A couple of months ago (OK, I’m a bit behind!), at the Santa Clara County Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony on April 24, local high school students took those crowded into the Board of Supervisors Chamber on an exploration of the steps that led to the Holocaust in which 10 million people (including 6 million Jews) died. They visited California in the 1940’s, where antisemitism and racism were baldly evident, and described the six steps that can open the way to destruction.
Hitler and the Nazis did not begin their extermination efforts with death camps. Rather, they and their collaborators progressed gradually along the path to Auschwitz. Each step was a small intensification of the one before, and each step made the next one easier.
Through the Holocaust Studies and Critical Thinking program of SVCCJ (the Silicon Valley Conference for Community and Justice), students study not only Nazi Germany, but Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur. “We asked our youth to look at history, at the six steps from discrimination to extermination to find clues as to how `ethnic cleansing’ atrocities such as the Holocaust or Darfur developed,” said Bart Charlow, Executive Director of SVCCJ. “The six steps are used in every genocide to create the social, emotional and psychological distance between people that makes destruction of others possible.”
What are the six steps?
- Spreading myths– “they” are not like you and me; they have strange habits and attitudes
- Creating mistrust– “they” are not only different; they are trying to destroy “us” and our way of life
- Fabricating a threat to the general public– “you see? This just proves that they are a threat”
- Dehumanization– “they” are not worthy to be considered human beings; “they” are rats, vermin, germs
- Isolation and Concentration– in order for “them” not to endanger or contaminate “us,” they need to be contained, imprisoned, moved away and out of sight
- Atrocities– since “they” are not human, since we do not need to see what happens to them, there is no restraint- torture, abuse, exploitation, and genocide are acceptable
We see the pattern again and again (consider Guantanamo in light of the pattern; we are but a step away from atrocities), but it is not inevitable. The students described how people resisted the Holocaust in Europe and the Japanese-American internment in the U.S. during WWII and how we can resist every step of the way. Best, of course, is not to begin. The work of interfaith dialogue seeks to stop the cycle at the beginning. As we come to know each other as neighbors and friends, the power of myth and the potential for mistrust are weakened.