It was HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL SUNDAY again
And on Radio 4 I heard a programme with someone going on
About ‘VICTIMS’, ‘PERPETRATORS ’ and ‘BYSTANDERS’
(It could have been the Archbishop of Canterbury,
it could have been the Chief Rabbi … for all I know
it was the Dalai Lama)
He said it’s very bad to be a Victim (Obviously) and
It’s very very bad to be a Perpetrator.
But the worst thing of all, he claimed,
Is to be a Bystander because ‘The only thing necessary
for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’
I have to say I have some objections to this: being a Bystander
Is the most natural position in the world. (“Who needs
Imagine: one day in the 1930s you’re on a street in Vienna,
Some middle-class, middle-aged, respectable, professional Jewish
Scrubbing the pavement clean with toothbrushes, mockingly
By a brutish gang of National Socialist Brownshirts.
Because that’s what they did.
And there are a lot of Bystanders.
Because Bystanders know what Brownshirts can do to you:
If you protest they can beat you senseless with their clubs and
With stainless steel toecaps, then drag you away for
Ladies and Gentlemen, I must now make my confession:
If I’d been around in Germany in the mid-1930s,
I know I wouldn’t have done anything.
I certainly wouldn’t have been one of those heroes
Who hid a Jewish family in the cellar for years
I would not have been one of those brave guys
Who guided groups of Jewish escapees
Up through the Austrian Alps to the Swiss border
(I would have been afraid. I would almost certainly
At the merest threat of physical torture.)
These people who lecture us with solemn righteousness,
About not being a Bystander, about not speaking out,
They don’t know the first thing about fear.
They sit in their cosy studies in the 21st Century pondering
Wise, well-educated, humane, highly-moral, civilised maxims
And they seem to think that if another Hitler came along,
All it would take to stop him in his tank-tracks
Would be a defiant, courageous letter to The Guardian.
Oh, yes, I know for certain that if I’d been in Germany in the
I would not have had the courage to stand up to the Nazis.
(An even greater fear is that I might have joined them;
I’m essentially quite a weak character, easily led,
I could soon be swept along in a mob. I love uniforms.)
But what I most like to think I might have done is this:
I might have run away to South America; I like to think
I might have worked my passage on a ship to South America
Changed my name to something South-American sounding and gone
To live in a remote mountain village in the foothills of the
Somewhere in Patagonia perhaps … I understand
It is a very beautiful unspoilt country with few inhabitants.
I think I might have been safe there.
If you have any thoughts on this poem, Peter Hamilton
would be pleased to hear them.