THE DEMOCRATIC REPORTER
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Toronto Star - Nov. 10, 2007 - By Stuart Laidlaw, Faith and Ethics reporter
Even genocide can be given fertile ground, a visiting U.S. historian warns.
"Greed and avarice play a role" in the advancement of hate, William Meinecke, a historian at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, says. "They can be very seductive."
The Holocaust offers important lessons today on how ordinary people can be seduced into genocidal thinking by focusing on their short-term personal needs, Meinecke warns.
"I here echoes of it when I hear people complain about émigrés taking jobs," he says. "Or professionals complaining about foreign-trained professionals flooding in."
In the early days of Nazi rule, non-Jews found that Nazi policies could get them a few extra luxuries amid the Great Depression, Meinecke says. Jewish possessions were auctioned off at a fraction of their value as Jews were forced from their homes and jobs. Their businesses were sold at 20 cents on the dollar and good apartments suddenly came on the market.
"It was a way to soak up consumer demand and at the same time draw more people into the anti-Jewish cause," Meinecke says.
In his research, Meinecke found letters from country lawyers offering their services as judges in larger centres because Jewish legal professionals had been driven out of their jobs and sent to concentration camps. They saw in genocide a career opportunity they might not otherwise have had, Meinecke says.
"Then it is in your own interest to support Nazi policies," he says.
Meinecke was speaking in Toronto as part of Holocaust Education Week, which wraps up tomorrow. Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler had approximately 6 million European Jews killed during World War II in a deliberate policy of genocide known as the Holocaust.
It was against this backdrop that Meinecke says companies also became complicit in advancing the Nazi cause, deciding it was good for business to cut Jews out of their operations as officers of the company, board members or even as customers. Meinecke's session, Nazi Exploitation of Modern Consumer Economy, was held among Bay Street's gleaming towers overlooking the offices of some of the country's biggest businesses.
Again drawing on original letters, this time from business people, Meinecke says companies argued they needed to restrict Jews in order to preserve their business interests amid the "current climate" of politics, not because they supported the Nazis. Their policies, however, contributed to the very climate they were blaming for their actions.
"It's that kind of circular argument that keeps coming up," says Meinecke, who also spoke Thursday evening at the Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue on Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.
On the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazi thugs destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses throughout Germany and Austria. Until then, Meinecke says, many Jews believed they could survive Nazi rule.
"They still saw themselves as German first and Jewish second. They kept waiting for the Nazis to go away and for people to return to their senses," Meinecke says. "That ended on Kristallnacht."
As Nazi rule continued and the costly war wore on, Meinecke says, ordinary citizens' tolerance for atrocities against the Jews grew. Nazi support grew as cheap goods and lower taxes from plundered possessions made their way to market and filled government coffers.
Even non-profit groups were seduced.
One aid agency sent a letter thanking German officials for all the free coats it had received for the poor, but complained that some still had the Star of David sewn on them and splatters of blood from previous owners.
The agency asked if the next batch of coats could be better prepared, but raised no concerns about where the coats, which had belonged to death camp victims, had come from.
The death camps also helped keep taxes down, Meinecke says.
Gold from wedding rings and dental fillings taken from Holocaust victims was melted down and used to pay for the war effort, he says. Even hair cut from Jewish victims helped pay for the war; it was used to stuff mattresses on U-boats.
Without this and other plunder, he says, the cost of the war would have forced the Nazis to heavily tax the German public.
Meinecke says Germans knew what was happening, and how they were benefiting. Nazi authorities were constantly checking public opinion and acceptance of their propaganda, giving historians evidence about German attitudes at the time.
But Germans largely ignored it, he says, because they hoped to benefit in some material way by getting a new apartment or cheap clothes and furniture at an auction of Jewish possessions.
"Even if they didn't actually get the apartment, the idea that they can get the apartment becomes very important. The idea that they can take part in an auction becomes important," he says. 
At the same time, he says, the Nazi policy of plundering Jewish assets became a "massive incentive" for other countries to join forces with the Nazi regime, helping to spread Hitler's influence throughout the Baltic states.
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