One million lemmings can't be wrong - or can they...?
By Herman Labuschagne

10 May 2014



I am looking at a picture from World War II tonight, and I’m seeing something that I recognize. But for the styles of hair and clothing, the expressions in that picture are the ones we continue to see among us to this very day.


The caption of the photograph reads: “German prisoners of war in American captivity are witnessing film footage of the German concentration camps.”


They look incredulous. They cannot believe what they are seeing. And yet, they were there when it all took place. Everything that they were seeing there happened on their watch. It was a wakeup to the painful sunlight of reality that made an entire nation blink.


This picture portrays a profound historical reality. But I see more than that. My eyes have always seen through different spectacles. What I see in that picture is something different to what the caption says. I don’t see Germans. I see lemmings. And they are us.


Allow me to explain…


I asked a lady today whether she knew what lemmings are. She said she did not know. I was surprised, because I thought that everyone knew the urban legend about the lemmings. Lemmings are large rodents that live in the arctic regions. They look very much like guinea pigs. When their population numbers periodically explode, they tend to go on mass-migration tours in search of better surroundings.


Popular myth holds that lemmings have a built-in mechanism of maintaining an ecological balance with nature by committing mass-suicide from time to time. The legend asserts that lemmings will all follow one-another, rushing like a mad surging crowd until they find a cliff by a lake of water, from which they all will plunge to their death en masse. Metaphorically, this is always held as a classic example of crowd psychology – and indeed it is an accurate one.


The lemming story is not really accurate, of course, but the principle holds true. People are sheep. People think in crowds, live in crowds, move in crowds – and ultimately commit the greatest of all their follies as crowds. This would not be so remarkable were it not for the fact that all the while as they are doing so, they believe their actions to be right. This may sound astonishing, but it remains as one of the saddest truths known about man.


The lemmings of World War II


There are other images like this one. Indeed, I have seen many more pictures like these German soldiers. There were the shocked civilian expressions when Allied soldiers forced hundreds of townsfolk to witness the clearing out of concentration death camps. The hands in front of mouths when they saw the trenches filled with dead. The breaking down and sobbing as they were forced to exhume the corpses of women and little children who had been beaten, butchered and starved to death. The tears when they saw the ovens, whose smoke columns had streaked their skies for years.


In that moment what had seemed an adventure had turned into a nightmare. Suddenly they realized that what had seemed like a necessary price to pay in order to achieve something good, had in fact been nothing but the road to perdition.


Time and again they asked themselves – “How was it possible that we had been accomplice to a crime of such historical proportions?”


Some took refuge in denial, but many others woke to reality with shame and horror. Suddenly they could not fathom how they had believed so strongly in lies for so very long. One-by-one they realized that at some point or another, each of them could have said “no”. Each could have resisted and followed the instructions of their conscience. Yet, they did not.


When the crowds around them voted for tyranny and injustice, they voted the same. When inflicting wrong benefitted the pockets and comfort zones of their neighbours, they subscribed to it as well. Some did so through active participation, and others did so through gentle acquiescence.


When no voices rose to protest against the doing of wrong, they followed the crowd by remaining silent too. They first chose to believe the lies of propaganda. They then supported the leadership and dogma that was introduced. After that they supported the machinery of war and social injustice. Soon after that, many became willing gears and leavers that made the stamp batteries crush the bodies of the helpless.


Some took employment in the death camps. Many were kind and good when they first started. Yet, when other guards began to beat the prisoners, they were to afraid to be look different. And so they followed the example. In the movement of crowds it would not do for them to stand out. And so they inspired one-another to become monsters.


Yet, they were not so in the beginning. The German nation was one of the most civilized and finely-developed nations on earth when the war started in 1939. They represented the epitome of cultural refinement and scholarly achievement. In his celebrated book, “Insanity Fair,” Douglas Reed described the pre-war Germans as friendly nation who had discipline and principles. He found them to be more cleanly and pleasant to live amongst than even his own British compatriots. How, then, was it possible that Germany became the ogre of the world in such a short time?


To be sure, the majority who participated in the German war effort were by no means brutal war criminals. They were just ordinary soldiers and civilians. People who may have voted for the Nazis, but who did not particularly believe in inflicting pain on innocent people. How on earth then, did they become so completely swept up in this maelstrom of destruction? What made Germans so different that they turned from being just like the French or the British, into becoming co-authors of one of the darkest chapters in the book of human history? What was the faulty element within the German character that had made it possible?


Lemmings in unexpected places


History has been pondering this question for generations and there still has been no answer. Especially when we consider another disconcerting fact. While many may gloat and point their fingers at the Germans, they forget something disturbingly important. An uncomfortable truth that cuts viciously close to the very heart of our own self-righteousness. This truth is the fact hat the Germans were not the only participants to these ungodly crimes. The greatest surprise is that the honest sociologist need look not further than the concentration camps themselves. For behind the barbed wire fences live another kind of monster – and this one was no German. This one was a Jew.


This discovery may be a surprising one – and for the most part it is an inconvenient fact that remains conveniently ignored. But that’s the one thing about facts: however much you choose to not look at them – you will always feel their hand upon your shoulder. You will always know that they are there, even if you don’t believe in them. They will always be breathing down your neck with rhythmic regularity.


The fact is that behind the Jewish monsters behind the fences were in certain ways the worst of all. They were worse in the sense that they were traitors. These people were known as “kapos.” The kapos were Jews like any other – who turned against their own in order to further their individual survival. By terrorizing subordinate prisoners, these traitors obtained special privileges from the camp authorities.


In many cases the treatment that they meted out to their own kinsmen was equal in brutality to that of their captors. If you think the kapos did not make a difference, then consider what a camp survivor by the name of Eugen Kogon said:


The concentration camp system owed its stability in no small way to a cadre of kapos, who took over the daily operations of the camp, relieving the SS personnel. Thus, absolute power was ubiquitous.


Without the delegation of power, the system of discipline and supervision would have promptly disintegrated. The rivalry over supervisory, administrative and warehouse functionary jobs was, for the SS, just a welcome opportunity to pit groups of prisoners against each other and keep them dependent.


The normal prisoner, however, was at the mercy of a dual authority, the SS, who often hardly seemed to be at the camp, and the prisoner functionaries, who were always there.”[1]


German civillians are compelled to witness the results of the holocaust at Buchenwald concentration camp.


More lemmings throughout history.


There were indeed, and exceedingly large number of kapos within the Jewish concentration camps, and quite a number of them were later to be convicted as war criminals. But these kapos were not there alone. They were also in the concentration camps were the Nazis were starving Russian, Polish and other prisoners of war to death. You did not have to be a Jew to be a kapo. You could have been from any nation on the planet, because being kapo was not a matter of nationality, but a matter of the heart.


More such traitors were to be found in the labour camps of Siberia, where German prisoners of war also became the equivalent of kapos under the Soviets. Although still being prisoners themselves, they willingly inflicted violence along with those who were their captors.


In his timeless classic, “Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds,” the respected author Charles Mackay makes this profound statement in 1841. It is a book which has remained in print to this very day, and a statement which continues to echo throughout history: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."[2]


After World War II, people around the entire world stood back and blinked in disbelief. In the absence of peer-pressure they were left naked and alone as they staring in the mirror of self-analysis. They could hardly recognize the faces that stared back at them. How had they become war criminals, they wondered?


These people all had one thing in common. They were lemmings. Caught up in a massive tide of human thinking, they had allowed themselves to be swept away across a precipice. Without a foundation of genuine character and a rock-steady set of beliefs and principles that guided their thinking, they had allowed themselves to become blinded and deluded. Some by greed, others by fear. Most of them by both combined.


Yet, they were not the only ones. The list of ordinary people who became lemmings is endless. The French Revolution was conducted and supported by lemmings. The October Revolution and the Pogroms of the Russians were conducted and supported by lemmings. The holocaust in Cambodia was made possible by Cambodian lemmings. The Cultural Revolution took place because there was something such as Chinese lemmings also.


Similarly, the murder of over 27,000 women and children in the concentration camps of South Africa was made possible by British lemmings. All over the world, the invasion of innocent countries, the slaughtering of innocent populations, the destruction of sound financial markets, or even the collapse of good, functional political systems are caused by lemmings. Every age, every culture, every country – yes, even every town has had its lemmings and continues to have them to this day. Lemmings have always been the majority – and even after all the centuries – the lemmings still make a point of periodically marching to their doom.


Local civilians are brought to see the the scenes inside Buchenwald.


The lemmings are identified.


Who are these lemmings, we are finally forced to ask?


To this the voice of wisdom answers gravely: “We are they, and the lemmings are us.”


This is unfortunately a fact. We are reminded yet again that people are like sheep, and sheep move in herds, think in herds and die in herds. Fortunately there are exceptions. Throughout all the bloody pages of history, there have always been a minority of men and women who did not follow herds. They have always resisted the tide of destruction.


They are people who will not allow their leaders to do all the thinking for them. They do not rely on the judgement of crowds. They do not believe that the majority is always right. They do not seek refuge in the deadly comfort of majority approval. In stead, they let logic and reason speak to them. They are the men who ask uncomfortable questions. They are the women who weight the facts and draw their own conclusions.


A mob of lemmings storm the Bastille in Paris in 1789.


The opposite of lemmings.


If they are not lemmings, then, is there a name for these kinds of people? Indeed there is. They are called “salmon.” Salmon are the fish that swim against the stream. While others are content to float away to destruction, salmon have something strong that they believe in. Even if they cannot see it, they know that it exists. They have a sense of purpose, a sense of destiny – a sense of self-determination. Salmon follow a game plan. They do not follow herds.


It must be observed, however, that Salmon must not be confused with senseless rebels. Senseless rebels are just stupid fish that leap out of the water and onto the ground where the bears and ants will eat them. In stead, Salmon are the brave men and women who have always stood apart from crowds.


They were the noble Germans who listened to the words of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot and even Joseph Chamberlain, and then went home to think about it. They were men who weighed the facts. They weighed these facts against the counter-balances of the principles of godly living: Honesty, integrity, compassion, justice, mercy, kindness, generosity, unselfishness, and many other noble qualities. Most of all, they weighed the squeals of all the lemmings and the bleating of all the sheep against the greatest quality of all – the universal quality of genuine love. The kind which can best be described as genuine outflowing concern for other human beings.


We are living in an age today which is typified by an incredible degradation in standards of morality and the qualities of common decency. The ability of people to accurately distinguish between right and wrong has been eroded by the false preaching of licentious liberty. People do not subscribe to strong codes of morality anymore. They are abandoning personal discipline in favour of doing what feels good, in stead of what is good.


When history looks back one day.


I do believe that the hand of history will look back one day towards our present age, and hesitate before it writes with trembling fingers, that our current age has been the greatest age that lemmings had ever known. The time of the lemmings is not over. Instead, the rush has only started. We can see it all around us as ordinary good people abandon common sense and reason. We see it in the way they start subscribing to the most outrageous of beliefs and the most unwise of theory. We can see it in our education, in our politics and in our economies. The lemmings are on the march. And they are calling. They are squealing joyfully for they know that in the western world, there are more lemmings now than ever before. They don’t care if there is a cliff ahead. The joy of merely being together as lemmings outweighs reason by to great a margin.


I often look at the colossal movement towards social implosion around the world and shudder. At times such as these I have to remind myself: As for me and my house, we will not be lemmings.” We have chosen to be salmon. Salmon are swimming towards life, while lemmings are marching towards death. We might as well be honest and realistic when we acknowledge that not all the salmon will clear the rapids. Salmon too, will make mistakes. Frequently they will even end up being eaten. Yet, to those who know that they are salmon, the destination justifies the dangers.


I looked at the picture of the Germans as they sit there watching movies of the activities of lemmings. I looked at it long and hard tonight. And then I hope sincerely that I will never sit among them – and see the expression on my own face that I see on theirs when I realize the consequences of my actions.


No free man deserves to ever be a lemming. I will continue to believe that even if I have to be the only salmon among a million lemmings.