The problem with history is that it is in the past, and thus it is easy to project contemporary attitudes and positions upon it. When we do this, we often derive the wrong lessons from history. Long after the dust settles, it is easy to take a stand and align yourself with the victors who wrote the history books. It is difficult to take a stand when the entire world tells you that you’re wrong.
A case in point is the above photograph of August Landmesser. He was a German shipyard worker in Hamburg who, as seen in the iconic photograph, refused to render the Hitler salute. The reason was because he was in love with a Jewish woman named Irma Eckler. Their marriage became illegal under German law and Landmesser was charged with dishonoring the Aryan race. After a stint in prison, he was conscripted into the military and killed in action in Croatia. Meanwhile, Eckler was sent to a concentration camp and murdered by the Nazi regime. Amazingly, their two children survived the war.
Today, in the fast-paced world of social media, the photograph of Landmesser refusing to salute often makes the rounds. Americans, whatever their political persuasion, feel that they can relate to Landmesser, as if they are a German in 1935, unwilling to capitulate to Hitler’s criminal regime. Of course, they are no August Landmesser, and those who feel they are have derived the wrong lessons from history.
70 years after World War Two, it is easy to take a stand against Nazism. In Germany during 1935, it was not. Those who did not fall in line were subject to liquidation, as Landmesser found out. His wife would likely have been killed regardless of her political affiliations since she was a Jew. Today, every American grows up reading school textbooks decrying Nazism as essentially the worst thing that has happened in contemporary history. There is a compelling case to be made, and history has made it, informing us that the Nazis were evil. It is one of the more clear-cut black and white cases in which America was the good guy and Nazi Germany was the bad guy.
You don’t have to take a stand against Nazism in 2016 because others risked life and limb to take that stand for you. With the comfort of retrospection generations after the fact, taking a stand is easy. Being an August Landmesser, an Irena Sendler, or a member of the active Jewish resistance was not easy. Speaking up and risking the ostracization of your peers is noble, taking action when a criminal government will have you and your family murdered at its first opportunity is the sort of thing we call a person a hero for after they die.
Everyone wants to see themselves as an August Landmesser, but the reality is that they are not. In such a situation, few will speak out or take action against a movement which carries powerful social currency, a movement that gives citizens and immense amount of legitimacy by joining. This is how we derive the wrong lessons from history. You are not August Landmesser, but you should ask yourself if you are brave enough to be him if that day ever came. I could not say for sure if I would be. Had I been brainwashed in the Hitler Youth and came of age in Germany during World War Two, would I have been strong enough to resist? We all want to see ourselves as the hero of the story, but history often tells us a different story. The average person is not so noble, or so heroic.
Usually this photograph is posted on social media networks by people implying that they are the lone dissenter in a country that is alternately being run into the ground by leftist radicals or destroyed by right-wing extremists. People impose their own projections and imagery on this photograph, turning it into what they want it to be about, but it isn’t about you or me and that’s something we should all be grateful for.