“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.
- Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust Survivor
Jedem Das Seine.
Roughly translated from German, it means “To Each Their Own.” It’s the message that greets visitors as they walk through the iron gate into what’s left of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. For those who were inmates of Buchenwald, either under the Nazis or in its reincarnation as Special Camp No. 2 under the Soviets, the meaning was clear – expect nobody to help you. You’re on your own.
The survival of the fittest notion was core to the divide-and-conquer strategy employed in Nazi Concentration Camps. By keeping resources to a minimum, separating (and thereby labeling) communities, implementing strict penalties for infractions and by employing internal capos to dish out penalties on their behalf, the Nazis fostered a climate of internal competition that meant the inmates did most of the dirty work for them.
I emphasize the word “dirty” – the Nazi propaganda machine was fully-employed in the Camps. Guards were encouraged to see inmates as vermin, filth that sullied their meticulously cared-for uniforms. Buchenwald even had a zoo next to the Appelplatz where roll-call was taken; the families of SS officers and civilian workers could go look at the animals and inmates in tandem. The inmates themselves were never allowed to forget where they sat on the Nazis’ social spectrum. Naturally, the lack of proper clothes, shelter, food, hygiene and medicine meant the camps were ripe with disease. Add to that brutal working conditions and the constant fear of abuse or death, it comes as no surprise Concentration Camp inmates frequently did act like rabid dogs, fighting over scraps of bread or walking over the corpses of their fellows, pausing only to pick up a pair of shoes or a utensil.
Buchenwald itself was built on the Ettersburg hill a short distance from Weimar, one of Europe’s greatest centres of culture and learning. Despite the fact that the smell of burning bodies wafted over the city from Buchenwald’s crematorium; despite the fact that screams and gunshots echoing out from the Camp would have been audible in Weimar; despite the number of inmates that would have made their way through the city proper as the Camp and road leading to it were built, the people living in Weimar were in complete denial that anything inhumane was happening on their doorstep. They weren’t the only ones. As warning signs of an emerging Holocaust were cropping up in civilized Europe and it was becoming clear that the persecution of minority groups like Jews and the Roma-Sinti was becoming policy, governments elsewhere in the world were equally in denial. In Canada, Frederick Charles Blair, Director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources, began tightening immigration policies in a way that was prejudiced against European Jews. The amount of money immigrants had to have to gain entry increased; skill sets seen as immediately necessary to the Canadian economy were emphasized. As for the legitimacy of refugee claims by European Jews, Blair had this to say:
“I suggested recently to three Jewish gentlemen with whom I am well acquainted, but it might be a very good thing if they would call a conference and have a day of humiliation and prayer, which might profitably be extended for a week or more, where they would honestly try to answer the question of why they are so unpopular almost everywhere.”
Under Blair’s watch, only 5,000 Jews were allowed into Canada. Among those he turned away were the 907 German Jewish refugees fleeing Europe on board the M.S. St. Louis in May of 1939. The Holocaust claimed the lives of some 11 million people; communists, political prisoners, homosexuals, Poles, Roma-Sinti and 6 million Jews.
You’ll note I mentioned political minorities along with ethnic and religious minorities. It’s important to recognize that communists were targeted by the Nazis – the National Socialists – because far too many people on the political right today take the line that Nazism is a product of the political left; atrocities like the Holocaust would never occur under a Free Market system. The implication is that a singular focus on wealth generation benefits everyone equally and would somehow negate bigotry. In response to this, I would point out there were more than a few Nazi collaborators who werewar profiteers driven solely by monetary gain. War, after all, is an incredibly profitable venture.
It is disingenuous to look at bigotry strictly through a political lens. Ignorance, hatred and fear-mongering are not the exclusive property of the political left or right; as Buchenwald demonstrates, atrocities have happened under both fascist and communist regimes. Indifference isn’t the product of a political system; it’s what happens when we zero in on our own interests or ideologies so exclusively that we ignore the well-being of others. When the water hole shrinks, as the saying goes, the animals look at each other differently.
Today, we are facing a global economic crisis. Europe in particular has been hit hard. As the crisis deepens, nations within Europe and beyond are circling the wagons. “Your debt, your problem” is a meme that’s gaining traction. These fiscal woes are fueling an increase in social tensions, much as they did in the early decades of the last century. Political extremism and xenophobia are on the rise, accompanied by a swelling tide of ethnic violence. In Greece, this alarming trend is represented by the growing influence of Golden Dawn, an anti-immigrant political party that has even incorporated the Swastika into its branding.
In Hungary, the systematic discrimination faced by Roma and Sinti is becoming increasingly violent. Focused as they are on addressing the financial crisis, European leaders have been “too preoccupied… or unable or disinclined to deal with”this mounting social crisis. In other words, they’ve labeled it someone else’s problem.
Nations like the US and Canada have been vocal in pushing for European leaders to implement tough austerity measures to tackle the Eurozone’s financial woes. To his credit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an economist by training, has recognized that Europe’s economic challenges will not be solved through each nation working in isolation. However, he hasn’t had much advice to offer in regards to the rise of ethnic violence in European countries like Greece and Hungary. In fact, his government has gone to great lengths to tell Canadians there is no ethnic violence in Europe at all.
Jason Kenney, Canada’s current Minister of Immigration, has made a point of decrying refugee claims from Eastern European countries like Hungary (primarily coming from Sinti-Roma) as “bogus.” Despite the evidence, Kenney keeps telling us Europe is a civilized place where atrocities like ethnic persecution don’t happen. In fact, Kenney is so determined to shut out refugees from Eastern Europe that he has put forward Bill C-31 which will, among its measures, gives him the power to label what he feels are “designated countries” that are safe from ethnic persecution. Under Bill C-31, the Minister of Immigration needs no justification other than his or her own beliefs to exclude refugees like Roma-Sinti from Canada.
Another component of this Bill is the move to cut funding for refugee healthcare. Again, despite the evidence from healthcare professionals that doing so is dangerously irresponsible, Kenney has justified the move by saying it’s wrong for refugees to receive better health benefits than “ordinary Canadians” are getting. Plus, it’ll save $20 million annually. This has been the Harper government’s core message; in these financially strained times, all decisions have to be weighed based on their economic value. If you disagree with them, it’s probably because you’ll be losing generous government funding as a result of their policies. It’s a simple, circular argument, one of contextual indifference that sounds all too familiar.
Elie Wiesel, survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald has joined with leaders of ethnic and religious communities persecuted during the Holocaust in denouncing Kenney’s reforms. Across the Atlantic, Stéphane Hessel, another Buchenwald survivor, has published a “manifesto”. This document, while largely socialist in its content, draws attention to the rise of both ethnic hatred and political indifference in Europe. It’s a message being shared by the International Buchenwald-Dora Committee (full disclosure: I am a member) in their recently-released declaration pleading for governments to take action against intolerance. And there are others. These groups and individuals share one key concern – that as the economic crisis deepens, citizens and governments are focusing on financial math to the exclusion of our broader social context.
Responding to these criticisms, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have employed the same tactics that steered them to a majority government; by loudly supporting their own positions, attacking their detractors to the point of calling them unpatriotic and using every controversy as a way to engage their base and drive up fundraising. While the Harper Conservatives can rightly be criticized for polarizing the country and narrowing the field of political debate, they don’t shoulder the blame exclusively. Their strategy is simply a refinement of the divide-and-conquer politics that have become the norm in Canada under the brand of “micro-targeting.”
As inter-partisan good will dries up in Canada and as the economics screw tighten, Canadians are focusing on their own interests to the exclusion of others. If it’s happening here, where we enjoy relative economic stability, does it not make sense that it would be happening to an even stronger degree in Europe, where national economies are teetering on collapse? If we are collectively building firewalls around our own interest groups, however we define them, doesn’t it fit that those communities without large numbers or strong voices will fall through the cracks? Stephen Harper has clearly indicated his belief that European nations cannot survive their crisis if they don’t work together. He has recognized the need of national entities to do more for communities that don’t have a voice, like those suffering from mental illness. Does this not apply to refugees here in Canada and persecuted minority groups in Europe as well?
Die-hards on the political left and right can provide ample evidence indicating the other guys are responsible for all our world’s woes and dismiss as irrelevant or biased any facts that disagree with them. We can continue to narrow our focus to just those issues we feel impact us, however we define us, directly. We can criticize as alarmist any argument that suggests we’re turning a blind eye to increasing and increasingly violent persecution of minorities in Europe. When you line up the fluctuations in today’s markets and politics with the reality of the 1930s, however, it’s getting harder not to notice the similarities. The real question is how far will those parallels extend.
Personally, I have no interest in blame. I take no joy in pointing out the mistakes of others or justifying indifference on my part by providing examples of how I’m just doing the same thing as someone else. Although I have worked for the Liberal Party both federally and provincially, I would rather congratulate political opponents on doing the right thing now rather than say “I told you so” after the harm’s been done. Stephen Harper is bang on when he suggests the hour is late if we are to avoid catastrophe – just like we lived through in the 1930s. He is also correct when he tells Europeans that “to each their own” isn’t going to work. We simply can’t afford to be indifferent to the plight of others, both beyond our shores and within our own borders.
If history has taught us anything, it should be this; we can either live together, or die alone.
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