The Importance of Witnessing What We Don’t Want to See

By Mark L. Taylor
Daily Call (1/21/12)

“Tears out your heart to see them … I stopped looking at them after awhile … Hollow feeling in my stomach. Then remembered I was a reporter. Remembered as a man, I must see it all and register it in my heart and mind …” (p. 165)

The above quote is an excerpt from the wartime diary of American journalist William L. Shirer, author of the iconic “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany”.
The observations are from May 20, 1940, before he was chased out of Germany, as he rode along with the Nazi troops as an embedded reporter (the Nazis were the first to come up with that concept which our War Department has now formalized) with the German invasion of Holland and Belgium. In the passage above he was writing of the streams of weary shell shocked Belgium civilians lining the roadways.
It is a burden to witness. When we see abuse or the calloused craziness of power the initial instinct is to look away; to deny. Facing the obvious is difficult and, inevitably takes something out of us. No doubt, there is a price to witnessing and naming things as they are. One must hand over glittering illusions in exchange for a dark and prickly the truth. At the time it feels like a bad deal; a fraudulent exchange.

Witnesses, like Shirer and his colleague Edward R. Murrow, had laid out the danger - often at great personal risk - but were ignored; fatal illusion won out.

But there is a greater cost to holding on to illusions that no longer - perhaps never did - reflect reality. Without the witness there is no chance of turning back the dark gathering forces. The witness is the small stalk of wheat standing above the frozen snows of delusion.
In ”The Long Night”, a new biography of Shirer by Steve Wick, there are numerous examples where Shirer is confronted by the blithe indifference - the studied ignorance - of most people in 1930′s Germany, Europe and the United States who simply would not witness what was unfolding in before them.
At the very moment the German armies crushed Holland and Belgium, building the malevolent energy that would soon overwhelm Paris, Shirer noted in Berlin: “Life goes on so peacefully here. Every theater in town is open and playing to packed houses … They all had that sort of lazy, happy-go-lucky Sunday morning feeling.” (p.172)
One can understand the choice of such gauzy somnambulance over the gritty realities of war and brutish governance. The problem however is that all dreams, sooner or later, crash on the rocks of reality but by that time the force ignored has usually gained more crushing power and momentum. That is as true in families as it is in nations.
That happened in World War II as the forces of fascism took root and spread into every nook and cranny of government, the bureaucracy and the citizen mind. Eventually the tissue of illusion ignited and the world collapsed.
There was an opportunity early on for America, England and France to unite and stop Hitler’s push across Europe. Combined they would have presented an overwhelming obstacle to German expansion and might well have been able to shatter the Nazi trance in Germany. Witnesses, like Shirer and his colleague Edward R. Murrow, had laid out the danger - often at great personal risk - but were ignored; fatal illusion won out.
Here is another entry from Shirer’s Belgium diary:

“This has been a day in my life. To have seen the destruction of war, what guns and bombs do to houses and people in them, to towns, bridges, railroad stations and tracks and trains, to universities and ancient, noble buildings, to enemy soldiers, trucks, tanks, horses caught along the way. It is not pretty. It is not beautiful.” - May 20, 1940 (p. 164)

While that witnessing could be ignored by most the illusions eventually fell and much of the world came to experience the very things Shirer had witnessed and warned about for years. When the illusions finally collapsed the world wide cost was unimaginable.
One illusion winning the day in America now, is that we can ignore the history of fascism.
Wake up!
Stand up!
Speak up!

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