The revelation came as a slap in the face.
I’d been teaching my high school unit on WW II and the Holocaust when it hit me: I would have been a Nazi. Yes, I, a passionate long-time progressive activist and educator, would have been a goose-stepping, fascist monster.
You see, when I was a kid, I was a devout Catholic. I believed all the nuns’ drivel about how, if I didn’t do exactly what they prescribed, I’d surely go to Hell; about how fortunate I was to have been born in the United States, God’s bastion of goodness on Earth; about how, if I fought in any war defending America, especially against those awful communists, I’d become a martyr and go straight to Heaven — a place I knew was denied to all non-Catholics, in particular those infidels, the Muslims.
I became an avid Boy Scout, too, doing “my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout Law…to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” I loved the flags, the salutes, and especially my scout uniform, with all its badges and rank.
The truth is, I considered myself superior to most everyone else on Earth. So, oh yes, if I’d been born in Nazi Germany, I would have been first in line to join Hitler’s youth corps. And who knows what sort of abominations I might have gone on to do?
What saved me was the opportunity I had after college to live in Spain, to immerse myself in a foreign culture and language — an experience which both opened my eyes to a much wider world, and which forced me to finally accept humility. I learned that no person, faith, country, or race has a monopoly on goodness or evil, or the truth. Indeed, even the great United States is but one economic downturn away from fascism — closer now, perhaps, than ever before.
Today, despite my horror of Hitler, I can view with some compassion the Nazis of the last century and even those who perpetrate atrocities today, such as ICE agents who tear young, innocent refugee children from their parents’ arms and lock them into cages. After all, I could easily have ended up just like those goons. There but for the grace of God (or fate or just plain dumb luck) would have gone I.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for much of my Catholic education and my adventures as a boy scout. Nonetheless, I recognize that education truly is a powerful double-edged sword, one that can be used to brainwash or to challenge, to oppress or to liberate, to ennoble or to deprave. Our only hope, it seems to me, aside from sending our kids abroad for a year, is to teach children to question all dogmas and authorities; and, above all, to cherish the inherent goodness in themselves and everyone else, no matter who they are, what they look like, what they believe, or where they’re from.
This is the only vaccine against becoming a Nazi.