What We’re Talking About When We Talk About The Holocaust Memorial

I don’t have much more to add to the discussion around the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s suit against the state of Ohio’s planned Holocaust Memorial than what has already been said in many places. For background, as well as some truly excellent analysis, I will point you towards the two posts Dan Fincke wrote here and here, as well as James Croft’s post here and David Gorski’s post here.

All I have to say is this: The Holocaust, as we now call it, was the greatest single atrocity that has ever been committed in the whole of human history. This is a fact that is indisputable. However, I fear that over the course of the decades since it happened, it has become desensitized.

In my studies, the phrase often used in the case of the Holocaust is “man’s inhumanity to man.” It’s an apt one, I think, and applies not just to the slaughter of eleven million Jews, Roma, queer people, dissidents, and others, but to countless instances of horror and injustice that have been committed throughout the record of our history.

The key word there, I think is inhumanity. It seems a simple enough word, but it carries an enormity of import.

Inhumanity.

It carries within it everything that it means to betray and destroy what it means to be a human being. However cynical we might be, I think there’s an understanding that to be human, to live up to everything that we are, to fulfill the promise of being the only living organisms we are aware of that have thoughts, feelings, and consciences, there is a certain ethical demand placed upon us. To do no harm, to seek throughout our relatively short lives to make the world a better place not just for ourselves and for our friends, but for the whole of our species.

What the National Socialist Party did from the years 1933 through 1945 is the case study in what it means to be inhuman. Contrary to what pop history would have us believe, the Nazis were not to a person megalomaniacal supervillains bent upon the destruction of the planet. Most of them were average citizens, just as you and I are, who were swayed to believing in a cause, one which preyed upon the paranoia, insecurity, and trauma that plagued the German nation in the aftermath of the first World War, then the latest in a long line of wars to end all wars. Adolf Hitler brought to those citizens hope, self-determination, and a will to survive and succeed.

As we know now, and as plenty knew then, that promise was built on lies and scapegoating, disguising a racist, imperialist desire for power and domination. But, at the end of the day, even as mad as Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Goering, and all the others were, the “Final Solution” was not the planned endgame of that regime. Indeed, there were several plans to rid Europe of the Jews before then, notably the Madagascar strategy. In the end, they created the killing camps not because it was what they wanted to do all along, but because it was the most expedient way to cover their tracks before the Allied invasion. It was not a plan borne of megalomania, but pragmatism, and was executed by mere pragmatists like Adolf Eichmann.

Expediency. Convenience. Pragmatism. These are the reasons why the eleven million were slaughtered. These are methods we use today for our own excuses. I don’t lay out this history to demystify the Holocaust, but to emphasize that it happened because, over the course of twelve years, a nation lost its way. It became inhuman. It became cold, and unfeeling. It’s a pattern of human behavior that occurs throughout history, from the oldest papyrus to the very hour in which I am writing this post.

I am not tarring the Freedom from Religion Foundation, or American Atheists, or anyone who supports their lawsuit with the same brush with which I have laid out the tiniest fraction of the history of the National Socialist Party. My only point here in writing this is to emphasize the immense historical gravity of the situation with which they have involved themselves.

The rise of National Socialism, resulting in the Final Solution and destruction of European Jewry is the most horrific thing to ever happen in our history. I think as a culture, we have forgotten this. But, when I think about it, I remember my uncle, Arthur Anderson.

My Uncle Arthur was an incredibly sweet, caring, charming, goofy man. He played the trombone, and did it very well, clocking time not just with the Salvation Army band in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, but with the likes of Glenn Miller and most of the other big names of that era. He died last year, but his memory will live long with me and my family. In my case, not just of how I knew him, but all of the things he never spoke of to me. Unless my dad had told us, I would never have known that during his service in the army during the second World War, Uncle Arthur was part of a unit that liberated one of the concentration camps. I would never have known because Arthur never, ever spoke of it. He couldn’t take any pride, or joy, in liberating those people interned there because of what he saw; the full, bare-faced sight of the ultimate terror that humans could inflict on one another.

This fact has stuck with me, through every World War II movie I ever watched or book about it I ever read. However, now living seventy years after it, when there are so few left living who remember it, I fear we are forgetting, or indeed have forgotten, the fullness of what exactly happened then. We are now, as a society, the same way as those who lived before the Holocaust were; without any idea that because it was pragmatic, our fellow human beings could exterminate eleven million people at the drop of a hat. Even though we know it happened, we cannot in any way comprehend what that means, what it would look like, what kind of effect it would have upon us. And this, I believe, is dangerous.

I cannot lay out the full horror and calculatedness of the Nazi regime in a blog post. But, this is the history that the FFRF and American Atheists are contending with when they challenge the Ohio Holocaust memorial, or indeed any other memorial dedicated to it. Their move smacks of callousness and historical illiteracy, and they do their supporters and everyone who lacks religion a disservice with their actions.

This lawsuit is callous, ignorant, and smacks of a desire for publicity rather than content. We must remember the Holocaust, and all of the people who died as a result of the inhumanity of a few ambitious dictators. To do otherwise is to beg for it to happen again, to forget just what we as a species are capable of doing to each other when it seems expedient.

2 thoughts on “What We’re Talking About When We Talk About The Holocaust Memorial

  1. Heyo, Dave Muscato (PR Director of American Atheists) here with a couple of notes:

    FYI there is no lawsuit; FFRF sent a letter expressing concern over possible entanglement. To my knowledge that have not threatened to sue either.

    Secondly, I think this is a red herring. No one is contending that the Holocaust was not an atrocity. i can’t speak for FFRF but we do not oppose the construction of a memorial commemorating the victims (Jewish and otherwise) of the Holocaust. The fact of the matter is that American Atheists (and probably FFRF but again I can’t speak for them) would oppose this design *regardless of what historical event it was commemorating.* By focusing on the fact that this just so happens to be a Holocaust memorial we bring a lot of unnecessary emotional baggage into the legal argument. Again I am not saying that the Holocaust was not one of, if not the sole, worse event in human history. I agree with that; we all do. But to make that our focus is to miss the point of FFRF’s objection. State Senator Richard Finan, the ex-chair of the committee responsible for choosing the design, resigned after being outvoted because of this very issue. He did not want to use this design because of the potential for liability for the state of Ohio. He said very simply that in his opinion no one else was willing to object on those grounds because they didn’t want someone to think they were anti-Semites. Based on the hate mail we’re getting I can tell you that he was right about that!

    The fact is that this objection is about government endorsement; it’s an Establishment Clause conflict. Using taxpayer funds to display a lone religious symbol on government land raises red flags about government entanglement with religion. That’s it. Whether this is indeed an example of entanglement is arguable but the potential is there. Considering that they have not yet broken ground on the memorial and it would be very easy to choose a runner-up design at this stage (they have 2 to choose from), that would seem to be a prudent move. Legal precedent says that if you can accomplish the same end using purely secular means, that is preferred over accomplishing the same end using religious means. Would it be possible to memorialize the Holocaust without the prominent display of a religious symbol? Two out of the three finalist architects thought so—it either did not occur to them to include a religious symbol in their designs, or they chose not to include one. Either way, I think we can say it’s possible. And the law says if that’s the case, then that is to be preferred.

    Now, I also happen to think that the two runner-up designs are not as aesthetically pleasing as the winning design, so an argument could be made that it’s in fact not possible to achieve the same end. But that seems awfully subjective and questionable as far as whether it’s worth fighting for the winning design over a runner-up on purely that basis, considering the risk of entanglement for keeping it. Again nothing has been built yet.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am in favor of memorializing the Holocaust. I am an ethnic Jew. But this is not about that. We do not oppose a Holocaust memorial. We do not even oppose a Holocaust memorial on public land using taxpayer funds. What we oppose is the prominent Star of David in this specific architectural design and only because it is a religious symbol on public land paid partially with tax funding. If it were on private land, we would have no issue. If it were a different design, we would have no issue. I just want to make sure everyone understands that we do not oppose memorializing the Holocaust, so it’s a straw man to talk about how awful the Holocaust was.

    I hope this helps clarify things! Thanks.

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