Inscribed on a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp is a quotation from Harvard scholar George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is a partially correct statement. Society can remember the past, but it still repeats its past mistakes.
Memorials, testimonials, remembrance ceremonies, laws to prevent injustice, and more can only do so much. It may cause people to remember the past, but history has shown to repeat itself regardless especially in cases of injustice. Remembering is not enough to prevent such tragic repetition.
Here are cases where history repeated itself after the Shoah:
- 1992-1995: Bosnian Genocide causes 97,207 civilian and military causalities, mostly Bosniaks
- 1994: Rwandan Genocide carried out by Hutu majority against Tutsi members takes over one million lives
- 1998-1999: Genocide and war in Kosovo
- 2003- Present: Darfur
- 2011- Present: Fighting in Syria as its leader Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against his people
This unfortunate trend has been repeated more times than listed above.
The only way to prevent injustice is taking direct action dealing with world conflicts. This strategy may be a vague and tall order, but avoiding or dealing with conflict passively, such as only releasing statements condemning the injustice, is inadequate. In his 1999 speech, “The Perils of Indifference,” Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”
The Shoah was not just the 20th century’s most unfathomable tragedy, but also its biggest failure; a failure to act as the world stood silent as Jews and other Nazi outcasts were treated with no dignity whatsoever. Today, not enough action is being taken to fight injustice. Nonetheless, for those who are not elected and in a position of policymaking, speaking out and pressuring our leaders to act is an option. In addition, the lessons of preventing genocide can be followed at home; the phrase “v’ahavta l’rayach hakamocha” (“Love your fellow as you would love yourself”) is relevant. It embodies tolerance and peace.
Nowadays with anti-Semitism at an alarming rate in places such as Europe and college campuses, Holocaust denial and defamation is commonplace. In the afterword of historian Deborah Lipstadt’s book, History on Trial: My Day In Court with David Irving, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz writes, ““Justice is often in the eye of the beholder, since it is a function of perception, attitudes, experience, education, and values.” Hatred has filled a percentage of society, as it has not learned from the past of those Jews and Nazi outcasts being led to the gas chambers just because of who they were. While extremists may not be swayed to the correct side, there are those who are misguided from being wrongly brainwashed, therefore have hateful attitudes through those “functions” Dershowitz lists.
A student can open a history textbook and learn about the Shoah and history’s unfortunate mistakes. That student can try to remember the material about the Shoah for a test in class and excel. But what happens after the test? Will it be just information required to ace the test? Or will that student apply what he or she learned and turn it into further activism?
Education is a very powerful tool because without educating someone about what happened in the past or what is happening today, he or she might fall into a trap of lies and immoral beliefs. Education allows people to stand up for what is morally right when seeing an injustice being done. It is important to have knowledge to combat misconceptions and indifference to social justice.
The next generation must not just remember history, but be active so that we can further the cause of “never again.”
Those who cannot learn from the past and take action are condemned to repeat it.