Wednesday, May 22, 2013

For Better or Worse (and how I just might need to object)

On September 29, 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini all met in Munich. The host of the gathering: German Führer Adolf Hitler. The purpose of this event: To reconfigure the borders and boundaries of the countries of Europe.  

Time Magazine considered this meeting of European big wigs as the "greatest single news event of 1938."  In fact, they went so far as to name Hitler 1938's Man of the Year--an honor offered to every sitting United States President since 1927, Mahatma Gandhi ('30), Pope John XXIII ('62), and even the computer ('82). Time has staunchly maintained that their title "Man of the Year" (now changed to "Person of the Year") is less an honor than it is a recognition of influence "for better or worse." (Obviously Hitler would fall into the latter category.)

Yes, yes, hindsight is always 20/20. And it's their magazine; they can put whomever they want on the cover. However, let's consider the impact of that decision.

The connotations of the title "Man of the Year" are of recognition, honor, seeming exultation. And those often associated with this title--such as US Presidents, Queen Elizabeth II, Gandhi, and a slew of other admirable folk--are those whom people respect, admire, and even revere. 

So I find it curious (and more than mildly horrifying) that Hitler's name also swims in that name-pool. Granted, in 1938, Hitler had not fully instituted his plans for ethnic cleansing (though he was well on his way). And he had also pulled Germany out of massive indebtedness and demilitarization when only 20 years before the country had been wallowing in abject poverty and humiliation from their defeat in WWI. Yes, you could say he was massively influential. Yet, I think the 6 million Jews (along with the other millions of gypsies, homosexuals, Christians, dissenters) would cry from their mass graves that Time may need to rethink their policy on "for better or worse."

Why must they honor worse? Why can't they simply honor better? And, by extension, why can't we--as fellow runners in the human race--honor better?

It is my humble opinion that when we observe and recognize "worse" through a sterile, objective perspective, we negate some of its worse-ness. Worse is worse because there is something built into us that recognizes the presence of darkness.

We clear away some of the darkness when we bring it into the light of publicity. And, what's worse, we even lift it into the edges of the mine-riddled No Man's Land of acceptability. 

No one thinks Hitler's policies were acceptable, you say? 

Well, having spent some time in Germany several years ago, I spoke with a man who disagrees (or at least luxuriates in the turning of a blind eye.) On a day I and several others were set to visit Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, this German man asked me why I wanted to go.

"To remember," I answered, feeling a bit silly--disrespectful, even, to play the tourist in a place where so many innocent people suffered and were sacrificed. "To maybe try to honor those who died there."

"Well, no one was killed in Dachau," he answered with a wave of his hand.

My mouth dropped open and I made no attempt to hide my incredulity.

"People died, yes," he continued. "But they died only because they were ill or of natural causes. There was no, as they call, mass killing."

Mouth still agape, I looked at my friend next to me--a history teacher, no less--who stood with what can only be described as horror written across her face. Both of us spluttered, momentarily incapable of responding to such bold-faced ignorance.

"Enjoy your visit," the man said, and he walked away.

That day I passed through the gates proclaiming "Arbeit Macht Frei." (Work makes you free.)

I touched the bedframes where hundreds of the innocent and starving were housed, stacked atop each other in freezing cold and blistering heat.

I walked along the fenceline where thousands of young women were used for the soldiers' pleasure.

I stood in the gas chamber.

I saw the ovens.  

If we know anything about history, or even watch the news, then we know the worst of which man is capable. So why lift that from the refuse of depravity where it wallows, give it a little spit-and-shine, and put it on a magazine cover? 

Instead, let us seek out and  recognize "better." 

And once the better is recognized, let's elevate it further--out of the reaches of mere acceptability--and make it something to which we all aspire.

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  1. wow...I am always amazed at people who try to claim "it never happened". Why would they want to ignore it? I agree with you, we need to honor those who were lost, and remember the better of everyone. If we don't, the worst can happen again. :(

    1. I can happen again, Debbi, you're so right. Thanks!


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