A Lesson Unlearned
Last Sunday, I watched CNN's Perspective titled "Survivors of the Shoah", a Steven Spielberg documentary about the Nazi Holocaust. It was a heart-wrenching story about the slaughter of millions of people simply because they were Jews. How could this tragic inhumanity occur? The Jewish survivors chalked it up to intolerance and bigotry and urged us to judge people by "what's inside" and not race or religion. But there's a problem with such an explanation.
Historically, Germany was the most hospitable country for Jews in all of Europe. This is not to say that Jews were not persecuted in Germany but life was far superior to Jewish life elsewhere in Europe. On the eve of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, that brought the Nazis to power in 1933, Jews were a major part of the economic, scientific, social and cultural life of Germany. While Jews were only one percent of the German population, they were 10 percent of the country's doctors and dentists, 17 percent of its lawyers and large percentage of its scientific community. Jews won 27 percent of Nobel Prizes won by Germans.
During the 1920s, nearly half of all Jewish marriages in Germany were to Gentiles. German Jews went to great lengths to "become" German including adopting the language, dress and religion. Even Reform Judaism included features of Christianity, such as worship on Sunday instead of the Sabbath (after the Holocaust, they've gone back to the Sabbath). Many religiously orthodox Jews considered themselves "German." Jews who immigrated to United States carried their pro-German feelings, so much so that as late as World War I the U.S. government, at war with Germany, brought prosecutions against Jews for voicing support for the enemy.
How did a relatively low level of hate and anti-Semitism become the Holocaust? The road to the Holocaust was paved by the centralization and consolidation of government power. When Hitler came to power, he immediately embarked upon that road. Passage of the Enabling Act (1933), and later the Law Concerning the Reconstruction of the Reich (1934) enabled Hitler to centralize power by dissolving all state diets, county, city and town councils. Hitler then got control of Germany's labor unions and consolidated them into the new Nazi-dominated Labor Front. There was little distinction between the Labor Front's leadership and the Nazi party. Hitler gained control over agriculture through the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Through the Reich Food Estate, farm prices were controlled. In 1934, the government established the National Economic Chamber as head of an elaborate hierarchy of industrial and trade associations under the control of the Ministry of Economics.
Whatever hate, violence and anti-Semitism experienced by the Weimar Republic Jews, while deeply offensive, could not have developed into the systematic brutality it did during the Third Reich without an all powerful, highly centralized national government. Powerful government tends to draw into it people with bloated egos, people who think they know better than everyone else and have little hesitance in coercing their fellow man. Or as Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek said, "In government, the scum rises to the top." Decent people have little desire, or see themselves fit, to order others around. In a collectivist state, there is nothing that collectivist leaders must not be prepared to do if it furthers their agenda.
The Holocaust's true lesson is that there is no greater potential for evil than powerful centralized government. This century alone, not counting war, 170 million people have been murdered by their own government. Neither we in United States nor Jews in Israel have learned the lesson of the Holocaust.
Walter E. Williams
April 20, 1998
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