There is a reason why the specter of the Nazis continues to haunt the public mind. As Rod Serling noted in one of his more gripping Twilight Zone narrations, the Nazi regime represents a time in which “some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience.” The chamber of horrors constructed under Hitler’s shadow was nourished by the absence of an international spotlight. Instead of receiving world condemnation, the Fuhrer was initially given a free reign by other nations. He hosted the Olympics and toyed with famous visitors like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Few paid any attention to his behind-the-scenes meat grinder.
Hitler’s reign came up again recently with news of charges against a former SS soldier accused of taking part in a 1944 French village massacre. Naturally, the ex-SS man claims to have been uninvolved in the atrocity. He says he was assigned elsewhere during the massacre, and only heard the noise and saw the fire. The slaughter was an SS payback for a little job done by French resistance guerillas. As always, the punishment was several hundred times greater than the crime; an entire village was wiped out because an SS doctor and his entourage had been abducted on an incoming road.
These villagers were voiceless; their screams weren’t heard beyond the charred ground on which they perished. The world’s attention was focused elsewhere. Voicelessness was an important component of what went on under the Swastika. No one was supposed to speak up. Victims like Anne Frank were supposed to die quietly; there wasn’t supposed to be a diary, such a piercingly resonant voice.
And what of the world today? The Third Reich may be gone but its attitude isn’t. The story of man’s inhumanity to man continues to be scrawled on new pages in new places. Are we paying attention, or are we as distracted as our forbears were seven decades ago? Are the voices being heard, or are they being drowned out by news of the moment’s synthetic celebrities?
The angry ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane must be left standing. As Serling so eloquently explained, so must “the Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes.” They remind us to listen; they call on us to look toward instead of looking away from; they teach us that being human begins with an acute attention to the humanity of others.