Because I teach anthropology and history, I frequently describe horrific events. I’ve noticed that my teaching and students’ reaction to it change depending on the distance in time of the events in question. It makes me wonder whether, someday, enough time will have passed for even many sensitive people to treat the Holocaust cavalierly.
I first felt concern about this question while watching Schindler’s List, feeling profoundly moved as I usually am when considering the Holocaust. I recently had taught about Aztec sacrifices, including those in which they cut the still-beating hearts from the chests of multitides of live victims, and, also recently, I had visited Tenochtitlán (you call it Mexico City), admiring the monumental Aztec ruins and artifacts. I remembered making off-hand, joking comments about brutal Aztec practices and otherwise treating them as neutral, interesting facts that made most people squeamish, much like the feeding habits of catfish.
You may think that the Aztec example is an exception because of its seeming exoticism and that this principle of diachronically derived indifference does not hold for, say, long-past European or US events. But a visit to most history classrooms will reveal that it does. A matter-of-fact or even good-natured tone accompanies descriptions of the French Revolution’s Terror or medieval fighting techniques, such as pouring hot oil onto attackers from atop defensive walls.
The type of atrocity also is not solely at issue. Mass killings of captured enemies, as with the Aztecs, is hardly an outdated concern. Public killings of captured enemies to bolster one side’s morale or, as with the Aztecs, to sustain their society also have occurred recently. The execution of Saddam Hussein provides just one example. Indeed, in history classes, descriptions of deadly diseases mutate from interested to involved as we move from, say, the Black Death and early epidemics among American Indian groups to influenza during World War I, even though the manner of death is essentially the same. Heck, in some treatments, polio in the twentieth century is presented as equivalent to deadly epidemics of the past, thanks to its recency.
Nonetheless, why be touchy? I’m unlikely to meet any of the participants in historical horrors such as, say, the Soviet collectivization of peasant farms. And I cannot affect these past events. Forty years from now, the Holocaust will be as distant in time as slavery and the Civil War were when I was born. Will it be ‘open season’ on World War II by then?
Perhaps, though, the criterion for caring should be the need to be on guard against the occurrence of similar events that I may be able to affect – through my government, my economic activity, or my teaching. In that case, I guess I need to remove the statute of limitations on getting political, because whatever has happened in the past is a candidate for happening in the future or, more likely, is occurring somewhere today.
The sympathetic treatment given Genghis Khan in the fine film Mongol provides a fine example. Here, the filmmakers rewrite this butcher (and builder, like so many) into a hero, killing on a massive scale for ascendancy, his family, personal revenge, and stability among the Mongols. To cheer him on, as the film encourages us to do, is the same as cheering on Stalin, Mao, the Inca, Napoleon, and a host of others with similar c.v.’s. It is the same as cheering for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to succeed in Iraq, where they have treated masses of lives as expendable while pursuing their dream of exploiting and rebuilding the Middle East. The problem is not simply that this idea rankles: Studying history reveals that uncritically accepting such insouciant jokes, movies, and the like prepare people to repeat – or at least to let others repeat – atrocities like as the Holocaust.
– In Favor of Sympathy