Swiss gold. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's lineage. Artwork looted from French Jews. Red Cross officials who assisted the Nazis in laundering victims' money.
The Holocaust, which not long ago seemed destined for the historical storage shelf, is making headlines-and seems firmly ensconced in the popular culture. In February, the movie Schindler's List captured the attention of 65 million Americans when the Ford Motor Co., whose founder once spread virulent antisemitism, sponsored a commercial-free, three-and-a-half hour broadcast on network television.
These are not disparate stories. They share a common theme and a contemporary relevance. They concern the people and institutions we have always viewed as bystanders to the Holocaust: neutral governments and agencies, Jews living in relative safety, allies, occupied countries and ordinary Germans. These bystanders have spent 50 years protesting their innocence and ignorance of what was going on. But historians have repeatedly demonstrated-and the recent stories reaffirm-that many were not innocent and virtually no one, including the American public, was ignorant.
That's a great change from the traditional way of thinking about the Holocaust-as a distant drama of victims and perpetrators. The recent stories offer a new challenge-they ask us to imagine ourselves as bystanders. And stories about bystanders are of particular interest because they are, in some fashion, about us.
It is also striking that the Holocaust is recapturing our imagination just as examples of genocide in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Burundi have become prominent humanitarian concerns and a challenge for U.S. foreign policy.
Justice Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who was chief prosecutor at the first International War Crimes Tribunal since Nuremberg, visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in late January. Though none of his relatives died in the Holocaust, he said, the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals were "an inspiration" to him in his efforts to bring current war criminals to justice. As he described how perpetrators of war crimes demonize and dehumanize their victims with massive, skillful propaganda, it was hard to know if he was speaking of the Third Reich in the 1930s or Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s. For Goldstone, the Holocaust is more than historical data; it informs his work and his world view.
Recent revelations have changed the way I work, too. In my course on the history of the Holocaust, I try to give students a sense of the enormity and complexity of events. Recently, they have begun to see how the Holocaust can shed light on current events, and the daily newspaper is part of the course syllabus for them. My students understand that this is more than just history they are studying. Those who are preparing for careers in law, business and medicine are being forced to think about how they might behave if they are faced with a modern-day Holocaust.
Fifty years on, stories of Holocaust bystanders still resonate because they challenge our perception of people and institutions we have respected. But the revelations about a Swedish family were the most painfully ironic. The young Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who used sheer chutzpah to save thousands of Hungarian Jews, is commemorated at the Holocaust Museum, which chose as its address Raoul Wallenberg Place. Now we learn that Wallenberg's uncles may have helped Germany by giving large unsecured loans to German companies in exchange for Nazi gold.
But of all the recent stories related to the Holocaust, the least consequential most transfixed the American imagination: Madeleine Albright's family history. Her life became the raw material for what Frank Rich of The New York Times called a "kaffeeklatsch of armchair psychoanalysis." Some people were indignant that Albright didn't know of her Jewish ancestry; others focused their anger on her parents, the Korbels, accusing them of turning their backs on their own parents. But Albright was like thousands of other Jews in Europe and America whose parents cut themselves off from their roots rather than face painful truths.
A controversial traveling photo exhibit now on display in Germany punctures the myth that the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) fought a clean war while the SS (the Nazi special police) fought a dirty one. Photos taken of each other by the Wehrmacht soldiers show them smiling, posed next to the terrified people they later murdered. Some even wrote their families, boasting of how many Jews they had killed-and lamenting they had not shot more.
None of us are inclined to think of ourselves as perpetrators. But we all know we can be-and often are-bystanders. As bystanders, we distance ourselves with the idea there is nothing we can do. But that's often not true. Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler capture our imagination, because they demonstrate that during the Holocaust there was something that could be done. Examples like theirs show that in the face of unmitigated evil a bystander who takes no action becomes a facilitator.
The Holocaust reminds us that we must not sit idly by-or wait to respond until the horrors escalate. The time to stop human atrocities is when they begin. The Holocaust, like the recent outrages in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, would not have happened had the rest of the world made it clear to the warring parties that persecution is intolerable. Instead, in Europe and Africa, atrocities are allowed to escalate while other countries avoid intervention or take sides to support one faction or the other.
What will coming generations say of us 50 years from now? Will they accuse us of having done too little too late to stop genocide in Bosnia, Zaire, Sudan and other places yet to be named? Will they hold us in the contempt that we are beginning to have for bystanders to the Holocaust? Will they accuse us not only of inaction but complicity, wondering why we who are inundated with stories about the Holocaust ultimately seemed to have learned so little from it?
Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust
Studies. A longer version of this essay first appeared in The Washington