Did Thoreau Have It Right?

Posted on June 19, 2014 by Robert Ringer


The story of Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, author of Witness to Nuremburg, is one that every person who is concerned about tyranny should read.

Sonnenfeldt fled his German homeland for England at age fifteen when it became clear that Jews were increasingly at risk under the new Nazi regime.  After some stranger-than-life twists and turns, he settled in Baltimore, Maryland, at age twenty and became a U.S. citizen.

Sonnenfeldt ultimately ended up in the Army and, at the end of World War II, was one of the soldiers who marched into the Nazi’s Dachau concentration camp.  When U.S. troops arrived there, the guard towers were empty, abandoned by Nazi guards who fled when they realized the end was at hand.

Sonnenfeldt could not believe what he saw — unburied corpses piled one on top of another … thousands of emaciated human beings who were barely alive … prisoners beating a German shepherd dog to death in retribution for the way prison-camp dogs had terrorized them.  As he stared at the horrors before him, he thought to himself that he was one of the luckiest people in the world to have escaped the fate of the millions who were tortured and murdered.

Following the end of the war, Sonnenfeldt went on to become Chief Interpreter for the OSS group that evolved into the American prosecution team at the 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.  He later wrote about his revealing conversations with Hermann Goering and other principal Nazi war criminals in his autobiography Mehr als ein Leben.

Sonnenfeldt’s story reminded me once again that genocide is woven into the fabric of human history, usually carried out by power-addicted tyrants who are masters at lying and demonizing a targeted group.  In the case of Adolf Hitler, he preached that the Jews were the cause of all of Germany’s problems, and his baseless assertion ultimately became accepted by the masses.

Early on, of course, few people took Hitler seriously, and many laughed at his maniacal speeches.  But those who believed he was just some clueless kook soon found out differently.

Hitler clearly understood that in order for dogma to become entrenched, it must find its way into mainstream print.  And, in this vein, an essential step in the transformation of an insidious lie into fact is to make certain it appears in children’s textbooks.

Through his character Winston in 1984, George Orwell said:  “If all records told the same tale then the lie passed into history and became truth.  ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past.’”

In other words, given enough repetition and time, a fable like the Holocaust denial could someday pass into the history books as fact.  That’s why General Eisenhower ordered pictures taken of the Nazi prison camps when he arrived, because he was afraid, even at that time, that there would be a movement to deny it ever occurred.

But things are different in 21st century America, right?  Indeed they are.  It’s much easier to spread a preposterous lie in today’s high-tech world than it was in the World War II era.  Big-government cheerleaders on the Internet and television have round-the-clock access to the masses, and they understand the power of repetition.

As a result, in today’s lie-a-minute, twenty-four-hour news cycle, separating illusion from fact is not an easy task, even for the most alert and rational among us.  It takes a great deal of conscious effort.  And when too many people choose not to make that effort, a holocaust — actual or metaphoric — may be just over the horizon.

In Rights of Man, Thomas Paine said:

“Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to re‑establish it.  It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant (my emphasis). … It has never yet been discovered how to make a man unknow his knowledge.”

True, to be sure.  But what Paine did not tell us is how to motivate people to become knowledgeable in the first place.

As I watch the Washington Propaganda Machine accelerating its pace for spewing out the most preposterous lies imaginable, I am reminded of Eric Hoffer’s warning that the louder the drums of deceit, the more vigilant one has to be about learning the facts.  And therein lies the problem.  A significant portion of the populace is totally uninformed, and it comprises the very people who decide the winner of every election!

Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with our system of electing public “servants?”  The reality is that the winner of virtually every election is the candidate who convinces a majority of voters that he can get them more goodies than his opponent.  The idea that there are opposing parties in Washington is a giant fiction — at least when it comes to the premise for government’s existence.  The only legitimate function of government is to protect our lives and property — not intrude in our lives and take our property in order to gain our neighbors’ votes.

Sometimes I think Thoreau had it exactly right.  That cabin in the woods sounds awfully good right now to those of us who want only to be left alone to live our lives without others imposing their beliefs on us.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.