January 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was chosen because it marked the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1945. The horrors that took place there reflect how tenuous life can become in a world gripped by evil and fascism. There, and in the dozens of other Nazi killing centers, soldiers and civilians willfully executed 6 million Jews. Along the way, the Nazis and their compliant accomplices also killed millions of non-Jews.
How does a nation convince itself that nationalism, hatred, ethnic purity and genocide are the keys to a better society? In Germany, it didn’t happen overnight; over a period of several years, millions came to embrace fascism. Some took a direct role in the mass murder; others shrugged and just stood by as their fellow citizens massacred, tortured, conducted “medical experiments” and led millions into the gas chambers.
Lies and propaganda were central to Hitler’s vision of genocide. In the 1920s, he and his allies blamed Germany’s defeat in World War I on a secret coalition of Jews and socialists. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler asserted that propaganda “must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” He blamed Jews for capitalism and also for the rise of communism. By the late twenties, Hitler and the Nazis had created a slogan they used often to denounce journalists: Lügenpresse. In English, it translates to “Fake News.”
In 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany commissioned a survey that found that 63 percent of U.S. Millennials and Gen Z were unaware that six million Jews were murdered. To better explain the origins of the Holocaust, the group launched an educational campaign in 2021 called “It started with words.”
“Hateful words that were yelled in the park, spat on the street, and roared in the classroom. These words alienated, belittled, and shocked; but worse, these words gave birth to the horrific massacre of six million Jews,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference.
Words are powerful, and are central to genocide. But fascists cannot reach power without the consent of the public. With hate and antisemitism threatening democracies, we must stand in opposition each time the innocent and marginalized are targeted. For authoritarians to seize power they require silence among the masses. We can honor the victims of genocide when we raise our voices against hatred. We cannot afford to be silent. Θ