Year 9 student, Daniel Cash, is Melbourne Grammar School’s 2020 Junior Orator. Here is the speech he presented to win the title in the Sir Kingsley Norris Oratory Competition.
We look these days upon history with a degree of complacency. That which occurred before us will not occur again; we are smarter, wiser- we have hindsight. But that is our grave mistake. For we have always had hindsight. Before a man like Mao was allowed to come to power, we had the examples of Hitler and Mussolini and Franco, and before them, we had Stalin. Before Stalin, there was Zulu, and, to go further back, Caligula, Nero and Sulla. Even earlier in history we may observe Qin She Huang, the original burner of books. The mistakes which we think we will not make again have been made over and over, by the most civilised and educated peoples.
How, then, does this happen? How are modern-day dictators born? How do they rise to power? And, once they are in their seat, how do they stay there? How do men like Mao and Hitler and Stalin and Franco and Mussolini- many of them men of civilised, developed countries- manage to get elected? And, most importantly, what must we learn from this?
Let us take Germany as an example. By 1900 it was considered to be the country with the greatest education system. Fascinating, considering the fact that it fell prey to the Nazi’s, a group which profited off ignorance and irrationality, the very opposite of the goal of education.
The foremost academics and scholars were German- Einstein, Hertz, Bonhoeffer. So what, then, let a man like Hitler, and his ruthless disciples, preachers of hate and discrimination, come to power, in a time so recent that many of us have grandparents who were alive at the time. Indeed, there are those among us who do not have grandparents or great-grandparents, as they were massacred by the horrors that that very hate and discrimination caused.
What allowed Hitler to rise to power was the climate of Germany at the time. He drew on the people’s fear, and their resultant blind dependence, to seize control. He offered scapegoats- the Jews, the homosexuals, the gypsies- and he made the promises that people wanted to hear.
In fact, he went further than that. He told the German people that they were the foremost, the supreme, race on earth. He told them that their time had come to take their position as the overlords of humanity.
His timing was integral, for Germany was in desperation. The Treaty of Versailles had been signed, stipulating that Germany would have a limited army and navy, could not maintain an air force, that Kaiser Wilhelm II be tried for war crimes, that Germany accept responsibility for the war, and that the nation pay colossal reparations to the Allies. Germany had been brought to its knees, and it there it knelt, humiliated. Hitler only succeeded because people were scared. And fear makes way for anger. A frightened predator attacks.
The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party acted with much the same ideological cunning.
Yet we think we are different. This type of thing would never happen, not today! But this truth, written throughout the bloodied pages of history, is increasingly relevant. Censorship and propaganda, practices we deem totalitarian, exist outside of places like China and North Korea. Fake news, media manipulation- these things are native to our Western civilisation. And when leaders like Donald Trump arrive, preaching much the same ignorance and irrationality, we must tread carefully.
Of course, one cannot compare these things. But one must always remember what history teaches us. ‘Those who fail to learn from history,’ as Churchill tells us, ‘are doomed to repeat it.’
And we can observe the deception of Hitler very clearly, and the parallels which it draws are worrying. The following are all his quotes, many of them from Mein Kampf: ‘The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.’ ‘I use emotion for the many, and reason for the few.’ ‘If you wish the sympathy of the broad masses, you must tell them the crudest and most stupid things.’ And, most worrying: ‘What luck for rulers that men do not think.’
And so today we must remember to think. We must search for the truth. We must understand that irrationality, ignorance, discrimination, hatred- these are all the accoutrements of destruction, of genocide, of suffering. And bear in mind that the word ‘genocide’ was only first coined in 1944. We are not so wise nor old as we may think we are.
And we as students must primarily remember a quote attributed to Hitler. If he did not say it, well- that does not diminish its meaning. The quote goes: ‘Let me control the textbooks, and I will control the state.’