“Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?”
—Psalm 2:1, New King James Version (NKJV)
I have always been a history buff; it was my favorite subject throughout school, and it remains a beacon in my life as I struggle—like everyone else—to understand the present. Old sayings such as “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana) or “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” (or “where you’ve come from”) are a core principle of life for me.
We do not live in a vacuum, and history is not just a recitation of facts about the past—our current lives are influenced by and often even determined by what has gone before. It is what we learn from the past—and the present—that shapes our future.
With this in mind, I want to talk about some recent world events and some not so recent events that have weighed heavily on my mind the past week or two.
You should also know that I’ve been watching some historical documentaries this past week, relating to the two wars that have been imprinted on my psyche since childhood (“Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary” and “Auschwitz/Final Solution” – AHC cable channel; and “Ken Burns’ The Civil War” – PBS). The causes, outcomes, and consequences of these two wars still have deep impact on our world—150 and 70 years, respectively, after their end.
The current struggles of Syrian “migrants” (they are actually refugees—not migrants) to escape their war-torn country have been eerily similar to the plight of European Jews trying to escape the madness of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s. Not just because of the hostility of the European countries through which the Syrians are “migrating,” but because these very countries were also heavily involved in World War II.
The big question today, of course, is “What do we do with all those refugees?” It is the same question asked by all the countries of the world when the European Jews were seeking refuge from Nazi extermination. And the answers coming from these countries—including the United States—is sadly predictable. Let’s just say that the U.S. did not have a sterling record when it came to preventing or ameliorating The Holocaust.
That the Syrians are now fleeing to Germany is itself ironic, except that Germany at least appears to have learned a lesson or two about humanity in the decades since World War II, notwithstanding its decision over the past few days to temporarily close its border to additional refugees still streaming in from Austria, via Hungary. On the other hand, the government of Hungary is the last government that should be so cruel as to block the Syrians from boarding “their” trains to travel to Germany; likewise, the citizens of Hungary have a lot of gall yelling at the Syrians to “Go home,” while they attack and mock them.
But, then, Hungary was one of the last bastions of Hitler’s insane plan to “purify” the German race.
Although some Jews in Budapest during World War II had been spared from deportation to Auschwitz in a bizarre scheme by German generals to let them “buy” their freedom in exchange for munitions from the Allies, in 1944, these Jews were forced to walk to Austria, where they would be put into slave labor for the Nazis.
Fast-forward to 2015, and we see an early influx of Syrian refugees being barred from Hungarian trains (for which many had paid dearly for train tickets) and as a last resort, deciding to walk from Budapest to Austria, lest they be forced into Hungarian refugee camps.
And Greece has been no better. It, too, sided with the Axis (first, with Mussolini and then with Hitler) in World War II and has been as cruel as Hungary to the Syrian refugees. On Monday, September 14, 2015, CBS reporters observed and recorded the Greek Coast Guard actively disabling the motors of refugee rafts, after equally mean Turkish vessels pushed the rafts out of their territorial waters and into Greek waters.
Putting all this into a larger context, I think about all the countless “boat” people throughout history, who have crowded onto boats to escape all manner of mayhem and injustice in their home countries in hope of a better life somewhere else—from the Mayflower, which sailed from England to America so that its passengers could escape religious tyranny, to the Cubans, Vietnamese, and Haitians, fleeing political tyranny. The Syrian refugees are just the latest “tired and poor;” the latest “huddled masses yearning to be free.”
Finally, although “racism” typically refers to the subjugation and hatred of blacks by whites, I know, as a student of human history, that “racism” also refers to the subjugation of any ethnicity or nationality by another ethnicity or nationality. This, to me, is the conundrum that we all must come to terms with if we are ever going to create a habitable future for our world.
Thanks for reading Part I of this essay! UP NEXT: Part II discusses the Civil War and the continuing ramifications of this pivotal period of American History on the current life of our nation.