This week in one of my courses we're doing Maus. It was something I added to the syllabus at the last minute, after the election in November and before the January deadlines for book orders. I felt that, under present circumstances, it would be…fitting.
Everyone knows about the Holocaust. If you managed to miss it in school, you couldn't help but encounter it in literal thousands of books, movies, TV shows, comics, video games, and more. The question of what we can learn from it is often reduced – not surprisingly – to the simplest, narrowest possible lessons. For all the talk in the United States of World War II (the topic that dwarfs all others in our media, both fiction and non-fiction) and our nation's heroic role in bringing the Nazi menace to a halt, Americans seem to lack a grasp of lessons from the Holocaust beyond "Don't vote for guys with toothbrush mustaches" and "The people waving American flags are good; bad guys have swastikas." In other words, we learn it as a lesson that applies to others but not to ourselves. We could never be the bad guys, because we are the good guys. If nobody's being gassed and thrown in ovens, we're not like the Nazis. QED.
The lesson a sentient being takes away from the Holocaust, and one that this book does an unusually good job of illustrating, is that organized evil unfolds slowly in complex societies. It develops in stages. The Nazis didn't come to power, wake up the next morning, and announce to the country, "Time to kill all the Jews." Like the master propagandists and populists they were, they took a more gradual (and ultimately, for their purposes, more effective) approach. Start with rhetoric separating Real Germans from The Other. Encourage by example stigmatizing The Other. Normalize verbal abuse, prejudice, and petty mistreatment. Ramp up to abusive acts of a more serious nature. Start passing laws – again, small ones initially – to institutionalize separate and unequal treatment. Explicitly legalize violence against the person and property of The Other. Eject Them from positions of social and economic power, to be replaced with Real citizens. Begin physically segregating Them under the pretense of public safety, necessity (especially wartime necessity), or for Their own good. Direct citizens to focus their anger for any privations – economic, military, or social – the nation faces on The Other. Turn a blind eye to public outbreaks of vandalism, assault, and even the occasional dead body. Dehumanize; compare Them to insects, viruses, animals, and so on. By this point the dumber, more obedient, authoritarian-follower types who make up the bottom third of the population will be more than happy to don a uniform and get a paycheck for rounding up and policing the internal "threat."
At this point you're not yet engaged in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, but you're certainly within hailing distance of it. You can see it without binoculars. The public as a whole is unlikely to accept that final step, which is why you've carefully segregated the public as a whole from it. You've condensed and defined The Problem, and you've put the borderline intellects and sadists – the kind of people who know how to follow an order, and what how – in charge of carrying out the gruesome parts. Voila. Just say when, Mein Fuhrer. By this point it is too late; having condoned and made excuses for the first 49 steps of the process, any part of the population that wakes up now will find itself powerless to stop Step 50.
That's what people don't get – that a valid analogy can be made to Nazi Germany without extermination camps bellowing human ash into the sky. "Don't be so dramatic" and "You're exaggerating" are appropriate responses if we focus only on the "Final Solution" and ignore the 100 steps that led to it. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and societies never go from placid to monstrous acts of evil overnight. Getting ordinary people to condone genocide, fostering the banality of evil, requires the careful laying of groundwork. It begins with normalizing social deviance toward an Other that is responsible for every aspect of your life that leaves you dissatisfied. It begins when a population is conditioned to read a news story about one of Them being gunned down by someone in a uniform and to react not with human empathy but with satisfaction. It begins when people become convinced that there are Good People like themselves and Bad People like everyone who looks, thinks, or acts differently than themselves. It begins when the oppression of a minority to satisfy the histrionics of a majority (rule of law be damned because I want to feel safe at any cost) is not only tolerated by the political process but becomes one of the products it is most eager to deliver.
Every crime against humanity has humble beginnings. And the kind of people who want to perpetrate them know that they don't grow like weeds. They have to be nurtured, slowly, until the process is so far along that no group, individual, or institution in society can stop it.