Tag Archives: Nazis

How Witch Hunts Came to Be

witch hunt, witch, bigotry, prejudiceWhen I used the term witch hunt, I am in fact using it in its broadest sense. That is, where a group sets out to get specific people.  Witch hunts have happened throughout history for various reasons.

Here are a few of the more notorious ones:

  • The people of Navarre around the 14th century pitchforked, chased and killed the Gypsies (Rom), itinerant wanderers who were different and were blamed for the plague.
  • Hitler’s pogroms in WWII, caused the death of millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, the three groups he targeted.
  • Canada’s internment camps for the Japanese in WWII in fear that every Japanese-Canadian would turn against Canada.
  • The Salem witch hunts in Massachusetts.
  • The Spanish Inquisition and its infamous tortures.

Some of these were classified as actual witch hunts, but in fact they were rarely about witchery or supposed magic or cavorting with the devil. They were about property and jealousy and conformity. In some cases, every time something went wrong, a person grew ill, cattle sickened or crops failed, people who had been farmers for generations took leave of their senses and blamed anyone who was different. In many cases it was the single women, whether widows or unmarried, that suspicion landed upon.

In Europe many of the supposed witch hunts began as ways to get property from a woman who had no husband. The church had many ways of gaining property off of the people. It had very little to do with the supposed power someone wielded in consort with the devil or forces unseen. It had to do with gaining power.

As I’ve said before, many cases of witch hunts come from ostracization or a need to blame the “other” when things go wrong. It doesn’t matter if the events that happen are caused by stupidity, weather, fear, greed, hatred, bad luck, illness, acts of nature or some other unforeseen accident, there is a great number of people who will need to find a specific thing or person to blame.

There were cases throughout the middle ages where animals were put on trial. Hence came the term scapegoat, which came to be given to a person being blamed for ills that befell others. Scapegoat, fall guy, they all mean the same thing. If you are other or different, then you are under suspicion for anything that goes wrong. If your skin is a different color than those around you, or you believe in a god different than those in your village, or you walk or talk or look differently, or your traditions are unknown, or your lifestyle is to live alone when everyone else is couples–then these are all reasons for suspicion and doubt and blame.

Dr. Frankenstein knew this well. In Mary Shelley’s book it is not just that the doctor creates a monster, it is also that he is “other,” living differently than the village. The monster is other as well and because it is different, an abomination (though maybe it’s misunderstood) it too is the scapegoat. It strikes out when attacked but otherwise is much like the village idiot in innocence and ability to perceive.

So, how does all this happen? Some ostracizing happens because people are afraid, and they crave a reason for the unexplainable ills that befall them. And some blaming happens because people let it. This comes to the other side of the coin of the witch hunt, that of “If it’s not my house burning, then it doesn’t affect me.” It’s called turning a blind eye.

Many of those witch hunts, of those Jews, of those Gypsies or various groups being banished, hunted, burned, murdered would not have happened if people stepped up to say something. But humans as a whole seem to be notorious cowards. Or, even worse, they’re not cowards but they just don’t care if it doesn’t affect them. Maybe we are all selfish, self-centered creatures.

I heard a little phrase recently, which I will paraphrase. When they came for the Jews I did nothing because it wasn’t about me. When they came for the black people I did nothing because I wasn’t one of them. When they came for the (put in any group for any of these) I did nothing because it didn’t affect me. When they came for me, there was no one left to help. So what are you going  to do the next time you seem someone being unfairly singled out, whether verbally or physically? Will you turn a blind eye and let them be the scape goat. Will you stand by and watch or will you do something?

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Terror of the Air: Cold War Memories

When I was a child growing up in Calgary, there was an air raid siren in our neighborhood, at the corner where the Chinese store was. Yes, we did call the little corner store the Chinese store, as it was run by Chinese, yet this was never a derogatory term. I believe the air raid siren was across the street by the gas station. It was very tall, with a thick pole about the width of two light standards. It had to be about 25-30 feet high, with a big megaphone shaped horn at the top and all of it painted bright silver (or maybe that was the metal).

The top of ours was something like this, though the pole was round.

Ours was similar in style though the pole was round.

This Cold War artifact was very present in our memories and daily life. For one they would test it yearly and it sounded just like those WWII sirens you hear in the movies. I think. I was a kid so it’s hard to remember exactly. But the testing didn’t continue through every year.

Yet I remember that we were told to hunker down should a bomb drop and hide under our desks. There was a film they showed us, grainy black and white. I think it was sometime before grade 4 and I remember it being about bombings, maybe about Hiroshima because people were running from bombs dropping and the only image that seared into my brain was that of someone being vaporized by the bomb and leaving a skeletal imprint on the building behind them.
We were a generation growing up with fear of a world war, reminded by our parents and grandparents who may have lived through the horrors. We were after the generation of love and peace, the anti-war movement but were influenced by it nonetheless. Love and peace and hippy power had invaded and surely we were protected from the terrors of war. Yet we had those ever present reminders like the air raid siren.
My mother also had a gas mask, one of those old style ones with a corrugated rubber tube and
Almost exactly like my mother's except it was a black hose and mask.

Almost exactly like my mother's except it was a black hose and mask.

then a red tin at the end. What that tin was for, I’m not sure. It couldn’t hold air and I had no faith that it had ever filtered anything. Maybe it was just to convince people they were safe. The mask could have been hers from the war but I it might also have been a second hand one she bought when she was spraying insecticides on her plants. We would play in it and pretend we were monsters but not that often, because it was hot and steamy in there.I think for awhile there was an old army jacket hanging around, either my mother’s or my father’s. Most of these items disappeared by the time I was twelve except for the gas mask that no one used, and the air raid siren, now silent and ominous of a former era.

One day, when I was a teenager the siren went off. I don’t know if it was a test or some valve or button failing after all the years. But that terrible wail filled the air. Most of us ignored it, after a glance to the clear blue sky, but I remember these two little kids, about seven, who crying in sheer terror ran helter skelter for home, sure that the bombs were about to drop. I don’t know what they’d been told about wars, what mind curdling films they had been shown, but obviously the horror of war was a real thing for them.

When I was sixteen and in school, we heard the siren go one day. We were at least ten blocks diagonal away from it, yet it was pretty clear. No one bothered paying attention. After all, where do you go if the bombs are dropping? There were no bomb shelters that had ever existed in our area, bombs were more lethal from what we knew, and radiation would get us no matter what. Shortly after that, the air raid siren disappeared.

I would have off and on through the years, nightmares that were end of the world scenarios. Sometimes the bombs had dropped, sometimes it was just deadly radiation and sometimes the Nazis were chasing and persecuting me. They obviously were a form of stress  dream but one that would wake me in the middle of the night.

We are a generation that has seen war mostly from afar (except those in the military) yet that terror is a reality for some people every day. War is still not the thing of the past and it is more deadly than ever before. Perhaps that’s why my dreams are still spattered with war scenarios and movie realities. It would be nice some day that war is just a make believe thing but I think it will be a long time until humanity evolves to that next level.


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