I love this picture. I love it because it shows one man in a sea of thousands being true to what is right when everyone else is following the crowd.
The man is thought to be August Landmesser, a known detractor who, along with his Jewish wife, paid the ultimate price for his dissent. He was arrested twice and convicted once for trying to marry a Jew. He was pressed into military service with other convicts while his fiancee was sent to a camp and then a Euthanasia center, where she was murdered along with 14,000 others.
This meme has trod a well worn path through Facebook and Twitter, garnering thousands upon thousands of “likes” and shared and reshared, the posters insisting that they are that guy, and would stand up for what was right regardless.
Of course, nobody ever posts the picture and says, “Yeah, that’s cool, but I’ll be with the rest of the throng, cheering and saluting.” That would be stupid, right?
But take a look at the picture again.
Herr Landmesser is one guy. Just one guy. Everybody else is has their arm raised in salute. And really, this is why this picture means anything. This is why he’s so remarkable. It is because he’s one guy who, despite the pressures of his society, despite his earlier arrest (the second would come after this picture), despite the threats to him and to his love, Wilhelmine, he still refused to back down from his conviction that the Nazis were bad news and had no right to disrupt his life.
So if he’s so remarkable, so unique, so rare, why is it that everyone we know thinks they too would be that remarkable? If we’re to believe what we read on Facebook, that entire picture taken today would be nothing but folks crossing their arms and sticking out their chin. Yet we know that’s not true. We know the nature of crowds, the nature of society, the nature of people to flow down the path of least resistance.
Did you post this meme at one time? Look at that post. Look at the list of people who clicked “like” and commented on what an awesome dude August was and how they’d stand up to tyranny too. Look at those names.
Do you realize that probably every name on that list, if they were there in 1936, in that shipyard, would have their arms raised in salute? Do you realize just how likely it is that you or me would be right there with them? We’d all like to think we’re “that guy,” with his arms crossed. But I’ve got news for you, we’re more likely all the guys around Herr Landmesser. An unsettling number of us would even be these guys:
Yeah, I hear a bunch of you saying, “But knowing what we know now,” or, “It’s a different world.”
Maybe it is to an extent, but even today we see the lengths people are willing to go to alienate or attack those they vilify for one reason or another. Mosques are being vandalized and Muslims assaulted and harassed by people you’d expect to sit next to in church. Blacks are shot and killed by white supremacists as they protest the actions of their police department. Abortion clinics are being shot up, and protesters systematically line the street outside of Planned Parenthood clinics in order to harass women seeking healthcare they have a right to seek in this supposedly free country. The behavior of those protesters isn’t that far removed from the mob in the shipyard picture above.
Put enough pressure into a social movement and who knows what’s possible.
If you look at the pictures above and just say, “Yeah, I’m that guy,” then I would submit you haven’t considered carefully the other several hundred people around that guy.
If you look at the pictures above and just say that all those other people are idiots, then you really haven’t considered them.
That guy is remarkable. Are you remarkable? Are you *that* remarkable?
What if you agreed with a social movement’s ideals, but not its treatment of its detractors? Would you stand up for your own opposition, even if it made the road to positive change harder?
We should all look at the picture and not marvel at how remarkable August Landmesser is. Rather we should think carefully on how easy it might be to become part of the crowd, to raise our arms in salute because everyone else is, and not really consider what it might mean to that remarkable man at the back.
We might not like what we find there, if we’re honest. But the only way to change something is to know it’s there.
Then maybe we can be remarkable too.