I spent a few hours touring Auschwitz and Birkenau, and as I did, the same thought kept coming back to me.
We forgot Carthage.
Starting off, I don’t want in any way to minimize the tragedy and massive slaughter of the Holocaust. But I will also say that I’m probably different than most of the people who come to this spot, because I tend to view our modern world through the lens of our entire history. And never far from my mind is the understanding of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or that activities like genocide have not only been commonplace throughout our history, in many ways it’s been a prime motivation of our species ever since we started separating into groups. In the very beginning, I imagine it was pretty straightforward; there was a finite amount of resources available, and there was competition between groups for those resources. So it probably made it a pretty simple decision, if you were the leader of a bunch of semi-upright, hairy beings, that removing the competing group made the problem of obtaining those resources go away. After all, hunger is a great motivator, and I would bet that he had a receptive audience when Og first pitched the idea of taking out the competition.
But then things got complicated. We got better at obtaining those resources, and we spread out so that there was less competition for things like food. The next conflict was still about resources, but that was about a very special resource, and that was the one half of the equation required to continue the species. Yet as we “progressed”, we still seemed to need to kill those who weren’t part of our group, even if now we were in tribes. As we added the layers of the veneer we call “civilization”, we added reasons for why it was necessary to make sure that we killed the competition. As the millennia passed, our reasons changed, and our justifications became more lengthy, but it still boils down to essentially the same thing that motivated Og to convince the others in his cave to go wandering over to the cave in the next valley and club the freaks living there over the head. “They” aren’t “us.”
Fast forward a few millennia, to the mid-20th century, where a tradition first started by Og has been elevated to a high and deadly science, where instead of clubs and rocks, Zyklon B is the weapon of choice. Now, as a result of the continuation of this practice, more than a million people a year come to this spot, to pass through the halls where the echoes of death still whisper. And the most common refrain, at least what I heard was, “How could this happen? And why did so many people just passively allow themselves be led to slaughter?”
To which I would offer what is the title of this post; we forgot Carthage. Consider that in the Third Punic war, the Roman victors, in their usual thorough manner, made damn sure that there wouldn’t be a Fourth Punic War. The Carthaginian people were removed from existence, and if the apocryphal tale isn’t true, it’s still instructive. Not only did the Romans plow the earth with salt, but they took the male slaves and female slaves in opposite directions, just to make sure there were no baby Hannibals possible.
That’s just one example; our history is replete with stories of civilizations wiped off the map, never to be seen again. The Mayans, the Aztecs, and God only knows how many tribes from North America were made extinct long before the white man ever showed up. I always laugh when I encounter people who, in all earnestness and sincerity talk about the “genocide” supposedly perpetrated on the American Indians. Looking at it from a strictly historical perspective, if we committed genocide, we did a piss-poor job of it; where I live in Washington state I have to drive by a casino that reminds me of that fact. But more importantly, I would love to be able to go back in time and talk to a Lakota Sioux chief, and just bring up the idea that the Blackfoot shouldn’t be completely destroyed and never allowed to walk the earth again. Just his reaction would be priceless. The point is, it’s in our blood, it’s in our nature, and it’s in our history to perpetrate this kind of slaughter on our own kind.
Which brings us back to my thoughts about what I saw, and what I heard just a few days ago now. How did this happen? I just put forth my theory. But what is more important, and puzzling, is why did people so passively accept their own extermination? Because none of them truly believed that, in what they would have considered the modern era, that man was capable of such brutality and ruthless behavior. After all, I am guessing they reasoned, those days when the Romans did what they did to Carthage happened more than two thousand years before, and look at how much man had progressed since! Surely no group of human beings would devote such a staggering amount of manpower and resource into the destruction of a group of people, no matter how much they despised them.
And yet, that’s exactly what the Nazis did. Because it’s who we are, and who we’ve always been. Consider that we spent roughly 100,000 years clawing, scratching and fighting our way to sit atop the food chain, to attain mastery of our entire planet, then spent the next two thousand, nine hundred years, give or take, trying to become dominant among our own species. Then, suddenly, in the space of a couple hundred years, we’re supposed to wipe all that away? To pretend it doesn’t exist?
That, I am arguing, is precisely why things like the Holocaust do happen, are happening now, and will continue to happen. The ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; Rwanda; Darfur; the list is endless, as is our capacity for cruelty to each other. Where we get into trouble is when we convince ourselves that we’ve changed, that all those coats of civility that have been applied to us through the centuries, isn’t just a veneer that is easily rubbed away by the first instance of friction. The Jewish people have adopted the phrase “Never Forget”, and we shouldn’t. But we should remember much more than just The Holocaust; we should remember Carthage as well.