Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in the Hebrew language. The word that comes closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is the word “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”
The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor”. One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.
“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).
These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.
Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and our holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history brings the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, I think you will come to realize why it is so important “not to forget what went before.”
STALIN’S RISE TO POWER
Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his own research into recently released Soviet archives. I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.
In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schols because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.
In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the provisional government. In spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.
Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin’s opening to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone apposed to him or his ideas. Stalin was able to do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.
In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered collectivization of farmlands, the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which lead to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.
It seems that although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means, and secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.
THE RISE OF THE NAZIS
This month, I also had the opportunity to study Hitler’s ascent and reign via the excellent documentary series Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.
In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazi party, rules the country. Hitler is the autocratic ruler and his collaborators, Ernst Röhm, Hermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, control all German national institutions:
- The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
- Herman Goring creates his own espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
- Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.
In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlists Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).
Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape, and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.
- Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. He used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
- Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humanity was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, all morality and truth were judged by these criteria. (Source: Britannica)
Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist, dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.
The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. His perception that right-wing radicals were literally getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.
In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because Hitler was meanwhile trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and to maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”
Although Litten manages to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces, all German national institutions were corrupted. Litten himself is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had converted to Lutheranism.
The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler aquires his positon of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expands his power by acquiring methodical control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachay as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his own power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their own personal pursuit of power then lead them to collaborate with each other in order to denouncing Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his storm troopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.
This episode ends with the little known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible to be condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his wn intitiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the report was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began November 20, 1945.
These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. They managed to seduce and to intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”
In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.
The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere and allow the regime to keep a close eye on all its citizens, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “becoming a part of uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibiliity of privacy or resistance.
This reality seems to be even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.
Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important?
Why is it so important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? It shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral compunctions, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame, and to claim supreme governing authority.
The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these kinds of rulers, even after we ourselves are prospering, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to review these events, we all become witnesses.
Andrew Blinken, Biden’s recently nominated US Secretary of State, reminds us here how important the power of memory can be, especially for those who may have power over our lives.