Oskar Schindler joined the Nazi party in February 1939. Four years later, he began using his position as an industrialist to employ and shield Jews otherwise destined to be gassed or worked to death under the Nazi program of Jewish liquidation. In Steven Speilberg’s 1993 film depicting Schindler’s efforts to save as many Jews as possible, viewers are implicitly challenged to ask themselves whether they would have the courage to follow Schindler’s example if the situation were ever to arise again.
Many flatter themselves with a knowing self-assurance that they would have opposed the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. What kind of monster would have wanted anything but salvation for the starving, helpless victims of Nazi cruelty? Many claim they’re doing something like that now by combatting racism, oppression, and discrimination.
But to know whether one would have the courage of Oskar Schindler, one must remember that the Germans didn’t visualize starving concentration camp victims when they collaborated with the program of Jewish extermination. The Nazis could have been stopped if public opinion had been with the Jews. In 1941, German public opinion turned on the Nazis when they attempted to liquidate mentally disabled Germans, and the Nazis backed down. German citizens saw the mentally disabled as helpless and vulnerable so they protected them. So why didn’t the Germans stop the Nazis from murdering millions of Jews?
The answer lies in how the Germans were indoctrinated to perceive the Jews. In 1873, Wilhelm Marr, a German political agitator coined the term, “anti-Semitism” to support his thesis that the Jews had infiltrated and controlled the German government. The Jews were seen as a privileged minority who obtained wealth and power through illegitimate means. To offset the “illegitimately gained” influence and privilege of the Jews, Germans, as far back as 1750, passed laws restricting Jewish participation in universities and government.
Two centuries before Hitler, Germans justified discrimination by pointing to imbalances in outcomes in hiring and academic achievements. Nevertheless, the problem of Jewish “privilege” persisted, leading Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx) to write an essay describing “a fictitious state of affairs when in theory the Jew is deprived of political rights, whereas in practice he has immense power and exerts his political influence en gros, although it is curtailed en détail.” Marx, himself of Jewish heritage, further wrote, “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” and “The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.”
Although Germany boasted the finest universities in the world, its academics nevertheless fell prey to bigoted social theories that led to official policies discriminating against Jews and “Jewish ideas.” As indoctrinated students graduated from these universities and entered journalism, the print media echoed and extended the bigoted social theory. Key to understanding the moral justification for this bigotry is that the Germans considered the Jews to be privileged and powerful when compared to the downtrodden German.
Every social ill was blamed on Jews by invoking a sweeping historical narrative—a technique that allows an ethnic group to be maligned without citing specific facts or evidence. Historical narratives can’t be disproven because they use generalizations and stereotypes about the sins of an ethnic group. Since there are no specific dates or actors cited, the allegations are immune to refutation. It doesn’t matter whether a particular individual participated in the historical evils attributed to his ethnicity. This is because his wealth and privilege, which he continues to enjoy, were acquired illegitimately by his ancestors.
More importantly, historical narratives set up a problem that can never be solved. Concrete actions taken against present-day members of an ethnic group can never change the past. So the historical narrative gradually pushes society to take stronger and stronger measures to pay debts that can never be satisfied.
Historical narratives precede all genocides. All of them. In Rwanda, historical narrative alleged that the Tutsi collaborated with German and Belgium colonizers to exploit their Hutu countrymen. When independence allowed the more numerous Hutu to gain power, the historical narrative demanded redress to the Tutsi power and privilege obtained illegitimately through collaboration with the colonizers. Genocide followed.
In Ukraine the Soviets demonized the “Kulaks,” (former peasants who rose above poverty) for “exploiting” their class peers to achieve wealth. Genocide followed. Cambodia, Turkey, Ethiopia and many additional examples all share a common and necessary precondition: a propaganda campaign labeling the target ethnic group as a perpetrator of historical injustice.
So if you want to test yourself to determine whether you would act as an Oskar Schindler, ask yourself if you could resist indoctrination that demonized an ethnic group using historical narrative. Would you speak up to challenge schools that taught students that a particular ethnic group possessed an unearned, illegitimate advantage that should be addressed as a matter of equity? Would you challenge college admissions that screened out an ethnic group based on historical justifications? Would you object to corporations screening applicants based on race? Would you condemn public displays of intimidation directed at the ethnic group?
Perhaps you think that it’s illegitimate to compare the propaganda enabling past genocides to modern racial justice theory. You might feel confident that the historical narrative of the day is morally justified compared to past hysterical movements that led to so much tragedy. After all, you might feel that your conviction is confirmed by university professors, modern media, government, and neighbors all around you. How could it be propaganda if everyone is saying it? When we watch black and white footage of rallies heaping invective on targeted ethnic groups, we recoil in horror. But today’s social justice movements seem totally reasonable and morally upright.
To claim the courage of Oskar Schindler, you would have to have the courage to challenge the premise that ethnic groups should be punished for the sins of their ancestors. You would have to dispute delegitimization of the accomplishments of that group. You would have to be willing to be the only one speaking up when all the media, universities, and government disapprove of your message. You would have to oppose collective justice and protect an individual’s right to equal treatment regardless of ethnicity. You would have to have the courage to risk ridicule, ostracization, and loss of job security. It’s easy to fantasize about what you would have done in history. It’s a lot harder to speak up about something that’s happening now.