Between June 1942 and February 1943 a small group of university students in Munich organised a peaceful campaign of resistance against the Nazi regime. Appalled by the Nazi killing of Jewish people and disabled people, and disgusted by the war crimes and atrocities being carried out by the German government, they produced and distributed thousands of leaflets urging their fellow students to recognise the criminality of the Nazi regime and participate in resistance activity. They called themselves ‘the White Rose’.
Challenging Hitler’s regime was extraordinarily risky. Siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl were apprehended as they scattered copies of one of the White Rose’s leaflets from the top balcony of the university atrium. They were interrogated, and the other members of the group were arrested. The majority of the members of the group, including the Scholl siblings, were executed by guillotine.
This brave act of resistance became iconic. The leaflets and graffiti caused a sensation in Munich. One of the leaflets was smuggled out to the Allies, who reproduced it and air-dropped millions of copies across Germany. The members of the White Rose showed that people did have choices about their response to Nazism. One leaflet exclaimed:
‘We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!’
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and this year we are celebrating those courageous and selfless people, like the members of the White Rose, who did not stand by when confronted with persecution and genocide. By highlighting these exceptional individuals, we also recognise that the majority of people were not so brave or altruistic. Too many people were bystanders, indifferent, or afraid for their own safety. They tolerated cultures where discrimination and persecution of minorities escalated. They ignored the genocide being perpetrated around them, convincing themselves that it was not their problem.
Today in the United Kingdom we are not at risk of genocide, and we do not face a tyrannical regime. But the challenge posed by the phrase ‘Don’t stand by’ is still relevant and timely.
Today the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust publishes results of a survey of the British public’s experience of witnessing hate crime. Over a quarter of people report that they have witnessed one or more hate crimes or hate incidents in the past year. Behind every one of these incidents will be an individual’s story – somebody having to deal with the consequences of a hostile or violent act carried out simply because of their race, religion, disability, sexuality or gender identity. The prevalence of hate crime in our society should shock us out of complacency.
Our survey also shows that more than two-thirds of those who witnessed hate crime regretted not challenging it in some way. While intervening directly is not always possible or safe, there are steps we can all take to tackle hate crime and hate incidents when we see them. Reporting hate crimes to the authorities is one of the most important.
As well as contemplating the state of our own society, Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to look beyond the UK, to raise awareness of the risk of genocide elsewhere in the world. The genocide in Darfur is now in its 13th year. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court for the crime of genocide, remains in office, travelling the world with impunity. Minority populations in Syria and Iraq continue to face persecution and killing because of their religious beliefs.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to challenge ourselves – as individuals, communities, governments, and the international community – to consider whether we are doing all we can to confront the prejudices and dehumanising attitudes that are the seed of hate crime in our society, and genocide in our world.
Mark Harrison is communications manager of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
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