CAMDEN By Caleb Slinkard
Last week, after finishing work up early and having a free evening on my hands, I had the urge to see a movie on the big screen.
I go through phases like that. For months, nothing could entice me to head to a movie theater. There’s plenty to watch on Netflix and Disney+ and, if that ever runs out, YouTube videos rabbit trails to head down. But then I’ll get a push from nowhere and I’ll see four or five in a two week stretch.
Anyway, last week, I went to see “1917.” I really wanted to see “Little Women,” because I’ve heard great things and I re-read the book last month in preparation, but it’s not showing in town. But “1917” was a good second choice. A few years ago, as we neared the 100 year anniversary of Armistice Day, I and my news editor at the time concluded we didn’t know much at all about World War I.
When it comes to World Wars, World War II dominates history books, film and art. There are probably hundreds of reasons for that ranging from the fact that it was more recent to the use of atomic bombs to the fact that the Nazis are ubiquitous antagonists.
So my news editor and I got to work. I listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast. He has a series on the beginning of World War I called “Blueprint for Armageddon.” If you’re a history buff and don’t know about Hardcore History, I sincerely encourage to check it out. It’s widely regarded as the best history podcast available, and what Carlin lacks in production speed he more than makes up for in the breadth and length of his shows.
I also read “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman and began reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” before becoming decidedly distracted by other books. So I felt reasonably prepared for “1917,” which, while not based on a true story, is full of real life
situations and events.
I was not prepared.
Director Sam Mendes, who dedicated the movie to his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a staff sergeant during World War I, creates an incredibly immersive experience through a technically stunning single-shot technique. It feels as if you’re walking right next to the main characters, experiencing their hopes, fears, despair and relief. It’s gorgeous and breathtaking and devastating. I left the theater in silence, overwhelmed by what I was feeling.
On Facebook, I asked my friends what movies have impacted them the most over the past few years. Not their favorite movies, or the ones they’ve watched the most, but the ones that had the most significant, lasting affect on them. “1917” is one such film for me. “Schindler’s List,” which I saw on DVD more than a decade ago, easily had the most impact on me, however. I watched it one afternoon and then, afterwards, simply went to bed. I was too emotionally exhausted to do anything else.
Movies like “Schindler’s List” are important, because they help us understand and feel events that happened long ago but changed our world. Although the Holocaust happened decades before I was born, Holocaust survivors are still alive. World leaders recently came together to recognize the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a series of more than 40 individual camps run by the Nazis in Poland during World War II. Histories estimate that one million, three hundred thousand people were sent to the camp. One million, one hundreds thousand of those people died, according to those same estimates. Nine hundred and sixty thousand of those individuals were Jews. The Nazis also “persecuted other groups because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority” and “other groups on political, ideological and behavioral grounds,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These groups included “Roma, people with disabilities, some Slavic peoples, Soviet prisoners of war, blacks… Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals,” according to the museum.
There are so many lessons we can learn from Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The most important one is that we are not immune to the horrors of our ancestors. The same nationalist fervor that stoked Nazi Germany has taken root across the world, including in the United States. The fear and anger toward the “other,” people who are considered different than us due to religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or one of the other many ways we divide each other is just as present today as it was 75 years ago. It is dangerous to ignore these lessons, to forget the horrors of Auschwitz, to attempt to whitewash or rewrite history.
We cannot go back in time and save the millions upon millions of people who were killed in the Holocaust. But we can rely on the memory of their deaths as a warning against the dangers of nationalist and populist policies, of fear-mongering totalitarian governments that use fear and lies to manipulate their people. Of our own capacity for allowing horrible things to happen, and of the importance of finding the courage to stop them.
There’s a famous poem that was found on a wall of a German internment camp. It’s worth reading often. It starts like this:
“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining
And I believe in love, even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God, even when he is silent.”
Caleb Slinkard is the regional editor for the Camden News. He previously served as editor of two dailies and four weeklies in Oklahoma and Texas. To contact him, email [email protected]