IT's said the ancient Roman emperors executed the bearers of bad news they didn't want to hear. Now, we just fire them.
Last Friday Philipp Jenninger, president of the West German Parliament, resigned after an address that said many Germans felt that Adolf Hitler brought "glorious times" before the war and the Holocaust. Jenninger's nationally televised speech was meant to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the vicious rampage against the Jews that began the Nazi genocide.
In his speech, Jenninger described Hitler's rise to power as a "triumphal procession" for many Germans, but also stressed his own record of opposing totalitarian regimes.
During his speech, Jenninger said, he tried to reach the youth of West Germany by describing the horrors of the Holocaust and explaining how a civilized nation could descend to sheer barbarism. "And when it got so bad, as it was in November 1938, people could still say, using the words of a contemporary--'What is it to us? Look away if it terrifies you, it is not our fate,'" he said.
Much of Jenninger's speech was tactless. He made lengthy references to Hitler's support from the German people and asked rhetorical questions about Nazi atrocities: "And as far as the Jews were concerned, hadn't they claimed for themselves in the past a role that wasn't right for them? Hadn't they deserved being put back in their place?"
According to the Associated Press, Michael Fuerst, deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in West Germany defended him. "I welcome that the Parliament president described in full clarity what was happening in Germany between 1933 and 1938, especially the fact that everything that Hitler did was strongly supported by the masses of all Germans," he said.
Nevertheless, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews has condemned Jenninger, saying that statements of protest have come in from all Jewish communities. About 50 members of Parliament walked out during Jenninger's speech. Furor over the speech was so widespread that Jenninger resigned on Friday, apologizing for offending those he felt had misunderstood his speech.
LAST January, a similar controversy brewed at CBS Sports when commentator "Jimmy the Greek" Snyder spoke to a reporter about Blacks in professional sports. During the interview Snyder said that many a slave owner used to "breed his big Black to his big woman so that they could have a big Black kid." Here was another case of a public figure making an offensive remark that contained some truth--truth that was forgotten in the angry responses that followed.
Snyder's comments met with outrage from the public, and he was fired--but without any consideration of the truth of what he was saying. Many of Snyder's comments that day, particularly his statement that coaches should be white to counterbalance the large number of Black athletes, were offensive and stupid. The evaluation of his comment on the breeding of slaves, however, is not as clearly made.
Whoopi Goldberg, as much a social critic as comedian, has defended Snyder. "Jimmy says...we bred big Black bucks to big Black women and made big Black fast kids. Now did he lie? What did he say that offended people? He told the fuckin' truth...and America and the NAACP and everybody else was pissed...and all the white folks said Jimmy shouldn't've said that."
Snyder's and Jenninger's remarks offended many people--but they spoke of ugly, abhorrent deeds that actually happened. Blacks were forced to breed by their masters, and the German attitude toward Hitler and the Jews facilitated the Holocaust. Although the truth is often unpleasant, it is too important to be revised and sensitized to the needs of everyone who happens to be within earshot.
Many Germans felt that Hitler's Third Reich would bring glory to their nation. Many Germans felt that annihilating the Jews was warranted and gladly took part in the insane assaults upon their fellow citizens. Many ignored the Holocaust completely while others remained fearfully silent.
Despite the more callous aspects of his speech, Jenninger hoped to deal candidly with the reasons why Germans--with barely a peep of protest--allowed Hitler to wage a war on humanity. If so, Jenninger recognized that it is not enough to remember that the Holocaust happened. It is necessary to ask how and why it happened so that such a tragedy may never recur.
Outcry against Jenninger was aimed at the perceived anti-Semitic nature of his address--a positive sign that Germans have done far more to eradicate their anti-Semitism than their Austrian neighbors.
But sadly, the condemnation of Jenninger's remarks clouds his message and allows the millions of Europeans who sat silently by during the Holocaust to escape the blame of history. It is a cowardly retreat to a position of moral comfort--where it is easy to believe that the Holocaust was the creation of a single madman and his henchmen. The Holocaust was more than the sick dream of a deranged dictator--it was the cheap, dark side of collective human nature unleashed.
By shrinking from these harsh truths rather than accepting them, we follow a well-worn path to the climate of unreasoning fear and intolerance that allows this dark side to breed and create such injustices as slavery and genocide. Only by accepting the truths of the past and understanding how they unfolded can we avoid repeating our greatest failures.