Hitler’s Furies continues to be a fascinating read, especially as we move into individual portraits of specific women, their backgrounds, their reasons for joining the Nazi party and directly/indirectly participating in the Holocaust, and their reactions upon coming face-to-face with violence and genocide. As I read, I am both appalled and fascinated by these women and the people who made up the regime and continue to see parallels for modern-day attitudes and actions.
One of the sections that interests me is how the National Socialist (Nazi) Party spread its message of racial superiority and justified its inhumane treatment of Jews, gypsies, and the physically and mentally disabled. As a fairly moderate person living in a fairly moderate country, it seems impossible to believe that millions of people (perhaps up to 90 million) could be so bigoted, racist, callous, and cruel. Understanding more about the Nazi indoctrination of orphans, teachers, the disenfranchised, and the underpaid really helped me see how a powerful, compelling organization could force millions of people to believe and do such horrible things.
Especially unsettling was seeing how people justified their attitudes and actions to themselves. Evidently, a popular pastime for German citizens (especially young ladies) was touring the ghettos and going shopping there. People would take advantage of the trapped Jews’ need to pawn their valuables and bare essentials for food and make bargains. Then they would go home and share how the appalling conditions they saw there justified their Anti-Semitism.
Tens of thousands of people could be jammed together in one square mile without food, water, or sanitation. They might be there for days or weeks or months. Accordingly, conditions rapidly deteriorated, and people wrote about the Jews’ horrible hygiene, pervasive smells, lifeless eyes, and unfriendly demeanor. One young woman wrote about her experience at a ghetto, “You mostly just see riff-raff loafing about… You know, one really can’t have any sympathy for these people. I think that they feel very differently from us and therefore don’t feel this humiliation and everything.” (Pg 85) A student said that the “streets and squares swarm with Jews roaming around, many of them criminal types. What are we to do with this vermin?” (Pg 84) Because filth, unfriendliness, and general squalor definitely mean you’re sub-human and deserve to be treated as such.
Honestly, this attitude reminds me of some modern Americans’ attitude towards the poor. How often in the past five to ten years have wealthy, affluent individuals called the poor lazy and degenerate or accused them of not taking care of themselves and therefore being unworthy of having nice things? How often do people in comfortable, secure positions point an accusatory finger at the poor and their living conditions and use that as an excuse to say they shouldn’t receive more tax breaks, more federal funding, and higher paid jobs?
The fact of the matter is that if you take away everything from a group of people, shove them in a tiny living space, and expect them to survive, they will degenerate. Who cares how you smell when your children are dying of starvation? Who cares how energetic your face is when you’re hungry, sick, and tired? Who cares how your property looks when you’re struggling to make ends meet? Hygiene and physical presentation take a backseat to literally trying to live until the end of the day.
Instead of just blaming people in terrible living conditions for their lot in life, we need to take a step back and see what brought them to that point. Was it literally the rest of society, who condemned them for their racial or ethnic make-up? Was it the affluent section of society, who sees people poorer than them as sub-humans who don’t deserve a decent wage? Is it middle-class mothers who badger their children about, “If you don’t do well in school, you’ll have to work at McDonalds!” as though working in food service is naturally something you should be ashamed of?
“Humanity” needs to be our watchword. Everything we do and believe and say needs to be humane. If it is not, we need to stop it. The Germans didn’t lose World War 2 because the people rose up in revolt against the Nazi Party’s governance and inhumanity. There was never a large-scale attempt to correct racism, Anti-Semitism, or ableism. That speaks volumes. As a country in the 21st century, America needs to do better, and we as individuals need to do better.