Willful Amnesia And The Great Cat And Dog Massacre

Did you know that animal-loving British families killed an estimated 400,000 household pets—cats and dogs—in the first week after Great Britain declared war on Germany in September, 1939? Neither did I, and now a new book by Hilda Kean, “The Great Dog and Cat Massacre,” sets out to remind us of that ugly episode.

As the New York Times review of the book notes and Kean explains, the mass euthanasia was “publicly lamented at the time,” but has since been erased from memory.  But why has it been erased from memory, and how? This is a disturbing cultural phenomenon that Ethics Alarms has covered before, notably in the post about dance marathons in the U.S. during the Depression. One of the definitions of culture is what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Forgetting, however, while often psychically soothing and an easy way to avoid guilt and accountability, is a pre-unethical condition. That which has been forgotten can no longer teach us, and a society that collectively decides to pretend something cruel, horrible or traumatic didn’t happen risks allowing it to happen again.

This, of course, is one more reason why the recent progressive mania for historical airbrushing is dangerous, irresponsible and unethical. Keep that statue of “Joe Pa” on the Penn State campus. Leave  King Andy on the twenty dollar bill.  Don’t take down that bust of Bill Cosby in the TV Hall of Fame. All civilizations have fallen heroes, moments of panic, times when they forget their values and betray their aspirations. Of course it is painful and embarrassing to remember these things, but also essential if human ethics are going to progress instead of stagnating, or even going backwards. We associate the elimination of cultural memories with totalitarian regimes, and for good reason, for they are blatant and shameless about it.

No nation is immune from the process’s appeal, however. When I was going to grade school and studying the Presidents of the United States, Jackson and Woodrow Wilson were routinely hailed by (mostly Democratic) historians as among the greatest of the great. The first Jackson biography I read barely mentioned the Trail of Tears. I read four well-regarded biographies of Wilson that ignored his support for Jim Crow, and the degree to which he deliberated reversed advances in civil rights, being an unapologetic white supremacist. The influenza epidemic that killed millions was excised from my school’s history books. Thomas Jefferson’s concubine, Sally Hemmings? Who?

Just as the Rape of Nanking and Japan’s forced prostitution of Korean women is still censored in Japan’s history courses, the Machiavellian roots of the Mexican War was largely absent from ours for more than a century. In Massachusetts schools we were shown the frightening photographs of what the cruel Confederates did to Union soldiers at the Andersonville prison camp, but nobody mentioned the  North’s prison camp for Confederate prisoners in Elmira, New York, where conditions were as bad or worse.  Did any of your teachers discuss Abraham Lincoln’s order to hang thirty-eight Dakota Indians, in the largest mass execution in US history?  Did they teach you about the 1923 Rosewood Massacre?

Historians like Hilda Kean perform a great service by reviving the disturbing memories that cultures try to excise, even as they make the task of evaluating our past and the actions of past leaders and luminaries more difficult. Nevertheless, confronting the truth is far safer than burying it, hiding it, or pretending that it doesn’t exist.

34 thoughts on “Willful Amnesia And The Great Cat And Dog Massacre

  1. Sometimes a flawed analysis of a “major threat” or a national problem can lead to incredibly stupid decisions that seem cruel and heartless in retrospect. I think of the round up of the Nisei at the beginning of WW2 because of misguided concerns about their loyalty and potential to become saboteurs. In this case, I knew nothing about this in high school and had to wait until my college years to learn anything about this. Ironically, one of the relocation centers had been at the LA County Fairgrounds not too far from my childhood home.

  2. My wife’s family comes from a small town that packed up everything including the church bell and sailed for Texas circa 1854 from Germany.

    That group held to their language (and commonly spoke Spanish and English to boot) through the Civil War (they wanted to fight for the North, being stubborn Germans, until many were massacred on their way to Mexico to join up in the North) until WWII. The German family culture and language stopped during that conflict, such that my father in law (being fully fluent) will not speak German to this day, except in rare circumstances. My wife grew up without learning German at all. Germans were viewed with suspicion, even those whose families had almost 100 years as Americans.

    The community has largely forgotten their heritage at this point. They willfully did this to themselves. It is sad to see the good fall away with every burial of the great generation’s last survivors.

  3. “Those who cannot remember their histories are doomed to repeat them”. On the other hand, histories are often written by the victors, and are almost always slanted in one direction or another. Sad, but true.

  4. I agree that we as a culture need to strive for a fuller and more nuanced understanding of history, and cannot afford to forget many of the lessons of the past. I’m unsure how the removal of statues honoring Confederates interferes with that, though. All of your examples–history books ignoring Wilson’s racism and northern prisons–are examples of our culture trying to make flawed people seem better than they really were by ignoring their sins. How does removing busts of Confederate generals do that? I don’t think we’re in any danger of forgetting the Civil War–if anything, the reverence with which many Southerners still treat Confederate “heroes” and symbolism is in large part a result of the historical revisionism that has taught them the war was fought for “states’ rights.”

    That said, I’m agnostic on most of the removals. The Confederate flag definitely shouldn’t fly over any government building, but other than that, I don’t care much whether statues or busts stay or go.

        • And they were very proud to state that they were forming the Confederacy over the issue of slavery. And the besides the state legislatures issuing statements to that effect, the South’s politicians also issued statements hat proclaimed the key issue for secession was slavery. Which makes things very inconvenient for the Lost Cause folks.

          Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

          • From your link above:

            What led to the outbreak of the bloodiest conflict in the history of North America?

            A common explanation is that the Civil War was fought over the moral issue of slavery.

            In fact, it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict.

            A key issue was states’ rights.

            The Southern states wanted to assert their authority over the federal government so they could abolish federal laws they didn’t support, especially laws interfering with the South’s right to keep slaves and take them wherever they wished.

            Another factor was territorial expansion

            The South wished to take slavery into the western territories, while the North was committed to keeping them open to white labor alone.

            Meanwhile, the newly formed Republican party, whose members were strongly opposed to the westward expansion of slavery into new states, was gaining prominence.

            ….so… slavery, like we said.

            • That is a simplification of a very complex issue, deery. Do states have the right to self determine their laws, and ignore Federal laws they disagree with? The Civil War settled that this is a solid ‘no,’ but currently states are opening that box again (sanctuary cities, etc.)

              We can agree to disagree because the issue is (again) validity of sources and bias on either side.

              Thank you for engaging.

              • Sure, but if you are asking for anything short of a dissertation, the answer is slavery. I guess, in an effort to make it easy for future historians, the people who seceded made it very clear in their secession documents why they were seceding. And they stated- slavery. If you look at the historical record and the primary documents surrounding this issue, the evidence is unequivocal. It may have been about states rights…the right for them to have slaves and expand slave territory.

                • You quoted one document. There were several secession documents. You picked the one that is most provocative on the issue of slavery. (I actually liked this one because of the way it was juxtaposed against the Declaration of Independence.) And, it ignores that some of the secession documents cite the Northern State’s refusal to comply with Article 4, Section 3 of the Constitution as a basis for dissolving the agreement altogether. (Yes, it is a provision relating to slaves, but, in the law, a material breach of a term of a contract justifies rescission. You don’t argue about what term was breached; that there was a breach is the focus.)

                  It also ignores context. It ignores the tariff nullification crisis of the 1830’s. Had that not gotten resolved, you would probably be saying the Civil War was about taxes.

                  And, the ironic thing is: it still kind of was. Walter Williams, a noted economist, observed that something like 100% of federal revenues in Lincoln’s time came from tariffs and something like 78% of those revenues came from the Southern states; I presume William’s numbers statements are basically true. That context would explain why Lincoln passed an income tax law (eventually deemed unconstitutional); the government needed a new source of revenue.

                  If we want to boil down sides to a caricature: 1) the South seceded because of slavery; 2) the North went to war over money. (Yes, I know, South Carolina shot first. That is what we in the legal profession refer to as “bad facts.”)


                • No, I wanted to see what others in the country were taught/believe. We were taught it was ‘about’ slavery, but there was a generous amount of the years leading up to the war (more than other states, I’m told) that give the split more context. The politics of the time made it clear (as they were presented) that the issue was which region would control of the nation. The South was not allowed to go their own way for political reasons, the story goes, and slavery was the excuse. The North did not really care (they no longer needed slaves economically) but wanted to control the nation and thus the South. Notice that some states in the North (New Jersey, Kentucky) did not outlaw slavery until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865. New Jersey only ratified the 13th in 1866, after the three-fourths already made it law across the nation.

                  Then there are the non-immigration laws imposed on Blacks by almost every Northern state, that took years to change.

                  Interestingly, slavery was already dying in the South before the first shot was fired. Industrialization and invention were making the costs drop, and people are expensive to keep. By 1880, there would have been no viable plantations, but that was not predicted at the time.

                  • Yes, it seems that the South was deathly afraid that Lincoln was going to take their slaves away, but that Lincoln had no intention of actually doing so. Firing that first shot was definitely counterproductive.

                    • Agreed, Chris. It is also interesting to look at the tax situation. The North (which had factories) was forcing the South to buy finished goods from them via tariff and taxation. England and France could ship these goods across the Atlantic and sell them cheaper than the North was willing to. The North imposed tariffs that destroyed the European competition. The South was irate, to say the least, as most of this money went to either factories in the North (sales), or to the Fed (taxes.) One source cites that 78% of the Fed’s revenue was from the South because of these tariffs and taxes.

                  • The question was additionally one of federal power vs. states’ rights, if you go back to the questions of nullification, tariffs, etc., where South Carolina had butted heads with Andrew Jackson and he had threatened to hang the first Carolinian who shed blood in defiance of Federal law to the first tree he could find. The problem is that whole question had become bound up with slavery because South Carolina had become a state with very little in terms of a middle class, where you had the plantation owners, those who worked for them directly or whose livelihoods depended on them (no cotton, nothing to ship out or goods in kind to ship in), and not too many others. That’s why South Carolina was at the forefront of nullification and later secession, because the Federal government kept doing things like imposing tariffs and rumbling about abolishing slavery that interfered with the system they had built.

                    The question was also one of fear of modernization. The northern portion of the country had moved into industry, with most of the factories, railroads, mines and mills…and the commonsense business attitude and immigrant labor that ran all of that. The south still saw itself as the land of magnolias and azaleas, grand white porches, and peaches and cream belles escorted by dashing cavaliers in butternut, and it didn’t want to give up that legend and life.

                    Let’s also not kid ourselves, a big part of it was flat out racism. To the southerners a black man was less than a white man, always had been, and always would be. He was considered to be in a lesser stage of development and they weren’t interested in him catching up. I’m not going to say the northerners were all perfectly open-minded, but at least a black man who did a day’s work in the north would get a day’s pay for it. Like it or not, the southerner’s attitude toward blacks was not really much different than the attitude of the Nazis. Oh, the Nazis were a little more complicated about it: the Aryans were at the top, the Slavs were only fit to serve Aryan masters (this part gets left out a lot), the black race was hardly human, and “undesirables,” meaning gypsies, homosexuals, etc. were just that, with special hatred reserved for the Jews; but in the end the southern attitude was pretty similar: the whites, especially the older established families, up top, those not in that circle only fit to serve, Jews unwelcome (when the Port of New Orleans was first established the first rule was that no Jews could enter), and blacks regarded as cattle at best, as subhuman otherwise.

                    • That is pretty harsh, Steve, especially coming from someone in New Jersey. Have you looked into how blacks were perceived and treated, both before and after the Civil War, in NJ?

                      I am not throwing stones at NJ, Steve. I am saying that the North in general, and NJ in particular, were not pure as the driven snow regarding race relations. There was a whole lot of ‘not in my backyard’ after the Civil War, and a lot of profiteering by Northern concerns after the war. (Ever hear the term ‘carpetbaggers?’)

                      Again, I am dealing in objective facts, here. Judgement is (and should be) left to history, as the motivations and actions of those living in those times depended on the culture and society they lived in.

          • Thanks for the civil and open-minded reply, slickwilly. I know I don’t always extend the same courtesy to you; I’m trying.

          • I too, a Texan and southerner was never taught it was “over states rights” as a cause.

            I think corporate amnesia is in play here many on the left are slowly conforming their memories to what they need southerners to have been indoctrinated with.

            • tex, I took slickwilly to mean that he *was* taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights in Texas. I’ve heard many other Southerners say the same.

              “Southerners really do teach that the Civil War was fought over slavery, not states’ rights, but liberals must be claiming otherwise to feel better about themselves” is a fairly novel theory, and would certainly confirm your own biases. But I’d be curious to see what evidence you have for it other than your own anecdotal evidence (which, again, differs from slickwilly’s if I understand him correctly).

    • Leaving the busts and statues of Confederate Generals in place might motivate people to learn more about these guys. General Forest of (“Forest Gump”) as founder of the Klan certainly wasn’t a great guy although he was a talented calvaryman. I think erasing history because of political motivations is a rotten idea.

  5. There is a distinct difference between erasing history and not glorifying the ugliness. In the South “The Cause” is still seen as noble by many and those who fought for it as heroes.

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