When intolerance is allowed to flourish

It was 71 years ago this week, on Jan. 27, 1945, that the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

It was 71 years ago this week, on Jan. 27, 1945, that the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

This camp should serve as a reminder of what can happen when intolerance is allowed to flourish.

An estimated 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. They were among the 11 million people, including six million Jews, who were killed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Auschwitz, a collection of three main camps and several subcamps in what is now southern Poland, has come to symbolize the essence of Nazi Germany.

These 11 million people were not casualties of the war itself. Instead, they were killed because of who they were — Jews, Romani, Soviet prisoners of war, communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.

The Nazi regime, for all its brutality, was not the only time when segments of a population have been killed because of their race, ethnicity, political leanings, sexual orientations or religious beliefs.

Other atrocities include  the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1917, the Great Purge in the former Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938, the Bangladesh Genocide in 1971, the Cambodian Genocide of 1975 to 1979, the Bosnian Genocide from 1993 to 1995 and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Such actions happen when differences are not tolerated, when conformity is valued above all else.

Gregory Stanton, president of the U.S.-based Genocide Watch, has written a paper, The 10 Stages of Genocide, which shows how this division, if unchecked, can escalate. The document is available online at genocidewatch.org/genocide/tenstagesofgenocide.html.

Genocide doesn’t begin with a government order to eliminate a segment of the population. Instead, it begins when the population is divided into “us” and “them.”

From there, it escalates with hate speech, discrimination and dehumanization.

The more visible signs — organizing special forces, propaganda campaigns, persecution, separating those considered undesirable and eventually extermination — occur later, after the public has already identified an undesirable group.

What concerns me is how easy it is to reach the first few levels in Scranton’s report.

It isn’t hard to separate “us” from “them.” And from there, it isn’t hard to describe “them” as being immature, inferior, dangerous or evil.

This happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and it continues to happen today, in many parts of the world, as certain groups are treated with suspicion or fear because of their ethnicity, religious beliefs, political leanings or sexual orientation.

The seeds are planted each time diversity and differences are discouraged.

If the first stage in the creation of a genocide is to separate a population into groups of “us” and “them,” perhaps the best way to prevent a genocide is to bring these sides together.

Get to know someone of a different ethnic or cultural group. Have coffee or dinner with someone whose religious belief or worldview is not the same as your own. Play hockey or baseball or watch a game with someone who does not share your political affiliations.

The purpose of such interactions is not to discuss our differences. Instead, they should reinforce how much we have much in common.

No matter where we differ and no matter how much we may disagree, we have more similarities than differences.

In the end, there is no “them.” We are all “us.”

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.