A lesson that is never out of date

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Donald Woods is a national hero of my ancestral country, but at one time the government considered him an enemy. He was a fierce critic of apartheid from within South Africa, and it may be hard now to appreciate what a dangerous choice that would have been.

When something is so clearly wrong and when the outside world is able to reflect an image of the situation, as was the case in apartheid South Africa, that must help one to keep a sense of perspective. But in the 21st century we have globalised problems, globalised injustices and globalised mistakes. When the whole world can at times seem a little crazy – when there are conspiracy theories everywhere and when the mainstream media can no longer be relied upon to give us a clear view – where can we turn for a sense of normality, for a baseline of what is right and what is wrong? How do we know what are the lies and what is the truth? Who are the heroes and who are the villains?

I think a man of Woods’ clarity and courage would have been able to help us. He would have recognised many of the lies and hypocrisies we face today, and understood the mind control tricks used to ease people into accepting oppression and injustice. He would have been able to show us how something very wrong, can seem right until it is too late. And he would have had us laughing at ourselves and that so much of what we stand for is ridiculous. If we were unable to see the joke we would be in really big trouble.

Here is Woods explaining to his children with incredible clarity how something as wrong as Nazism can get a hold of a nation.

Dachau Explained To Children – Donald Woods 1976

Many South Africans believed the “World at War” episode dealing with Hitler’s death camps shouldn’t have appeared on our television screens. They claimed this was because they didn’t want their children to see it….

Taking the opposite view, I watched it with my children, and for those who don’t know how to explain such atrocities I can offer the following approach:

You can’t understand why the Nazis murdered all those people? Well it starts with prejudice. Prejudice means judging people without knowing them, having hostile feelings towards people without sensible reason, regarding people as part of a group instead of as individuals.

Prejudice is like a disease, and children usually catch it from parents and other adults. But it can be prevented through good education, and sometimes it can be cured with psychiatric treatment.

Hitler didn’t have a good education, and he grew up prejudiced against Jews. He was never cured of his prejudice because he never had proper treatment. He found that many other people had the same prejudice against Jews, so he became leader of Germany by spreading scare stories about Jews and by promising to save Germany from them. Eventually he told his followers to kill all Jews, and that’s why there were places like Dachau.

Why didn’t they refuse? Well, in a nondemocracy people don’t ask questions when they are told what to do. They just do it. If they don’t they are called disloyal to the country. Yes, a dictatorship is the opposite of a democracy. A dicator is a person who is scared of most of his own countrymen and that is why he won’t let them vote.

Why didn’t someone report Hitler to the police? In a dictatorship you don’t have proper police. You have political police. Proper police fight crime. Political police fight opponents of the government. Yes, Hitler used to imprison people without trial. He used to ban and banish them and house-arrest them. He regarded people who disagreed with him as enemies of the whole country.

No, he didn’t really believe they were, or he would have let judges decide, wouldn’t he? Dictators play on the fears of ignorant people. Hitler knew how much his people feared communism, so he called people who disagreed with him Communists. In that way he got many of his followers to believe that good people were bad people, and that bad things were good things and that lies were truth.

Yes, there were many people here who admired Hitler in those days. Some are in our government today. But they weren’t the government of South Africa then. Our government in those days declared war against Hitler. Yes, the present government came to power in 1948.

What is a patriot? A patriot is someone who wants the best for his country, including the best laws and the best ideals. It’s something other people should call you – you shouldn’t call yourself that. People who call themselves patriots are usually liars. A wise man, Dr. Johnson, once said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. He meant that people who praise their own love of country are usually covering up their lack of it.

Yes, it is unpatriotic to love the things in your country that are wrong. When Dachau death camp was built, Hitler’s men put up a sign outside it: MY COUNTRY, RIGHT OR WRONG.

Those are among the most evil words ever written.