When I was in elementary school, we learned about a bad man who wanted to make the world over in his image.
That bad man amassed his forces and began expanding outwards, subjugating his neighbours and beyond to achieve his goals. The things he believed and fought for were things we found abhorrent, even at that point in time, and though that bad man had his allies, a large portion of the rest of the world decided it was right to come together and fight back.
In the end, the forces fighting for good prevailed over those forces of evil, and the day was saved.
That’s how the story goes, and it’s a nice story, but in the years since I learned it, it has begun to feel like we were never really given the whole story.
The bad man from the story was Adolf Hitler, and as the chancellor of Germany and head of the Nazi party, his ideological extremes terrorized and brutalized huge portions of Europe during World War II. His doctrines sent millions of Jewish people to their deaths in concentration camps, and untold lives were lost by resistance fighters who strove to keep the Nazi’s from destroying everything they loved. The Allied forces struggled valiantly against the forces of fascism and hate, and with their determination and sacrifice, they made sure that the world would be free from the Nazi’s ideologies, and that no one would ever suffer those atrocities again.
When I was in elementary school, the only Nazis I had ever seen were the ones getting punched in the face by Indiana Jones. They were an outdated relic and bogeyman from days gone by who were the perfect cannon fodder for a smart, determined action hero to prevail over. In a way, they weren’t real.
And why would they be? After all, we had won the fight against Nazis in World War II. It might be my own naïveté, but I thought we lived in a world without Nazis for most of my life.
Imagine my surprise, then, as our increasingly divided political landscape has seen fit to allow those old bogeymen to begin to creep out of the woodwork.
We have seen the rise of rhetoric not unlike that espoused by the Nazi party of old in politicians across the world, those who believe the way to power is by separating their supporters from the ‘others;’ those people who would strive to take away their rights or deny them the things they believe they are entitled to. We have seen leaders of grassroots movements who adapt imagery or strategies that Hitler and his party would have recognized, and then put them to the same uses. Where once these shadowy remnants of a defeated regime stuck to the darkness and backrooms of society, they have become more emboldened to fasten images of hate to their arms and march in public, and despite the efforts of some bands of resisters, our society has seemed to let them.
Our fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, relatives from all walks of life fought and died to not only free Europe from Hitler’s regime, but to destroy the very ideological foundations upon which it had been built. Our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and women of every stripe joined and supported the war efforts against the Nazis in whatever way they could. We remember and we celebrate their efforts, their sacrifices, their victories and defeats every year come Remembrance Day, along with the efforts of those who fought before them, and those who have continued to fight after.
But I fear that in striving to remember those efforts, in saying to ourself every year ‘lest we forget,’ that we have been responding to a half-told story, and in turn have allowed the roots of a pure evil take hold in our society once again. Those who would spread their words of hatred and death walk among us, and are emboldened by what they see as support from above, and indifference from around.
Philosopher Karl Popper introduced the Paradox of Tolerance, which tells us that being openly tolerant to intolerant ideas will only be abused and turned against the tolerant. Refusing to be intolerant of those who are openly intolerant leads only to the destruction of the once tolerant society. If we are tolerant of intolerant views, then we become lost.
It is not enough to recognize the resurgence of Nazisim, of ideologies of hatred and evil in our day to day lives. We must also strive to stamp them out as they emerge, to work on educating our children against them, to lift up the disenfranchised, to build a better and more compassionate society, and refuse to allow more evil to take hold.
It is not easy work, and it is not pleasant work.
But in promising to remember the sacrifices of our forebears as we promise them ‘lest we forget,’ we should also be promising to rid ourselves of the uneasy complacency we seemed to have taken hold in the wake of Hitler’s death and continue the fight that they undertook for our sakes, to ensure that their sacrifices haven’t been in vain.