Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power
“So violent are Hitler’s fulminations against Jews that a number of prominent Jewish citizens are said to have sought safe asylum in the Bavarian highlands… But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitism as a bait to catch followers...”
Words, after all, are just words. Or are they? This excerpt from a New York Times article on 21 November 1922 is a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of underestimating the power of dangerous language.
The article argued that Adolf Hitler’s vicious antisemitic language was no more than bluster and political posturing. His very public denunciation of Jews, the writer opined, was mere political rhetoric to rally his supporters – failing to grasp that the line between words and violence is often thinner than we think. Although Hitler had compared Jews to vermin as early as 1920, many downplayed the severity of his antisemitism; they simply refused to take his prejudice seriously until it was far too late.
Dangerous rhetoric, that is unchecked, normalised and encouraged, can turn into devastating reality
Fast forward a little over two decades. That antisemitism developed into the Holocaust; a horrific genocide fuelled by the very ideology the Times deemed as no more than a performance for the crowd. This Holocaust Memorial Day, let us be reminded that dangerous rhetoric, that is unchecked, normalised and encouraged, can turn into devastating reality. Hate speech was a precursor to the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, as Hutu extremists had long used the terms ‘cockroaches’ and ‘snakes’ to dehumanise the Tutsis. History, therefore, admonishes us not to be passive bystanders in the face of hate speech. We must confront it and challenge it.
Our theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is Fragility of Freedom; reflecting on the naivety of the Times columnist in the 1920s reminds us how fragile freedom really is. Hitler’s rhetoric against the Jews was part of a well-calculated ploy to demonise and justify mass murder. When he and the Nazis described Jews as sub-humans, they did not mean it metaphorically.
Those who argued that Hitler’s antisemitism should be taken seriously were in the minority, even though the Nazi leader made no secret of his hatred for Jews, nor his contempt for groups such as Roma and Sinti, black people, homosexuals and disabled people. The Times article we refer to is a sobering example of the howling wind being dismissed as a mere gust, forgetting that the seeds of violence are often sown in the fertile ground of poisonous words.
It is very easy to make assumptions about what others say and mean. Take China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, for instance. In Xinjiang province, credible reports have emerged of the Chinese government seeking to eradicate Uyghur culture and identity in so-called ‘re-education’ centres. It is especially concerning that even in the face of solid evidence, there are some who insist that the situation is not as bad as people make it out to be.
We all know that antisemitic hate speech did not end after the Holocaust. And since the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians on 7 October, and the resulting war in Gaza, antisemitic incidents around the world – including across the UK – have sharply risen. Seizing on the conflict, far right extremists have demonised Muslims under the guise of supporting Israel, leading to hate crimes and discrimination. By raising our voices against the tide of hateful language, we can help create a better future.
When the world finally realised that Hitler’s words were not just empty political rhetoric, it was too late for six million Jewish people and millions of others from persecuted groups. Their freedoms were not built on as firm a foundation as they believed. By failing to take Hitler’s comments at face value, the world allowed him to normalise antisemitism and other prejudices and set the groundwork for the erosion of freedoms that ended with the Holocaust.
As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day this year, let’s be mindful that we can use our language to challenge antisemitism, confront anti-Muslim hatred, and speak out against anti-Roma or homophobic rhetoric. Let’s learn from the Holocaust – for a better future.
Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
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