I visited the Dachau concentration camp in 1997. I happened to arrive just as an English tour was starting, so I joined it and got a deeper understanding of everything that happened at Dachau. At the end of the tour, we had a question/answer session and I don’t remember now if it was a question or if the guide brought it up himself, but we spoke about the fact that Nazism is outlawed in Germany. Our guide said it was a mistake.
There was a noticeable rustle in the group. Of course you should outlaw Nazism!! Nazism is an evil, repugnant, horrible ideology!! No one should be allowed to gather and plan a society based on a master race or spew hatred and bigotry!
But our guide calmly explained that forcing neo-Nazis underground did not stop the movement; it only made it harder to track. You don’t know exactly who the leaders are or who is joining. Their websites are hosted and mirrored all over the world. If you allow them to exist – which does not in any way condone their platform – then you know who they are, where they are, who the leaders are, what they are doing, and what they are planning.
It was a hard, bitter pill for me. I remembered that when I was in high school a statistic went around that 25 percent of American high schoolers didn’t believe the Holocaust had even happened. When I was in university, Holocaust deniers billed as historians were invited to speak on large, respectable campuses. And now I’m supposed to accept that freedom of speech and assembly can and should be given to people filled with vile, baseless hatred?
Twenty years later, the answer is still yes, as long as they don’t incite violence. Not because Nazis have anything to add to society or the common good, but because they are visible. WE. KNOW. WHO. THEY. ARE.
What is right, not what is legal
You know who doesn’t get to engage in this debate? The President of the United States. Why? Because his job is to stand up for what is right, not quibble about what is legal. His job is to unite the nation and if the only people who applauded his statements were members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, he is NOT doing the job of the president. It doesn’t take much brainpower to write a statement that condemns neo-Nazis and racists, denounces violence and hatred, still allows for freedom of expression (no matter how abhorrent), and brings the nation together.
I hope the president would sing a different tune if some “good guys” “with permits” peacefully intone “Jews will not replace us” while walking with torches through the neighborhood that Jared and Ivanka Kushner live in. Does he imagine that his grandchildren would be spared by these “good guys” “defending their heritage” just because he’s their grandfather?
Doesn’t get a pass either
You know who else doesn’t get a pass to keep silent or make weak statements? The Prime Minister of Israel. Most pundits in Israel think that Netanyahu didn’t make a statement about Charlottesville (until 3 days later, and it was weak and non-specific) because he wanted to stay in the good graces of the president. I can’t imagine that the office of the prime minister didn’t have a single person in it who could suggest reframing the issue so that Netanyahu could denounce neo-Nazis, racists, and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville while at the same time reaching out to American Jews. If the good graces of the president are wrapped in white cloaks and decorated with burning crosses, shouldn’t we be rethinking the policy?
Neither the president nor the prime minister has shown a shred of leadership this week and it is disgusting, but not really surprising.
So it’s up to us
I wasn’t able to find evidence for this apocryphal story I heard when I was a kid, but there are other places in Idaho and Montana where similar stories can be found. But I like this version.
In Hayden Lake, Idaho, the Aryan Nation had a 20-acre camp where they trained their new recruits. They wanted to have a parade down the main street on Adolf Hitler’s birthday. It might have happened once, maybe even twice. Then one man decided that he didn’t want to see the Aryan Nation marching down the main street of his town. So he got the parade permit for that day and for the whole week. The law was that they could only have one parade per day and as long as he did something resembling a parade, he got the permit. So he marched as a one-man band down the street to cheers from the townspeople who supported him. And then he did it the next year and the next. And so on.
The factual epilogue to Hayden Lake is that a car drove a little too close to their compound, and they beat the driver and the passenger (a mom and her son). So the mom and her son took the Aryan Nation to court and won. The Aryan Nation lost their compound in the $6 million settlement and had to leave the area. The compound was turned into a peace park.
The point of both stories is that it doesn’t have to take violence to defeat neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the KKK. It takes us banding together to say, “No, not in our town.” Meeting violence with violence begets more violence. Is there another way first?
I’ll leave you with Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem, which remains relevant today.
First 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 for me.