Freedom, responsibility and Sieg Heil

Baraboo, Wisconsin, population 12,000, was once the winter quarters of Ringling Brothers Circus. Otherwise its single claim to fame is its town slogan: “Valuing differences in identities, beliefs, and perspectives.”

The town got a surprise last year when a photo emerged showing Baraboo High School students giving the Sieg Heil salute. To be fair, only male students were pictured, and one refused to give the straight-armed salute marking allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi Party, but most did so with smiling enthusiasm.

The pose turned out to be the photographer’s idea. Later he tried to excuse it as a joke, but Sieg Heil (“Hail Victory!”) isn’t a very funny joke. School authorities scrambling to explain first said the students couldn’t be reprimanded because everyone has the right to free speech and expression. Free speech? That’s the very thing Hitler and his cronies did NOT endorse. Criticize the Nazi government or its leader and there would be a knock at the door one night, with the accused disappearing forever. 

Jews, the mentally or physically “unfit”, and migrating gypsies were herded into concentration camps, used for heinous medical experiments, or starved, gassed or shot, their bodies thrown into pits dug by the victims themselves. Allied soldiers liberating the gaunt survivors of those camps at the war’s end were shocked into silence,  tears, or the terrible humorless laughter that erupts when something is too grotesque to believe. They were worse than battlefields, they said, worse than anything they could have imagined.

Germany’s Nazi regime declared war on the U.S. in 1941, two years after battles began raging in Europe. That war killed 70 million people, 400,000 being American troops, with many more  wounded. U.S. civilians accepted shortages of almost everything without complaint because that was part of their job. No one, NO ONE, would have said “Sieg Heil” as a joke. It wasn’t a joke. It still isn’t. 

Naziism dared not show its face for decades after WW II. Then it surfaced in isolated pockets, and in the last year it has become bolder. In shameless exploitation of free expression, it spews out messages that undermine a democracy: inequality, discrimination, violence, hatred.

It will take another kind of war to stop these hate groups, and this time there are no civilians. We all have to pull up our boots and recognize that hate cannot defeat hate. If you hate our president, or hate the people who hate him, give it up. Give up mindless, mean-spirited come-backs.  Don’t fall for one-sided arguments. Be suspicious of pundits with axes to grind, even if (especially if) their words comfort your own prejudices.   

Educating our children at home and school is our best defense. If you have children and don’t know about Nazi history and tactics, find out. Ask someone who lived through WWII (there are still a few around), or look it up. Talk to your kids about it. 

There’s a lot at stake. Democracy was a long time coming. Let’s not be the generation that destroys it.

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