“We cannot understand [Fascism], but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard…because what happened can happen again…For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”
The rise of fascism in Germany relied on dehumanizing and racist rhetoric, blatant repetition of lies, and rampant nationalism. Dachau was first opened in 1933 as a detention center to house so-called enemies of the state. Before it was a death camp, it was a mass detention center for civilians held without due process. To anyone who is paying attention to the news today, the first public description of conditions in Dachau should sound eerily familiar:
“Each room is equipped with fifty-two berths, in tiers of three, rough tables and benches. The floor is concrete. The prisoners sleep on straw sacks covered with a sheet which is changed once in two months. The walls are only a few inches thick, and the ill fitting windows offer almost no protection against the icy cold, wind or rain. For each fifty-two men a small washstand is provided, and the time allotted for washing, for the whole group, is only twenty-five minutes.” (New Republic, 1934)
In violation of human rights agreements, our government is carrying out mass detention of refugees fleeing violence. We are separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, without charge or due process. In reports from America’s concentration camps today we hear reverberations of Dachau 1933:
“Many of them are sleeping on concrete floors, including infants, toddlers, preschoolers. They are being given nothing but instant meals, Kool-Aid and cookies – many of them are sick. We are hearing that many of them are not sleeping. Almost all of them are incredibly sad and being traumatized. Many of them have not been given a shower for weeks. Many of them are not being allowed to brush their teeth except for maybe once every 10 days. They have no access to soap. It’s incredibly unsanitary conditions, and we’re very worried about the children’s health.” (Law professor Warren Binford).
As a Jewish descendant of a child refugee, this is painful for me to accept. The fact that refugees, including children, are detained in this way is enabled by dehumanizing and racist hate speech, often coming directly from the White House. Sadly, we have seen this type of rhetoric many times in our history.
If you are African American, your ancestors were brought in slave ships. If you are Native American, you descend from survivors of genocide. But people often forget that Irish, Italian, German, other ethnic groups also were attacked with dehumanizing rhetoric when they arrived on our shores. If you are Irish, your family likely came through Ellis Island to escape famine. At that time, xenophobic Americans claimed that Irish people were disease-ridden, that they would take jobs from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They feared that Irish people practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader. They claimed they would bring crime. They were accused of being rapists.
If your ancestors were Italians coming at the end of the 19th century, they were seen as alien in religion and culture. People said that Italians could never be assimilated. One of the worst mass lynchings in US history occurred in New Orleans in 1891, and the victims were Italians. A New York Times editorial said: “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation.” These dehumanizing words echo those uttered by racists today.
German immigrants in the 19th century were feared and hated. Chinese were banned. Jewish refugees from WWII were suspected to be secret German agents, a fifth column. The MS St Louis, which carried 900 Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazis, was turned away. The USA rejected a proposal to bring 20,000 Jewish children here to escape the holocaust.
Time and again, the same rhetoric has been used against poverty-stricken immigrants trying to make a better life, against refugees from violence trying to save their lives. And yet these immigrants were our parents, grandparents, great grandparents. These immigrants, and the slaves who toiled against their will, built our country.
How is it that so many of descendants of maligned immigrants of the past have forgotten and take up the same, dehumanizing language of racist hatred: infestation, dogs, criminals, gangbangers, rapists, diseased. These words, which were used in past generations to describe your ancestors and mine, are the well from which concentration camps of today have sprung. We are at a crossroads. If you have ever wondered what you would have done if you lived in Germany in 1933 then wonder no more. You are doing it right now.