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Guys, it's Real Talk time. We're more than happy to poke fun at some seminal speeches—remember when JFK told everybody in Germany "I am a Jelly Donut?" ("Ich Bin Ein Berliner") or when Patrick Henry said "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" and the rest of the thirteen colonies swooned and said, "Ooh, that Henry is so metal"?
But the laughs are few and far between when it comes to Elie Wiesel.
The deep respect? The awe? The feeling of being humbled before such intellectual power? The anger at the world? Oh, that's all there. But it's pretty much impossible to read Wiesel and get light-hearted.
Elie Wiesel was a victim of one of the most brutal atrocities in history—the Holocaust. Speaking to the Nobel Lecture conference in 1986, and more indirectly to the world, Elie Wiesel wanted his suffering and the suffering of others to have weight…and to be able to bring about change.
But here's the tricky thing about atrocities and suffering: to change them, you have to first remember them. And remembering that kind of heartache is horribly painful. It can shake someone's worldview completely to the core. Tragedy creates a kind of seesaw: you're pulled to remember and you're pulled to forget.
Remembering, though, is definitely the better of the two options.
In essence, Wiesel is saying that by keeping the memory of those who have suffered the worst of what mankind has to offer, we as a society will remember not to do those terrible things again.
It seems like it would make sense, of course, but the forty-odd years between the Holocaust and the time of Wiesel's speech weren't really characterized by peace on earth and good will toward men. The year 1986, Wiesel hoped, was the year where the lessons of the past would finally get heeded.
Elie Wiesel, by pondering whether the Holocaust was an outlier or a consequence of Western Civilization, alludes to a school of thought that really came into its own during the later years of the Cold War: Postmodernism. Postmodernist thought says that, given the history of the two World Wars as well as the atom bomb currently hanging over everyone's heads, Western Civilization isn't getting better as time goes on. In fact, every passing day it creates more tools to go on oppressing until it destroys itself…which it eventually will. Elie Wiesel hopes, as probably all of us do, that that won't prove to be the case.
Memory is tied up with a dangerous impulse: nostalgia. We'd like to remember things as better than they actually were, and we're often disappointed by the present when compared to our rosier pasts. In order to actually learn from mistakes, you need to remember clearly what they were in the first place, as painful as that can be.
World War I was called "The War to End All Wars." Yeah; it wasn't. And neither was its sequel.
The world is still stuck in the Cold War, with nuclear annihilation a button away. The Middle East is starting to destabilize thanks to the invasion by the USSR and the US's subsequent arms dealing. A racist regime festers in the heart of South Africa.
Has anyone learned anything from the horrific events that took place during World War II?
The Holocaust was an unthinkable atrocity, and those few who survived had the experience burned into their minds. They spoke out constantly, trying to keep the memory of all who had passed away alive.
Elie Wiesel initially thought it might have been enough to remind anyone thinking of violating some human rights about the Holocaust. Surely a mention of the Holocaust would get them to stop short of wrongdoing?
As hindsight shows pretty clearly, we as humans didn't learn that particular lesson all that well.
The social ills that led up to the Holocaust are still alive and well forty years later, and exist all across the globe. In the wake of all of that (plus the atom bomb), mankind needs to stop ignoring its mistakes and come to grip with them…and with them firmly in mind, work toward peace.
Maybe another forty years will do the trick?
In a world on the brink of destruction where suffering runs rampant, one man (Wiesel) urges the world to remember the lessons of the past.