Freedom, responsibility and Sieg Heil

Baraboo, Wisconsin, a town of 12,000 inhabitants, was once the winter quarters of Ringling Brothers Circus.  Otherwise it has few claims to fame.  As a heart-of-America community, it advertises itself as being committed to “valuing differences in identities, beliefs, and perspectives.” 

This week it got a surprise when a photo emerged showing last year’s  juniors, now seniors at Baraboo High School, giving the Sieg Heil salute. To be fair, only male members of the class were pictured, and some weren’t giving the straight-armed salute that glorified Hitler and the Nazi Party, but they were all smiling big smiles and apparently having a fine time.   

Maybe it was a joke. That is yet to be discovered, but Sieg Heil (meaning “Hail to Victory” – of the Nazi party) is not a very funny joke. High school administrators have said they cannot reprimand the students because everyone has the right to free speech and expression. Freedom of expression is the very thing that Hitler and his cronies did NOT believe in and used the dreaded Gestapo to curtail. Say the wrong thing, criticize the government, and there would be a knock at the door one night, with the accused (and possibly other family members) disappearing forever. 

And there were the Jews, Gypsies, and the mentally or physically “unfit” who were herded into concentration camps, used for heinous medical experiments, starved, or shot, their bodies thrown into pits dug by the victims themselves.  Those who survived were so gaunt and ragged that American troops liberating the camps at the end of WWII were shocked into silence, horror or tears. It was worse than the battlefields, they said, worse than anything they could imagine.   

America entered the war on Dec. 7, 1941, 77 years ago in just a couple of weeks. Start to finish, approximately 700 million people died as a result of that war, 400,000 or more being American troops, and many more were severely wounded. Shortages of food, medical service, cars and shoes marked those days, but few complained, and no one, NO ONE, would have said “Sieg Heil” as a joke. It wasn’t a joke. It still isn’t. 

If the Baraboo students giving the Nazi salute were trying to make a joke, they might be forgiven – reluctantly, but forgiven. They didn’t experience that war, nor did their parents, but it emphasizes the point that those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. That’s why we teach history in schools, right? Not a few dull facts in  textbooks, but the living events of horror, separation, pain, heroism, sacrifice, error and success.

Can kids take this lesson, or should we protect them from harsh realities of life? I could make a case for protecting them, but it’s a weak case. These soon-to-be-adults must learn what human beings are capable of, what blindly following the leader can ultimately lead to, and what Nazism and a “Sieg Heil” mentality can do to otherwise rational people. 

A thousand cheers for free expression, which does not, and has never, included shouting “Fire,” when there is none, in a crowded theater. There are limits to freedom of speech and action, and it is just as important to learn the limitations and responsibilities of our freedoms as it is to learn that we are free people. One cannot exist without the other.

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