By: Gabrielle Valentine
The Holocaust was “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” Many people are bewildered by the atrocities of the Holocaust, as they consider how so many people could join together to obey the orders of one dictator and eventually murder over six million people. Although many perpetrators of this horrendous genocide were brought to justice at the Nuremburg Trials, where the Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes, the startling reality is that these war crimes were committed under the disguise of the law.
The people of the war-stricken, depression-battered Germany fell to the Nazi party’s illusory promises of peace and prosperity. Appealing to and indoctrinating the minds of the Germans through propaganda and lies, the Nazis obtained the majority of the German parliament, and appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Later that same year, the Nazis set fire to the German parliament building. Hitler used this occurrence to declare a state of emergency and assume dictatorial power. The Parliament now consisted of one party—the Nazi party, which merely rubber-stamped Hitler’s proposals.
The democracy of Germany was destroyed from within—by its government, in its courts, and through its exercise of the law. Free, political debate no longer existed. Trade unions no longer existed. Freedom of speech no longer existed—in fact, speech against the Nazi regime meant concentration camps, torture, and death. Freedom of the press no longer existed—books, newspapers, and magazines not consistent with Nazi ideology were burned in public. Professionals not subscribing to the Nazi ideology were prohibited from practice. Governments and leaders were able to commit heinous crimes for years, because any opposition was suppressed and stifled through the Nazi war machine.
The law in Germany was implemented as a tool of serious destruction, to strip away the very values of humanity. As early as 1933, laws were passed to remove Jews from professions of government and legal service. Very soon, the Nuremburg Laws stripped Jews of their citizenship. Most public places were marked “No Jews Allowed” or “Only Germans.” Jews were expelled from public facilities; Jewish children were expelled from public Aryan schools; and Jewish businesses were boycotted. Jews were removed from numerous other professions, and Jews were forced to transfer their property to non-Jews, and quickly Jews were not allowed to own any businesses. Under the guise of the law, millions of precious human lives were targeted for annihilation.
According to the Nazi racial ideology, the Jews were a biologically inferior race seeking to take over the German nation and were polluting the “Master Aryan Race.” Hitler not only persecuted Jews, but also homosexuals, Gypsies, Masons, and Jehovah Witnesses, all in order to “purify” the Aryan race. The Nazis sought to eradicate the handicapped, “mentally retarded,” and “useless eaters” through euthanasia, also known as “mercy killing.”
Anti-Semitic conditions worsened until public violence against the Jews progressed to cold-blooded murder. What began as racial targeting soon progressed to deportations and ghetto confinement. In only a few short years, the persecution progressed to a massive planned extermination program through death in concentration camps and gas chambers. Even when many of the Nazi war criminals were brought to justice at the Nuremberg Trials, most of them claimed innocence under the law, since they were “only following orders.”
So, how is what happened during the Holocaust relevant to us today in the 21st century? Most students in schools across our nation are taught very little, if anything, about the Holocaust. Further, men and women throughout America and the world are denying that the Holocaust ever happened, even in the face of volumes of evidence and eyewitnesses that attest to this truth. The Holocaust is only one of many murderous genocides of the 21st century. Throughout the world, racial discrimination, hatred, and murder are still dangerous forces of destruction against humanity. We have a responsibility to stand firmly against evil and to not allow such hatred as prevailed in the Holocaust to ever prevail again.
Martin Niemoller, a protestant pastor who narrowly escaped execution during the Holocaust, famously wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
May these words be an everlasting remembrance to us that we should never turn our eyes from injustice as did the “bystanders” during the Holocaust. Whether guardians of the law through the legal profession or baggers of groceries at the local store, we as Americans must stand boldly to safeguard justice and humanity, and ensure that the law is never used as a tool for dangerous destruction. We must always stand up for what we know is right and never forget the power of one lie spread through the propaganda of a power-thirsty, racist dictator. For if we forget the past, we are condemned to repeat it.
 See United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Examples of Anti-Semitic Legislation, 1933–1939 for a description of the laws that deprived the Jews of various rights.