Editor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. Written in 1945 just after the war this essay is a reminder that hatred left unchecked could destroy a civilization.
There is not a person in Europe today who will admit ever having been a Nazi at heart.
Industrialists, merchants, craftsmen and shopkeepers all explain that they hated Nazi policies but had to go along to save themselves from torture, imprisonment—or loss of business. Laborers and farmers simply shrug their shoulders and say they did not understand.
Throughout Germany the refrain is the same: “We did as we were told.”
There is no record of any Nazi’s proudly proclaiming his faith, as heroic men have done since time began, going to their death gladly to stand by the eternal imponderable values of life and thus inspire other generations unto eternity.
All the time I was listening to these alibis I was thinking of my own America. I was thinking of Huey Long, der Führer of Louisiana, and of the whole corrupt mess of the first Fascist State in America.
I was thinking of Frank Hague, political boss of the once sovereign state of New Jersey, and of other great bosses of municipalities, men of vast wealth and power who determine national elections.
I was thinking also of some of our great financial and industrial and mercantile leaders who play ball with political corruptionists—willing to pay sordid money for favors granted, or fearful of reprisals unless they do come through.
I was thinking also of certain labor leaders who wax fat at the expense of the “little men” they exploit, who extort vast sums from employers who are either equally corrupt or too ratlike to defy them. They live like millionaires by proclaiming to the gullible that they are fighting for the working man against the rich.
I was thinking of racial and religious hatreds in America—the hates upon which the Nazis fed and grew so powerful that they destroyed a civilization; hates which in their ultimate horror brought us to Buchenwald and Dachau, where we saw sights which seared our souls.
Yes, I found in the hell that once was Germany an indictment of my own beloved America.
All the time I was listening to the slimy pretenses of these German leaders that they “had to go along,” I was thinking of American leaders whom I have heard say the same thing, that “they had to play ball.”
In Munich I visited the beer gardens, the subbasement hideouts, wherein were the beginnings of the Nazi movement. The leaders of “the party” were saloon brawlers, criminals, perverts, fanatics. Yet, by a combination of Ku-Klux bigotry and Al Capone gangster techniques, these brutes conquered all the continent of Europe and left it a shambles. These foul murderers were not stopped because the German people lacked the courage to defy their ultimatums.
The story of the rise of Nazism in Germany is the story of a people who lost their moral sense in seeking security. It is the story of the world today. It is the story of the horrid appeasement at Munich. It is the story of America wherever men think more of profits and political preferment and comfort than they do of the souls God gave them, to make them free.
The only difference between what happened in Germany and what could happen in America is that the Germans, for countless generations, have learned to obey while we have learned to obey while we have not, and that the Nazis could apply Huey Long and Al Capone methods while the vastness of America precludes such efficiency in destroying all opposition.
But have we not, too, been facing down the road to hell, lured by the mirage of personal prosperity and security?
The writer has too deep and profound a faith in America, and the ideals that are planted in the very marrow of our bones, to believe that we will drift without any sense of moral responsibility, as did the Germans, until we are destroyed. But it is going to take more than pious platitudes to save us. There must be a rebirth of conscience, a realization that real success cannot be determined by the social register. This rebirth must come from the mind and the heart and soul of the individual American citizen.
Only then can the United States become the country of our dreams. Only then can it be restored to the ideals for which Washington prayed at Valley Forge and for which Lincoln gave his life.