Study Guide

The Perils of Indifference Main Idea

By Elie Wiesel

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  • Main Idea

    @Everyone, U Up?

    Throughout "The Perils of Indifference," Elie Wiesel talks about how choosing to be indifferent to the suffering of others only leads to more suffering, more discrimination, and more grief—and it also threatens the very humanity of the people that are so busy being indifferent.

    If you think this sounds painfully obvious, well, good. You're right. But unfortunately, Wiesel would count you in the minority.

    Despite all the genocide and war that characterized the 20th century, Wiesel didn't believe the world had really gotten the "indifference is dangerous" message…and he was really afraid of what would happen in the next 100 years. So, when President Clinton sent him an invite to speak at the White House, Wiesel jumped at the chance to remind everyone what was at stake.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Why do you think Wiesel begins his speech by talking about his liberation from Buchenwald in 1945?
    2. What do you know about the various civil wars and humanitarian crises Wiesel mentions in line 17 of his speech? Why does he take the time to list so many of them?
    3. Where do you see indifference in our society? Where do you see indifference in your own community?
    4. Wiesel finishes his speech by expressing hope for the new millennium. Are you surprised he ends it this way? Do you believe he had reason to feel hopeful?

    Chew on This

    For Elie Wiesel, memorializing the Holocaust was not a job but a responsibility, and he believed sharing his own story, as well as the stories of other victims, was the best way to battle lingering indifference around the world.

    Throughout "The Perils of Indifference," Elie Wiesel talks about the tenuous connection between indifference and humanity. He believed the very nature of humanity was threatened by individuals choosing to ignore the suffering and pain happening around the world, and the pervasive nature of indifference remained the biggest threat to true and lasting peace.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    You know how World War II was known as "the last good war"? Because everyone was fighting for the right reasons, and no one actually believed things could get worse than genocide and a couple of atomic bombs?

    Yeah. Well, the rest of the 20th century heard that, chuckled, and said, "Hold my beer?"

    In other words, things didn't exactly get better in the years following World War II—and to add insult to injury, the very things millions of Allied soldiers died to prevent seemed to repeat themselves. Minority populations fell victim to genocide. Countries fought bloody wars over border disputes and religious differences. The Cold War was considered "cold" for more than one reason.

    The Text

    Elie Wiesel was imprisoned at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and he lost both of his parents and his younger sister at the hands of the Nazis. The man saw unbelievable and almost unimaginable horrors, and he suffered tremendously.

    But he survived.

    And when Buchenwald was liberated by American forces, he saw the look of shock and dismay in their eyes when they saw the realities of the camps. He believed the world would learn from the Holocaust, and there would be no more atrocities and no more genocide.

    But that wasn't the case. The rest of the 20th century seemed dismally similar to the first half: rife with suffering and hatred. And, at the dawn of the 21st century, Wiesel couldn't help but wonder what the next 100 years would look like.

    Wiesel pointed out that in the five decades since the Holocaust, countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa had been torn apart by genocide, civil war, and religious intolerance. And while the United States and other Western nations weren't the only ones doing the fighting, choosing to ignore what was going on clearly wasn't making things any better.

    Wiesel understood why indifference might be tempting. It seems safer, and it doesn't put a hitch in your giddy-up—your life moves forward as usual. But for the people suffering, who are losing their homes and their families? There's nothing worse than feeling forgotten or left behind by the rest of the world, and Wiesel knew what that was like—and he knew that it just gives the bad guys more power. The American liberators saw that when they came to Buchenwald in 1945, and according to Wiesel, we need to see it now.


    To paraphrase Rhett: "Frankly, my dear, you have to give a damn."

  • Questions

    1. Why do you think there's so much indifference in our world still today? How could we begin to solve the problem?
    2. Throughout his speech, Elie Wiesel rarely mentions the Holocaust or his experiences throughout World War II. Why do you think that is?
    3. Beginning with line 107, Wiesel asks his audience a series of questions regarding humanity's ability to learn from the past, but he does not provide answers to those questions. What is the point of doing that? Do you think it is effective?
    4. According to Wiesel, what are "the perils of indifference"? Does he believe we've learned from the horrors of the past? Do you?
    5. Wiesel gave this speech in 1999, just before the turn of the century. How would his speech change if he were giving it today?
    6. Does FDR's indifference to the refugees on the St. Louis change your opinion of our longest-sitting president? Why do you think that kind of information isn't included in our history books? What are the consequences of leaving it out?
    7. How would you characterize the overall tone of "The Perils of Indifference"? How would changing the tone affect the message?

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