A few years ago at a talk I gave someone asked me “What’s the anti-Baha’i Faith? In other words, is there a group in the world that represents the polar opposite viewpoint from the Baha’i teachings?”
I had to think about it for a minute. That question had never crossed my mind. In my experience, Baha’is are typically loving, kind, gentle, welcoming people, so I tried to imagine what the opposite might look like.
Then I remembered that Heinrich Himmler outlawed the Baha’i Faith in Nazi Germany in 1937; and I realized that the Nazi party and its actions probably come as close as you can get to representing the polar opposite of the Baha’i Faith.
The Nazis believed in a master race, in the eugenic superiority and supremacy of the Aryans over every other human being. The Baha’is believe in the oneness of the human race, the elimination of all prejudice and the unity of humanity. The Nazis believed in the military domination of all nations by one country. The Baha’is believe in the earth as one country. The Nazis believed in violence and warfare. The Baha’is believe in world peace. The Nazis believed in exterminating their enemies. The Baha’is believe that we should love our enemies. The Nazis believed in hatred. The Baha’is believe in love.
Adolf Hitler has become the prototypical symbol of all things evil in the world; but Himmler, who I’d nominate as a close competitor for the title along with Stalin and Mao, was the one man most responsible for the death camps. In those concentration camps, which he set up and controlled, he personally supervised the extermination of six million Jews, maybe half a million Romani people, probably five million Poles and Russians, and uncounted numbers of gay people and Baha’is.
Most of us think of the Nazi concentration camps as one of the lowest points in human history. But most do not know that the Nazi camps weren’t the first.
In fact, the term “concentration camp” wasn’t German at all – it came originally, believe it or not, from the British, who coined it in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. Initially set up as ‘refugee camps’ for civilians forced out of their homes by war, the British Army expanded their pitiless tent-cities in 1900 to “concentrate” all of the guerilla supporters and sympathizers, including women and children – and to deprive the Boers, the Afrikaans-speaking white settlers in South Africa, of their ability to gain sustenance or advantage from the populace.
Along with their concentration camps the British Army embarked on a “scorched-earth” drive to destroy all crops, livestock, homes and farms. They salted the agricultural fields and poisoned the wells. Why? Most agree that the war was fought, like so many others, over gold. The British and the Boers both wanted control over the vast Witwatersrand gold mines, at that time producing a significant portion of the world’s mineral wealth — and they both thought they could steal that gold from the Africans.
Were the British the first to turn wartime internment centers into concentration camps? No. The United States first used them against Native Americans such as the Navajos in the 19th Century. I have a close friend, a Navajo artist, whose great-grandmother was interned at Fort Sumner by Kit Carson, the genocidal American cavalry officer. Her entire family died, with thousands of others. At about the same time the Spanish maintained terrible internment camps in Cuba in the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). The British expanded the concept, and targeted all of South Africa, clearing out whole regions of the country and depopulating them. They sent most of the Boer fighters to prisons overseas, but approximately 28,000 Boer women and children died terrible deaths, most from disease and starvation, in the brutal British concentration camps. At least 14,000 more black Africans died in their own segregated camps.
The Germans, who had colonized neighboring South West Africa, quickly learned the tactic. In 1904, the Imperial German Army established several concentration camps and the Shark Island Extermination Camp in what is now Namibia as part of their gruesome genocide of the Herero and Namaqua tribes.
All together, concentration camps like the Soviet gulags, the Chinese ‘re-education’ work prisons and the Nazi forced labor camps took a horrendous human toll during the last century. No one knows how many people died in all of those camps and prisons, but historians estimate that somewhere between 1-10 million died in the gulags, and 15-27 million died in the Chinese labor camps. Most historians agree that the Nazi camps killed at least 10-11 million civilians and prisoners of war from 1933-1945.
Although the European Baha’is were small in number in the 1930’s, the Baha’i teachings had attracted a significant and fairly high-profile group of intellectuals, writers and artists (many from Jewish backgrounds) in Germany and the surrounding European and Eastern European countries since the German Baha’i community began in 1905. As a result of that growth Himmler, on behalf of the German government, banned the Baha’i Faith in 1937. Many Baha’is died as a result.
How can human beings evince such cruelty? This series of articles will explore that period in history, take a look at the little-known Baha’i experience during the Nazi reign, and attempt to answer the important questions posed here in this quote, from a book commissioned by the elected international leadership body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice:
From a Baha’i point of view, humanity’s worship of idols of its own invention is of importance not because of the historical events associated with these forces, however horrifying, but because of the lesson it taught. Looking back on the twilight world in which such diabolical forces loomed over humanity’s future, one must ask what was the weakness in human nature that rendered it vulnerable to such influences. To have seen in someone like Benito Mussolini the figure of a “Man of Destiny”, to have felt obliged to understand the racial theories of Adolf Hitler as anything other than the self-evident products of a diseased mind, to have seriously entertained the reinterpretation of human experience through dogmas that had given birth to the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin — so willful an abandonment of reason on the part of a considerable segment of the intellectual leadership of society demands an accounting to posterity. – Century of Light, p. 62.