Seeing is believing, the old adage goes. Often the only thing capable of denting humanity’s monumental ability to bunker down in a state of denial is indisputable, visual evidence. When cruel things take place on a massive and institutionalized scale behind closed doors and out of sight in societies clinging to the tattered mantle of “civilized,” only jarring confrontation, history tells us, can shatter the delusions we cling to. If the ear won’t listen, tell it to the eye.
That was the topic of a Slate article that came out some time ago, featuring a photo of German prisoners of war watching footage of concentration camps. “As part of the Allied policy of postwar denazification,” Rebecca Onion writes, “’forced confrontation’ brought Germans face-to-face with the worst works of the Third Reich. Confrontation took multiple forms, as American and British military officials adapted their tactics based on local conditions.” These “forced confrontations included forcing Germans to watch video footage of concentration camps, marching townspeople past the charred corpses of their former neighbors, and posting photos of the atrocities in public places. Imagery, the evidence of what had actually been done to a brutally dehumanized and coldly executed group of human beings, was central in re-educating a population that had been “educated” to think that Jews, and many others, were not fully human.
The Allies were careful to show the Germans that the destruction of these millions of lives was a collective responsibility, something that each member of the society conducting the killings was partially responsible for. In Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, Harold Marcuse notes that huge placards showing piles of charred corpses were hung up “in cities, towns, and Military Offices everywhere” with titles such as “YOU ARE GUILTY OF THIS.” As many historical works have since proven (Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners being one of the most extensive and thorough), they were—although reactions among recipients of this message varied widely.
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To come face to face with such horrors, to see the careless heaps of shattered lives and broken people, was too much for many to bear. Even a veteran soldier like General Dwight Eisenhower struggled to comprehend what had happened.
“I have never felt able to describe my emotional reaction when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency,” he wrote, “…I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.”
Man’s inhumanity to man often reaches such depths that only the starkest evidence of its reality can wake us up to the fact that it does, indeed, exist and flourish. Even then, many times, people tend to write off such evidence as “just propaganda.” Denial of the atrocity is the only way for perpetrators and bystanders to relieve themselves of culpability, and in many cases, continue the pattern. “Forced confrontation” between the culture and the victims is necessary before people can fully realize the extent of the lies and the extent of the human loss. Cracked skulls, charred corpses, severed limbs—these horrors figure prominently in every atrocity. But until people see them, they will ignore them.
Because seeing is believing.
Reprinted with permission from Unmasking Choice