Editorial: Distressing high school incident highlights need for history education

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A group of Manitoulin High School students thought that the perfect Hallowe’en prank would be to goosestep their way through the school’s halls singing a Nazi anthem. Thankfully, staff intervened, but the question continues to be asked: ‘is it too soon?’ The answer is, and will always be, an emphatic ‘yes!’

It is unlikely that the students involved in this incident were aware of the gravity of their actions. Not surprising when one considers that, some 16 years ago, even Prince Harry fell into the trap of trivializing one of the most horrific events of the 20th Century when he attended a costume party as a Nazi officer. The international fallout in the media engendered by that lapse of judgment was both swift and brutal.

The Manitoulin Secondary School students involved in this more recent event were likely not yet born when the Duke of Sussex made his own gaffe, and certainly the events of the Holocaust must seem like ancient history to those students. Certainly they would not be as tuned to the nuances of public perceptions as someone who stands sixth in line to the British throne and whose every waking moment was governed by protocol and procedures. 

Still, coming as it did so close on the heels of our national day of Remembrance, a day set aside to honour the memory of those who died serving their country, many of whom were fighting the Nazi menace when they fell on foreign fields, is particularly distressing.

The school board has announced that the matter was one of a lack of understanding and education, asserting that appropriate actions have been taken to rectify the situation.

But we are left with the question: how did our youth not realize the gravity of their actions?

We are not talking about isolated rural children. As avid consumers of social media, which most young people appear to be these days, it seems impossible that those students involved would not be aware of rising incidents of anti-Semitism that have been taking place across our nation in recent years—especially with the rise of the alt-right.

MSS student Jocelyn Kuntsi deserves great respect for her courage and eloquence in taking to the internet and social media in order to address how the thoughtless actions of those students marched across her life. As a descendant of those who lost their lives to the murderous actions of the architects of the Third Reich and the Nazis’ ‘final solution,’ Ms. Kuntsi speaks with great authority on the subject.

As the mists of years cloud our collective memories, those of us whose experiences of anti-Semitism are third or fourth removed, without personal connection, might convince ourselves that this evil has been thrust to the far edges of our society, only celebrated by a small minority of kooks and crazies. But it was a small, largely ostracized group of “kooks and crazies” who managed to weld hatred and fear of the “other” into a force that subverted one of the most educated and civilized countries in the world at that time, leading Germany into committing the murder of six million Jews and millions of “others.”

The gay, the vulnerable, the disabled and the mentally challenged, all were sent to the Nazi death camps. There would not be a single family in this nation who would have escaped their depravations unscathed.

There have been other horrors that have taken place, both before and after the rise of Nazism and fascism in the leadup to the Second World War. None of these events should be celebrated or trivialized by being caricatured. This isn’t simply a “woke” moment. 

Those who history has labelled “The Greatest Generation,” the people who endured the Great Depression, who slogged up the beaches of Normandy, Anzio and Guadalcanal to defend liberty and freedom, were horrified by the revelations our soldiers discovered in those Nazi death camps.

Canada as a nation was not innocent in that horror. Good solid “upstanding” citizens were among the groundswell of public opinion in this nation that led to the MS St. Louis Incident.  On June 7, 1939 the MS St. Louis sailed into Canada with 907 Jewish refugees aboard, refugees who were fleeing those Nazi atrocities already taking place in Europe. They were denied entry to Canada. The ship returned its passengers to “safe harbour” in four European countries. As the Nazi juggernaut swept across Europe, 254 of those MS St. Louis passengers perished in the Holocaust.

Today we watch as a new generation of “upstanding citizens” demand that our government refuse entry to these shores to refugees fleeing other regimes of murderous intent.

In the coming weeks, as we don our poppies and attend solemn ceremonies for our fallen service personnel, let us take a moment to ensure that our children understand the gravity of what befell Western civilization and reinforce that it will always be “too soon” to trivialize Nazis and their ideology.

Lest we forget.