Reflections on the Holocaust and What it Teaches Us

Scott Krummey

I was one of the privileged Colgate stu dents who visited the Holocaust Mu seum in Washington, D.C. last weekend. Although I anticipated a powerful experience, it was truly overwhelmed with the power of the Museum. It is hard to even come to terms with the destruction and horrifying details of the Holocaust – let alone to understand the mentality and ideology that caused such a horrific chapter in history. A false and dangerous misconception about the Holocaust is that it was a distant problem – that only Nazis or Germans or Europeans held these beliefs. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A piece of history that doesn’t receive much attention is that racial purification, or eugenics, was prevalent in American culture for the first half of the twentieth-century. Eugenics as it relates to genetics was first championed by the British scientist Francis Galton – who is ironically the cousin of Charles Darwin. Eugenics spread throughout Europe and quickly caught the attention of the American public. If other species could be systematically improved by selective breeding, why couldn’t humans? However, eugenics soon descended into a vehicle for perpetuating prejudices and ignorance. The focus shifted from selectively breeding the best to weeding-out the “worst.” Specifically, the worst meant the “feeble-minded” including the mentally retarded alcoholics, epileptics, and criminals.The prevalence of eugenics in American thought is evident from creepy quotes and disturbing activities of prominent American figures of the era. In 1904, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was started with funding from Andrew Carnegie. Theodore Roosevelt was quoted saying: “Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind in the world. Wrong types need not apply.” Laws of the time show that eugenics was also fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment. With the rapid influx of Europeans, a common fear was that the Anglo-Saxon population was being “diluted.” The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was used to deny many immigrants stay in America – it existed for forty years. By 1917, 15 states had laws that allowed the forced sterilization of the “mentally unfit.” In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled for the sterilization of a 17 year old girl, after it was determined her seven month old daughter was “an imbecile.” In hindsight, this was a bizarre period in American history. But that’s the point – this is hindsight. At the time, these ideas of hatred, racism and twisted science were much more centered in American culture than anybody would like to admit. We too easily pass off terrible and evil ideas as some one else’s problem because these were painful times in the world and the worst events took place millions of miles away. As we were told by Museum officials, the Holocaust Museum is constructed from the “American perspective. Although this is historically true, it is somewhat misleading because it deceives us into thinking that Americans were and are immune from such terrible ideology. The danger in perpetuating this misconception is that we don’t really move forward as a society. The point of the Holocaust Museum is to show the evil side of humanity – how deep we can fall given the right circumstances. The realization that any society can take this plunge is important in preventing extreme, hateful thoughts from leading to such atrocities in the future. Unfortunately, I think part of the world’s inability to decisively act on recent versions of ethnic cleansing and genocide (such as Armenia, Serbia, Sudan and Iraq) is rooted in the firm desire to distance ourselves from this evil, rather than identify and take responsibility for the weaknesses of humankind. Hopefully, the mighty world leaders will clean up the bureaucracies that permit mini-Holocausts all too often.