Study Guide

The Perils of Indifference Historical Context

By Elie Wiesel

Historical Context

The Beginning

It's not at all an exaggeration to say that when World War I ended in 1918, the world was a very different place from what it had been before the Great War kicked off. (They didn't come up with the nickname "Great War" because the war was fun and fancy-free, after all. They came up with that nickname because it was an immensely huge deal.)

The United States had ditched the whole idea of staying out of other people's business in the name of saving democracy and executed a perfect swan dive into the deep end of Europe's Great War.

By the end, everyone was tired of trenches and chemical weapons and the scary new war technology that killed over 20 million soldiers and civilians (source). They were looking for someone to blame, and Germany ended up taking the fall.

According to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to cut back on the size of its military and pay tons of money in war reparations. And for some of the German people, the most insulting part of the whole thing was being forced to accept complete responsibility for the entire war. (Source)

One of those insulted people was a young dude named Adolf Hitler, and for Elie Wiesel and millions of others, everything started going downhill when Hitler rose to power in 1933.

The Middle

Hitler was not at all thrilled about his beloved Germany signing the Treaty of Versailles, and when paying war reparations plummeted the country into a crazy economic crisis—which only got worse when the rest of the world had to deal with the Great Depression—the Germans were desperate for someone to help…and someone to blame for how miserable the economic climate in Germany was.

Enter: hyper-nationalism and xenophobia.

That's how Hitler and the Nazis rose to power so quickly. They thought the Treaty of Versailles was crazy, and they decided to stop following the rules, so the Germans began building up their military and collecting some fun new weapons.

Things only got worse when Hitler started blaming a lot of Germany's troubles on the Jews, taking advantage of the rampant anti-Semitism that had existed in the country for a really long time. He started slowly rolling out different rules and regulations to control the Jews and limit their freedoms, like making them sew a yellow star on their clothing. Before long, the world was in the middle of a violent war, and Jewish citizens from Germany and other surrounding countries were being deported to ghettos and imprisoned in concentration camps.

If learning about the Holocaust makes you sick to your stomach, you're not alone. And you're having the exact right reaction. The Holocaust was a mind-blowingly sickening chapter of human history. It's hard to think about that kind of unforgiving cruelty, that kind of hate, and that kind of indifference.

But, somehow, the hate and indifference toward suffering during the 20th century didn't stop there.

By the time World War II ended in 1945, almost 100 million people had died fighting wars in the 20th century.

So, for Holocaust survivors like Wiesel, it seemed like a no-brainer that the United States and other countries around the world would do whatever was necessary to stop genocide and war from happening again. The 20th century wasn't even halfway over—enough was enough.

But instead, the World War II-era alliances between the United States and the Soviet Union collapsed like a bad game of Jenga, and suddenly we were all in the middle of the Cold War.

You guessed it—chaos ensued. It started with the Korean War in 1950, which was not to be outdone by the decades-long Vietnam War, both of which included a little bit of ethnic cleansing because war by itself was apparently just not sufficiently horrific.

There were some issues in Africa, too, mostly to do with religious differences and border disputes, which would in some places lead to horrific genocides like the one in Rwanda. And, if we're talking about religious conflict, we can't forget Northern Ireland and the bloody battles between Catholics and Protestants.

It was horrible. It was exhausting. And for Elie Wiesel, it was enough.

The End

In 1999, President Clinton established the White House Millennium Council to honor the previous 100 years and figure out how to bring their biggest lessons into the next century.

Wiesel was one of the guest lecturers, and when he spoke on "The Perils of Indifference" from the White House on April 12th, 1999—54 years after his liberation from Buchenwald—he was frustrated and afraid.

He spoke of his own experiences as part of a persecuted population during the Holocaust and about his disbelief that no one seemed to remember the consequences of indifference. He called on the world to be better and to do better because the future depended on it.

And despite all the fear over Y2K, we rolled into the 21st century without any crazy superbugs messing with our computers. Over time, the "future" Wiesel talked about became our present. And his present became our past.

It's almost as though we've been Inception-ed.

Wiesel isn't part of our present anymore. He died in New York City on July 2nd, 2016. But the questions he asked in "The Perils of Indifference" are still crazy relevant to the world we're living in—have we learned from the past? Have we become less indifferent?

What do you think?

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