Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it

If upon entering the Imperial War Museum in London you are not aware that war is hell, the exhibits contained within shock that message home. With your first steps inside, you are thrust into a mind boggling array of the senses—a World War II reenactment of the bombardment that remains locked within the psyche of the people of the UK. War materiel of all sorts—captured enemy and home country films, portions of planes, tanks, bombs, trucks, and dioramas of life under siege during the constant German attempts to bomb the resolution of this stalwart country into submission—overwhelms the senses.

We passed from one display to another, stunned by the senselessness of man’s incivility and inhumanity to other men, and simultaneously jolted into the reminder that humanity’s history is a continuous replay of the rise of despots, greed, and the power hungry. Those who would manipulate the minds of the masses, and selfishly enslave them in the unceasing quest for personal power. Millions have died, and still the scenario replays relentlessly.

Much of the advancement of the technology of humans can be attributed to, and associated, with the advancement of war, and the results of this development can be found in the weaponry of mass destruction, culminating in our ability to wipe humanity off the face of our planet.

World War II was the Axis powers’ benchmark victory over attempts at world domination by the Imperial Japanese and Nazi German forces, but the most compellingly powerful, gut wrenching, emotional, tear inducing, enraging, and fear inducing experience of the entire museum was the Holocaust Exhibition, where “The origins and implementation of the ‘Final Solution’ are laid bare, with photographs, documents, artefacts, posters, and film offering stark evidence of how persecution turned to mass extermination.”

A sign at the front of the entrance to the exhibit states that this is not for children under the age of 14, and I’ll tell you: it is not for the faint-hearted, but the shock and impression of this history can not be forgotten! Picture after picture, film after film, told the stories of both Hitler and his Nazi perpetrators’ arrogance and attempts to exterminate people not of his so-called “master race”: Jews, Gypsies, the physically handicapped, and the politically and sexually unfavorable. I was stricken by the emerging similarity of the reawakening of beliefs, ideology, and psychology of racism—and fascism—in the world, and particularly in our own country.

The voices of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers who fought for freedom from tyranny cry out to slumbering nations forgetful or in denial of the past.

A floor-to-ceiling Nazi propaganda film stopped me cold as I seemingly stood with thousands of people crowding the roadway. The camera scanned toward the airport where an airplane arrived delivering, from the open door, Hitler in full regalia standing with his inner circle: Himmler, Goebbels, and Bormann. The crowd saluted the famous “Heil!” in frenzied mass hysteria. The speakers, emanating the cacophony of thousands enraptured in hero worship, filled the room around me, triggering a chill in my body of explosive fear and realization that the echo of that emotional event had begun morphing into the present.

The camera panned again, refocusing closely on the faces of the Nazi trio, freezing on Hitler’s face. He beamed in the rapture of the crowd’s adoration. His eyes shone with pompous appreciation. A smile crossed his face in the recognition that in their idolization of him, his ever-raging message of the “purity of the Fatherland” had found fertile ground to germinate.

The similarity of this moment in the rise of demagoguery to our current political state, and in particular our president, who in such similarity, mimics Hitler’s ego and self-serving personality, is striking. The strength of America’s democratic system holds this egotistical power grab and adoration of political demagogues in check—somewhat—but a republican party that recognizes the president’s folly yet manipulates it for political gain, creates a destructive symbiosis.

The “Fatherland” hides behind newly expressed “American Exceptionalism,” and “Make America Great Again” tropes, devolving from emerging 20th and 21st century recognition that globalism equates to equality, cooperation, and socio-economic support for the benefit of all. Wartime Germany became a country of walls, required identification cards, demonization, isolation, and removal of those who were not of the “pure white ideal.” Echoing the belief of some within our current president’s leadership team—despite the vast amount of written and photographic documentation, and survivor and rescuer testimony—the Holocaust never occurred! Accepting this belief opens the door to its re-creation, fitting into the beginning of a road that takes us down a dark and dangerous path: false claims that foreigners are arriving here to steal our social benefits; children are separated from their parents and placed in “concentration camps”; rumors are spread that foreign national gangs are arriving to murder our people; plans are floated to build super walls to keep out undesirables. The Pogrom, or massacre of ethnic groups, began in Germany initially by forcing “undesirables” to live in walled-off sections of ghettos and towns.

There are those among the current populace and even in high-ranking government positions that do not believe that millions died during the Holocaust despite countless reels of horrific film evidence, and the undestroyed records found when the Allies liberated the concentration camps. One cannot block out what the eyes see. A huge room contained a scale model of one of these camps, depicting its primary mission: to herd people within, remove their clothing and valuables, send them—under pretense of delousing and cleaning—to showers, and then murder them, choking them with poison gas. Prisoners were forced to remove the vomit, urine, feces, and blood-soaked bloated bodies, of which there were thousands per day, and burn them in pits, after which they in turn were killed by firing squads to conceal the evidence.

There were many film clips of Hitler meeting with similar dictators of Europe. This parallels our current president’s penchant for palling around with the leaders of countries that subvert their people in a sea of subjection and political propaganda under the guise of improving their lives.

We stand within a recurring wave of history: “Radical authoritarian ultra nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society, and of the economy.” This is the definition of FACISM!

Sociopathic behavior defines a lack of moral responsibility and social conscience. If we can wrap our minds around the deaths of approximately 6 million Jews, political opponents, Soviet prisoners of war, gay men and women, Gypsies, and anyone else not fitting the narrow framework of the “chosen,” 17 million people lost their lives from 1933 to 1945. That’s 1.5 million people per year—close to 4,000 people per day!

The Holocaust exhibit also revealed one more of the Nazi means of identifying undesirables: the fake science of phrenology. In this pseudo-science, measurements are taken of the shape of the head and face, using calipers and rulers, thus enabling the users to compare pictographic examples of “favored” racial characteristics to those believed to be Jews, Gypsies, Africans, etc. Their tragically-flawed logic determined the opposite of what we now know as fact: There is no such thing as race. We now recognize that humankind migrated across the planet as a unified migrating species, evolving to adapt to their environment over thousands of years.

Looking at the Nazi regime’s pictorial comparative samples, I frankly couldn’t make sense out of any of it. An entire country buying into a goofy unsupported sham. Unbelievable? Couldn’t happen here? In the land of the free, and home of the brave?

In the 1970s, I volunteered with a relief agency to aid in the mass migration of Khmer refugees escaping annihilation at the hands of a twisted, evil, murderous, Pol Pot-led communist regime that sought, like the Nazis, to isolate and remove those that might stand in their way. People disappeared in the night. Then they were taken by day. Fear spread, causing families—even children—to turn on each other. Soon, in attempts to root out the “enemy,” people who had “the look” of being educated or of the elite were taken and killed. A wave of return to an agrarian vision of simple purity took hold of the Khmer Rouge leadership and drove them to massacre all who provided societal support such as police, engineers, doctors, teachers, and those in any official position. After four or five years—and after slaughtering 5–6 million Cambodian people—the Khmer Rouge began to suspect their own leadership and the killing traveled up the ranks. If the Vietnamese had not started a war on the Cambodian border, much of the country would have been decimated in a similar Nazi extermination of “social purity.”

For several years, I worked for the US Embassy in Thailand, interviewing families that had been languishing in refugee camps for a year or more, documenting their stories to enable them to emigrate to America and other nations. Working 10 to 12 hours per day, 5–6 days per week, I heard the heartbreaking stories of death and human drama, loss and survival against overwhelming odds, starvation, and eating anything to stave off death, even human flesh.

My heart cries out to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives fighting for liberty and freedom of self expression, as is so painfully depicted in the Imperial War Museum (which, I add to their eternal credit, is free to enter). Why would the IWM house such an exhibit? The forces of dark totalitarianism pushed the Brits off the coast of Normandy during the war to retreat to their island of security, banding together against the relentless bombing of their country. They sacrificed so much for their freedom, and this exhibit represents their selfless humanity and recognition that Britain is not the “Fatherland,” it is a gentle country comprised of family supporting each other for the common good.

The world is beginning to see a creeping return of the dark forces which have sought, throughout history, to claim closed, fearful, uneducated minds. The Imperial War Museum stands as a beacon of remembrance and vigilance. Countless lives have been sacrificed to keep this light burning. History must remain present, so that we never forget the lessons of war. All of this has a way of sensitizing us to the message of freedom powerfully written on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Ben Macri

Lived in hippie commune for 12 years, studied hotel and restaurant management and co-managed coop owned restaurants in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Boston, Massachusetts. Practiced body therapies professionally; managed YMCA Health Club in Wichita, Kansas. Graduated in first paramedic class of the University of Alabama, Birmingham; taught first aid in the Red Cross in Guatemala. Feeding operation manager of Kao I Dang refuge camp, Thailand; immigration processor for refugees in Bangkok, Thailand, for the US Embassy. Professor emeritus-department chair of Industrial Arts, City College San Francisco. Retired artist seeking the marrow in the bones of life.

4 thoughts on “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it”

  1. Very powerfully written Ben and so very true. It’s beyond my ability to understand holocaust deniers and those who would promote the ideas espoused by the long line of “leaders” making their country’s great again.

  2. an inspired writing, Ben, and deeply troubling. there are many days, (like this day), that I find the weight off current political rhetoric & policy unbearably heavy. I am visited by impossible feelings of darkness. I trudge through the day in search of things that might inspire something hopeful, in a numbed state of emotional detachment. It causes me to cherish the brief moments of innocence, and fellowship, and beauty; but these are often fleeting. it’s good to find new skies under which to stroll, to open the horizon, and provide larger prospective. that’s always the greatest reward of traveling for me. cherish your journey.

  3. Thank you, Ben, for a powerful piece of writing that compels us to confront what is really happening all over the world and especially here in the USA: the re-emerging of virulent tribalism and all its horrors.

    As you state, we are seeing a “creeping return of the dark forces which have sought, throughout history, to claim closed, fearful, uneducated minds”.

    I would like to suggest that, in term of vulnerability to exploitation by the dark forces emerging today, the uneducated mind is not that of a person lacking a high school of college degree. It seems to me that uneducated mind is a mind that is ignorant of its own ways of thinking.

  4. Beautiful piece of work, Been. The message is right on my. Like you, I am shocked and fearful of what is happening in America today. Only through works like yours can the message be carried to all. Yes, that was moving. Thank you very much for the great work.

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