It’s Holocaust Memorial Day today. The theme for this year is ‘How can life go on?’ I suspect many can relate to my growing alarm and sadness at the way the world seems to be twisting itself out of shape: questioning what ‘going on’ means.
For many at this time, ‘Going on’ at this time requires enormous courage – even more than usual – in the face of uncertainty and in some cases open hostility and violence. And I know that as a straight, white, middle-class male my position is privileged: I could largely ignore these threats if I wanted to.
I don’t encourage comparisons with the Nazi era as a rule: but the mendacity, arrogance and total disregard for truth that have characterised the Trump presidency thus far seem to me to justify them more and more.
Teaching my students about the Third Reich, we have reached the point at which we need to look at the question of resistance. Of when those who could pass by needed to stop; when petty advantage could and should have been outweighed by a duty to the other who is also ourselves. The words of Martin Niemoller are famous:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
But we’re also looking at the way the belief that they were alone stayed many hands from opposing what they felt to be wrong. As Emmi Bonhoeffer, the sister of the murdered Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said: “Resistance: we were like stones in a river as the torrent washed over us.”
We can, however, steer in the torrent, even ride it. The BBC journalist Nick Robinson tells of how his grandfather, a German Jewish doctor, was rung by an ‘Aryan’ patient to ask if they could have an appointment – but come in the back entrance to the surgery. His voice – his polished, professional, BBC voice – cracks with emotion as he tells the story, more than seventy years later. The patient wanted the treatment but not to take the risk that it would entail. Many of us in the next while may be tempted by similar half-measures, similar compromises: by sending private messages of support or shaking our heads as we keep them down, out of sight.
But it won’t be enough. The rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the early moves by the administration indicate a desire to repress, to enslave and to torture that is chillingly complacent in its assertion of white, male, Christian identity. Shaking our heads won’t get the job done. Christabel Bielenberg – an Englishwoman who lived through the Third Reich and whose husband was arrested after the Bomb Plot of 1944 – wrote of how “each small demand for our outward acquiescence could lead to the next, and with the gentle persistence of an incoming tide could lap at the walls of just that integrity we were so anxious to preserve.” It is the characteristic of populism to try and make the private space so small that there is no room for dissent, and to reward inaction.
We have to push back. The photos in this article were taken last Saturday at the London Women’s March: a carnival of peaceful, joyful opposition to the forces of compromise, with every kind of participant and every kind of cause emblazoned. (And yes, I realise a man taking pictures of women raises questions: all I can say is that I’ve tried to present powerful women in charge of themselves rather than passive subjects.)
As I marched, I wondered if this mood of defiant optimism in the face of petulant negativity would be sustained. Whether I could sustain it. And then I looked at the four defiant women I was marching with: all of them have the Holocaust in their family histories and all of them recognise the importance of adding their voice. All of them see the need to keep shouting.
More importantly, though, the march reminded me of the truth in the quote of Martin Luther King that has been over-used this week: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” He said many other things and – as many have pointed out this week – was in some sense speaking of peace in a space created by more forthright techniques. But it’s true, nonetheless.
This week has reminded me of not just how I can do this – by encouraging and modelling the values of compassion, curiosity and exploration of moral complexity – but also why: because someone who is compassionate will feel for others; someone who is curious will ask questions; someone who sees moral complexity is more likely to be sceptical of simplistic explanations. But mostly because, in the words of the late Elie Wiesel:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
These were the words that drove the Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations last year, when the theme was ‘Don’t stand by.’ Perhaps this was a kind of prophecy, a warning of things to come, a reflexive twitching in response to approaching thunder. Or perhaps the the time is simply out of joint. Whatever our answer, we must put it right. Love trumps hate, and if we doubt if we can change things, well: yes we can.