Lessons of WWII

In reading this piece by Jason Stanley over at NYTimes, I was reminded of the lessons from WWII and how everyone seems to derive something different from it [1]. The piece is great, btw, and I highly recommend you go over and check it out. In it, Stanley speaks of his parents and what lessons they drew from WWII and its fallout.

His father has some harsh words for humanity, and for any section of humanity that thinks itself exempt from the primordial slime we all climb out of and especially when we try to hide our horrendous actions behind lofty words—something that applies to my fellow Americans, and myself at one point in time:

He was scornful when he saw signs that I was taking the Holocaust to mean that Jews were special. “If the Germans had chosen someone else,” he often said, “we would have been the very best Nazis.”

Wow. Bold words, but it does go to show how the lessons of WWII are different from person to person and how we need to keep revisiting these points, if only for our own sanity [2] as a people and species. In fact, such a view coincides with my own, as I too have harsh words for myself, my country and for humanity. That the father has drawn similar conclusions as I have, only fills me with hope that there is a better future possible:

It could happen again, it could happen here. The Holocaust was about everyone. Helping to prevent such events from occurring required agency and good moral sense, and good moral sense was not consistent with preferring one’s own people.

Of course, there’s his mother with a practical worldview that I know all too well. Not only did I once hold this view, but I know many family and friends who believe the same:

My mother believes that injustice is the normal, unchangeable state of things. My mother believes trust is foolishness. She thinks it is not only naïve to live as if justice were an attainable ideal; it is self-destructive. My mother believes they will kill you if they can.

In fact, I had a conversation with a good friend from Eastern Europe who was all too familiar with what happens when strongmen and gangsters grab hold of institutions. He’s not sticking around to see what happens. Better not to, he said, as fighting certain people—even just politically—doesn’t really earn anyone any brave medals, only a final resting place in an unnamed ditch somewhere.

So it goes. Now, I understand this way of thinking, and I even think it sensible, but I’m still of the mind that this country, that certain morals, that humanity, is worth the fight. This is not to say that I don’t have my moments where I lose all hope of pushing that rock over the hill. But here’s the thing, things can get worse when no one is willing to push back. And push back we must.

This means we must stay away from our more base tribal instincts, that want to submit to a siege mentality and feel safe. This also means we must look at ourselves without any biases. Because we’re all apes and must remain vigilant of ourselves.


[1] And how many use it to project their fears while others use it to take advantage of every situation they can.

[2] And it goes to show, in my mind, the necessity of keeping an open dialogue on this and from every side, assuming people want dialogue. Because the zeitgeist needs to be open to the airing of any views if it wants to make sure that certain views don’t fester.