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  • How Might Another Shoah Be Prevented?1
  • David R. Blumenthal (bio)


One of the issues to come up very early in the existence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council2 was the tension between the historical and the moral missions of the Council and, then, of the Museum. On the one hand, we all wanted the story of the shoah3 to be told with as much detail as possible. The truth of what happened is awful but it must be told, and it must be told accurately and fully. The Museum has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in fulfilling this mission. On the other hand, what good is history if it does not lead to change? What good is a museum for the shoah if it does not lead to some action to prevent further holocausts, genocides, and mass killings? Already at the beginning, there were some who wanted the last room on the museum tour to be a memorial room with appropriate décor and a place for meditation. Others felt that the last room should be a place for social action with brochures for various causes and an exhortation to choose a cause and do something. Eventually, the last room became The Hall of Remembrance; but we also set up the Committee on Conscience that was charged with selecting issues that were shoah-like and publishing calls for action. I am proud to note that much of the attention given to the genocide in Darfur emanated from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I am also pleased to note that in the spring of 2009, an exhibition entitled “From Memory to Action” opened at the Museum.

One of the reasons why the Museum has not been more morally active is the nature of the political culture of governmental institutions, especially in [End Page 90] the nation’s capital. The other reason is that, in order to prevent another shoah-like event, one must have an analysis of the cause, or causes, of the shoah. This is not so simple. If one believes that the chief cause of the shoah was anti-Semitism, then a program of education and political action follows from that. If one accepts that the main root was radical right-wing political conservatism, a different strategy of education and action follows. If one concludes that the principal source was authoritarian culture, or racism, or lack of civic and moral courage, yet other designs for education and action follow. If the shoah resulted from a combination of causes, still different agendas ensue. By contrast, if one accepts that the shoah resulted from specific historical circumstances that cannot, by the nature of things, ever be repeated, then no moral mission devolves from our efforts.

I believe that we must develop an analysis of the causes of the shoah and I believe that, from that analysis, we can propound general and specific programs of education and action that will help prevent another shoah-like event. I am writing now, therefore, to put forward an analysis of the shoah and, then, a program of action.4

Analysis: Insertion into a Hierarchy That Teaches Evil

In a series of experiments, Stanley Milgram5 and his team from Yale University required subjects to administer what they believed were painful and/or lethal electric shocks to innocent people in order to help them learn a set of associated words. When the subjects showed signs of nervousness as the pain and discomfort of the learners increased, they were instructed firmly by the experimenters to continue. When the subjects indicated that they refused responsibility for the consequences of their actions, the authority figures regularly replied that they, the experimenters, would assume that responsibility, thus enabling the subjects to continue administering dangerous and even lethal shocks to innocent persons. Quite contrary to expectations, 50–65% of the subjects followed instructions into the lethal range of shocks.6 The percentage reached 85% in Germany and among young people generally.7 No difference was registered for women.8 With unrelenting clarity, Milgram notes that these results were not a function of class, religious affiliation, gender, location, educational background, ideology, or general culture.9 Nor...


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