thereby contributing to the isolation of Jews.”

The problem of bystanders turning at least semi-active participants wasn’t limited to Germany.

“In communities across Europe where the Germans implemented the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question,’ they needed the help of people with local languages and knowledge to assist them in finding Jews who evaded roundups. As German and local police found willing helpers lured by the opportunity for material gain or rewards, Jews in hiding in countries from the occupied Netherlands to occupied Poland faced daunting odds of survival.”

Can It Happen Again

Or Even Here?

You just have to look at the events in recent years in Syria to know the Holocaust is far from the last genocide in history. Are others on the way?

Marcus produced a list of warning signs of a coming genocide. The signs include a rise of extremism, authoritarianism/totalitarianism, challenges to democracy, challenges to the free press and flow of information, racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination of all kinds, environment, political confusion and disarray, economic difficulties/policies including trade and income and wealth gaps, and refugee crises.

Recent and current news is filled with such signs, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The south-to-north migration of people, be they refugees from Syria fleeing to Europe or Latinos trying to enter the U.S. has been a major story for several years. Migration has strengthened right wing parties in Europe and, some would say, right here at home.

If you want a case of political confusion and disarray you need only to follow the Brexit controversy in Great Britain.

Totalitarianism is alive and well – how long will the Communist Chinese government allow activists in Hong Kong to continue demonstrating, especially as those demonstrations become increasingly violent?

One man at the lecture objected to the inclusion of economics, especially the wealth gap, in the list of genocide harbingers. Marcus, avoiding controversy, said his list was still in flux. But he certainly could have said that the incredible hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, when people could be seen hauling wheelbarrows full of Marks through the streets to buy a loaf of bread, helped Hitler come to power. Indeed, the Great Depression helped lead to totalitarian states throughout the world as desperate people searched for easy answers.

Still, the greatest predictor of a genocide is probably apathy.

Marcus had another list – ways to become an upstander instead of a bystander. Stay informed. Speak up/communicate. “Do the right thing.” Try out a random act of kindness. Get involved with charities, religious and social organizations and community activities. Be politically active. Think again about consequences. Vote!

Could a genocide ever happen in the U.S.? Well, one already did, just ask a Native American. And if apathy is an indicator of a potential problem, consider the fact that just about 64.1 percent of eligible citizens voted in the 2016 presidential election while only 50.3 percent voted in the 2018 elections. There’s a reason Marcus slapped an exclamation point behind his urging people to vote.

On the other hand, just 36.7 percent of voters turned out in the 2014 midterms. In fact, the 2018 elections had the highest turnout rate of any midterm elections since 1914.

Still, the likelihood of a new genocide somewhere in the world in the near future is great. Since the Biafran genocide that began in 1967 there have been at least a dozen genocides around the globe. That’s an average of a genocide very 4.333 years.



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