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Some Thoughts on the Famous Photo of the Lone German Who Refused to Salute Hitler

Updated: May 8

You've probably seen the photo above. One man defiantly folds his arms while everyone around him duly gives the Nazi salute. Most of us zero in on him as a brave soul who refused to be swept up in the social contagion of the crowd around him. Some believe the man was known as August Landmesser who was punished by the Nazis for becoming engaged to a Jewish woman. You can read more about his plight here and here. Others believe him to be Gustav Wegert who refused to salute on religious grounds.

Either way, the gesture was brave and worthy of admiration. But if the man in the photo was Landmesser, he was probably also angry and disgusted enough to commit what he knew was a punishable offense against the regime.

But let's shift our focus from the non-saluter to any other face in that crowd. Because they represent most people when faced with social pressure. They probably had a variety of motives. Some--probably most?--just going along with the crowd to avoid the risk of ostracism. If you enlarge the photo and look at the faces, several appear to just be doing what was expected of them.

Of course others were swept up in the euphoria of being part of a jubilant crowd wanting to feel like they're a part of history -- perhaps like many of the rioting students who today are shutting down universities and insisting that Israel must be destroyed.

I think there are three key questions we should ask about all of those saluting. First, do they really believe the principles behind their salute? I don't think so. Their response comes from the hard-wired conformity impulse. Second, if enough of them refused to comply, could they have stopped the ensuing horrors of Nazism? Yes, of course they could have. When people are forthright in their beliefs and act them out, any regime that depends on the compliance of such "salutes" tends to collapse. Third, what prevents us from speaking up when that's all it takes to shut down something so evil? I think it's a combination of ignorance, loose social ties, false illusions, and fear.

All of the above are reinforced through isolation. So one solution is to break down our isolation by talking about these kinds of situations and exchanging ideas about how to break free of them. And that's exactly the purpose of the project called Stella's Book Club. The goal is to build the knowledge that frees us from the isolation of ignorance. And to build friendships that give us the inner strength to resist tyranny. Learning about these dynamics also helps us to see through the illusions of tyranny so that we don't become overwhelmed with fear.


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