Conformity: How Germany Became a Fascist Country

Sixty years after the fact, the memory of an absurd and unthinkable part of our history resurfaces in our consciences on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 5.

In Israel, Holocaust Day, Yom Hashoah, is a day of deeply felt mourning seen throughout the whole community and it is observed through a minute of silence initiated by a siren, which immobilizes everyone in remembrance of the 6 million lives taken away by Hitler and the Nazis.

Back in Los Angeles, the SMC Hillel Club, along with the SMC Associates, sponsored a lecture by Andrew Stuart Bergerson, a history professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, to inspire students, faculty and community members to become critical and ethical thinkers, as well as activists.

"It is the role of history to teach courage," said Bergerson.

Every year, SMC commemorates the Holocaust to pay homage to the Nazi's victims from all over the world who were decimated, as well as those who miraculously survived the atrocities of the death camps, in an effort to educate students about what happened and to learn from this tragedy.

"Usually we have Holocaust survivors come and share their testimonies, which are both powerful and moving, but this year we wanted a different twist," said the main sponsor of the SMC Hillel Club, Lonee Frailich. "We thought Bergerson could bring a unique perspective to the students."

Bergerson, when asked during the lecture about the origins of his interest for Germany's criminal history, said, "I watched the way homeless people were treated in New York and it consolidated my idea of a collective responsibility in the dehumanization and exclusion of a group of people."

For his new book, "Ordinary Germans in Extraordinary Times," Bergerson immersed himself within the German culture and learned the language in order to draw an ethnographic analysis of the moral ground of a German province during the Nazi Third Reich.

Bergerson first appeared before the SMC Hillel members on Thursday, May 5, to conduct a workshop on "The Myth of Normalcy," based on a meticulous investigation of informal social attitudes and customs of ordinary Germans living in Hildesheim, Germany.

"There was a dynamic in everyday life that facilitated Nazi actions," said Bergerson.

The workshop gave students the opportunity to play a Jew, a Nazi or an ordinary German, and reenact certain greetings and everyday customs that were charged with political messages before and during the Nazi seizure of power in Hildesheim.

The dehumanization and alienation of Jewish neighbors, which enabled the Nazi regime to decimate them was, according to Bergerson, insidiously implemented through informal social behaviors.

"We all learned a lot from his perspective. His argument was very clear and interactive," said SMC Hillel President David Moradi while referring to Bergerson.

The following evening, on May 6, the professor conducted the 2005 Rocky Young Lecture on "The Ethics of Non-Conformity: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times" before a crowd of SMC professors, faculty and community members, as well as a few students.

From an historical, political and philosophical angle Bergerson analyzed the choices made by collaborators and non-conformists when they were faced with ethical dilemmas and explained their crucial consequences on Jewish neighbors back in Hildesheim.

"There were no bystanders in Germany during the Nazi era. Everybody faced the choice of collaborating with the Nazis or challenging them," said the historian, in opposition to the Germans he interviewed, who denied the fact they had a choice in being involved with the Nazi authorities.

"Bergerson wanted to broaden the title of his lecture from 'Ordinary Germans,' to 'Ordinary People,' in order to enable the audience to apply it to the ongoing international conflicts and reflect on their own moral responsibilities," said SMC director of community relations, Judy Neveau.

By juxtaposing historical facts with contemporary events, the professor stressed the idea that we all have an ethical obligation to take action and express non-conformity when confronted with the "human face of fascism."

"Bergerson made a poignant point," said Darroch "Rocky" Young, recently elected chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. "These are the dilemmas we face today. It is important to have those discussions and to not dismiss our moral obligation as human beings. Your voice as a student is as important as mine as a chancellor."

Referring to the analogy between Nazi and American foreign policies, Political Philosophy Professor Eric Oifer said, "The argument was provocative, but it raised important questions both political and philosophical."

Politically correct or not, the ethics talk proved that "there is a clear and visible commitment to life-long learning at Santa Monica College," said Political Science Professor and activist Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein in his brief but eloquent speech introducing the lecture.