Emotional Health

How to Understand Hate

Dear Melanie,

I’m sorry you and your guests had this experience at what you expected to be a pleasant outing. Though you say these girls were shocked and will remember this for the rest of their lives, I wonder how unique it seemed to them. Unless they have been extremely sheltered, as either African Americans or as Jews, or both, they have probably encountered racism and racist symbols before, even in the relatively “safe” Northeast.

Many white people felt very emotional when Obama was elected, partly because shame and guilt about our racist society had been a burden we carried—so much less than citizens of color carried, but a burden nevertheless. Some breathed a sigh of relief and wondered if a new era of tolerance and integration was finally upon us, and celebrated what seemed a decisive victory. But one thing that was painfully obvious when I visited the Museum of African American History and Culture was that with every step forward, a reaction came down swiftly and fiercely to stem the tide of progress.

Perhaps that is what we are witnessing now. Certainly there are some parallels to the conditions in Germany when Hitler rose to power. A great many people felt that radical economic changes brought on by the First World War had set them adrift. They were looking for a leader to promise better times, and, worse, they were looking for someone to blame for their misfortunes.

But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that this is a temporary swing in the wrong direction.  The origins of hatred and its ability to spread as if the Devil had tossed a cigarette into dried underbrush is a subject that has preoccupied psychologists, sociologists, and historians for much of the last 70 years. The Holocaust was what finally propelled them to undertake the study of prejudice in a serious, systematic way. Once that door was opened, it did not take long for the parallels to the nature of racial hatred in our country to become obvious—and harder to ignore or gloss over. The advent of the Civil Rights Era, roughly a decade after the end of the War, may have been partly due to this enhanced awareness of the evils of racism and the extraordinary ways in which it can spiral out of control.

There is a movie which has the following scene: it is a lovely summer’s day, and a wealthy playboy and his weekend guest park the Rolls at an outdoor restaurant in the bucolic countryside somewhere, far from the city, not unlike Connecticut. Relaxed locals are enjoying Sunday lunch.

The camera cuts to a fresh-faced young teen, who stands and begins singing, his tenor angelic and sweet. The song, celebrating the beauty of the countryside, is lovely. By the second verse, however, the lyrics darken somewhat, as does the boy’s expression. The camera pulls back, revealing that he is wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth.

His brow furrows, his voice deepens, and soon other members of his group stand at attention, singing along with him: “Tomorrow belongs, tomorrow belongs, tomorrow belongs to me…!”

By the end of the song, the entire restaurant is standing and shouting out this anthem, save for a few disgruntled-looking elderly people and the playboy and his friend, an Englishman. He asks his German host, as the people raise their arms in the stiff-armed “Heil Hitler” salute, “Do you still think you can control them?” He was referring to an earlier comment the aristocrat had made, claiming the political elite could keep the Nazis in line.

As we all know, the answer was “no.” The scene, from the 1970 film Cabaret, which shows the political unrest leading up to the beginning of World War II against the backdrop of a louche nightclub, is unforgettable. (If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth watching.)

At first it is a boy, then it is a group of angry-looking boys, but then it is also the sweet-faced young girls and the soft old ladies who are enthusiastically joining in the song, which is essentially an anthem of hatred and exclusion.

Nazis were revealed to have been responsible for unbelievable horrors, taking place in what was considered one of the most advanced and civilized countries in the world at the time. Though many later claimed that they were unaware of the extent of the horrors, the campaign waged against the Jews and other “undesirables” was open and could not have gathered steam without the participation of ordinary citizens. As Daniel Goldhagen points out in his exhaustive study, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), not only the Nazi war machine but also the persecution of the Jews was a widespread effort that required a lot of cooperation.

Central to that effort was the ignorance and incredulity of “Good Germans,” as well as their lack of organized resistance. While there are examples of extraordinary heroism, many stood by passively as the situation worsened and the fire from hell led to its evil conclusion.

Rather than let the memory of last weekend fester, I hope these girls, their parents, and you will participate in active resistance against this movement. It is not inevitable. Germany has fought hard to stem the resurgence of anti-Semitism, having acknowledged that it is evil and outlawing Nazi symbols and salutes. In our country, many feel the same way about symbols of the Confederacy and its legacy of violence and racism. This fire requires a lot of oxygen to keep burning, and if we want to stop it before it spreads, we must insist, resist, and persist in expressing our belief that racism and its symbols don’t belong in the United States. We may not want to believe it, but it can and does happen here.

Cecilia Ford

 

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