I have watched and read a great deal about the Holocaust recently, not intentionally, just by coincidence various bits of media crossing my path. The three main sources; I’m watching The Counterfeiters and Schindler’s List (which I’m watching for the umpteenth time because it is such a brilliant piece of cinema and Steven Spielberg’s finest work), and I’m reading If This Is A Man and The Truce, both by Primo Levi. “The Counterfeiters” is on sale in HMV and you can get the both Levi books in one edition for £5 including postage from Amazon. I highly, highly recommend all of them.
The people targeted by The Holocaust were Jews, Gypsies, Soviets, POWs, Communists, ethnic Poles, other Slavic people, the disabled, homosexuals and political and religious dissidents. You can bet that any non-Caucasian ethnicity would have been on that list too had the Nazis got their way. The highest estimate for the victims of The Holocaust was eleven million people. 11’000’000. That is the equivalent population of Greater London, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Edinburgh combined.
To me, there are two things that stand out about the Holocaust. The first, and the most terrifying, is that this vast, unnecessary loss of human life, this rampant slaughter fuelled by hatred, was committed by human beings against other human beings. Smart, intelligent people did these unimaginably barbaric, senseless things to other human beings.
It says something about our weaknesses and fallibilities as a species, that we could do this to one another, that we could be convinced to desire to turn men into beasts and become them ourselves. I am not saying that it exists in all of us, the ability to scheme and sketch such horror, but it exists in a few, the malfunctioning people in our midst: the men that would be pathological serial killers if they had not risen duplicitously through the ranks of power to lead a nation. And through their charismatic leadership, through their manipulation of the media of their time, through their rhetoric, control of knowledge and political destruction of the liberties of their people, they convince their populace and their soldiers to not only engage in but revel in monstrosities that do not even exist in the deepest corners of most men’s souls.
The soldiers that helped commit the horrors of The Holocaust were no different from the British soldiers or American soldiers that are fighting in Iraq. They were sent to kill the Jews, tripped up and brainwashed into serving a political ideal that was beyond their comprehension. They were serving their nation’s leader; they were serving their country with all the fervour they could muster. They were freeing the German people from the shackles of the evil and the weak that lay in their midst. Is that any different from our soldiers freeing the Iraqi people from the evil of a dictator and the killers that lay among them? I don’t think it is.
I am not equating what our soldiers are doing in Iraq to The Holocaust, merely that both parties were and are soldiers. They do not question their orders, they love their country, and they put their lives on the line to do it. It is not in their mindset to analyse the orders they are given, for does not every patriotic man believe that his country, his home, is the one that is right in a conflict? I believe that most often they do. And when the ruler of the country and his minions is quietly subverting the rule of law, misinforming the populace and silencing dissent (especially in a world before information ever travelled really freely), what can a soldier or a citizen think? They would not know what their Government was really doing. Would one ever question, when all they hear is propaganda and they do not realise it, that the rulers of their country are engaged in the most unspeakable acts of horror ever imagined?
Yes, the most terrifying thing about the Holocaust, in my eyes, is that in another time, you or I, any of us in such a controlled situation, without access to free, independent information, yes unaware of, we could be controlled in such a way. We could be brainwashed and convinced into being a part of such hatred.
The second thing about The Holocaust that stands out to me, the one that I find most shameful and distressing about the whole thing, is that we allowed it to happen. By we I mean both the victims and those of us that lived free, far away.
What enrages me, to a point, is that the people that were rounded up in the ghettos, the people that were marginalised and put away, they never really fought against what was happening to them. There were a few uprisings, but for the most part, the people involved never fought back. They let it happen to them. They never thought that their rulers could commit acts of such terror against them. It was naïve in a way; they never thought their government would make them second class citizens, they never thought they would take their homes, move them into ghettos and treat them like animals, they never thought there would be random, unpunished killings in the street by soldiers. Liquidation of the ghettos, the work camps and mass murder were only escalations of that. They saw the propaganda, they saw the way they were demonised, yet they never thought it would reach such a scale.
There was an acceptance that things would never get that bad. There was even an acceptance that they could get by, or could stand by dehumanised. By the time they reached Auschwitz or Dachau they were already broken. They stood by and allowed themselves to be brow beaten by men with guns. Brainwashed bullies. There was never any desire it seemed, never any real fight amongst the mass of the people, to stop this happening to them; to risk something and fight. Of course there were groups of people who tried to rebel, but there was never a real uprising of the entire population. Paul Johnson writes: "The Jews had been persecuted for a millennium and a half and had learned from long experience that resistance cost lives rather than saved them. Their history, their theology, their folklore, their social structure, even their vocabulary trained them to negotiate, to pay, to plead, to protest, not to fight.” I suppose their nature, and the naivety of others never led them to believe that a bullet in the head of the ghetto would have been several lifetimes better than a bullet in the head in Auschwitz, but is the right to be counted as and treated like a human being not worth risking death for?
And then there were The Allies. We stood by. It is believed that we learned the truth about The Holocaust in 1942. We were already aware of the ghettos, yet we did nothing. And then once we had proof from survivors about what was happening, we still stood by. For three years, we did nothing to stop this greatest of collective nightmares of the human race. Why? I ask. Why? By the 1st of February 1942, the United States Office of War Information had decided not to release information about the extermination of the Jews because it was felt that it would mislead the public into thinking the war was simply a Jewish problem It decided to sit idly by and deceive its own populace in an effort to get them to support the war. Had they known the truth, would they not have demanded action? Would they not have recoiled in horror and slept restlessly in their beds knowing that the mass extermination of a race of people was occuring? I hope with all my being that they would have.
Apparently, many of the The Allies, just like the victims themselves, never truly believed the stories of the gas chambers or the sterilisation experiments that managed to escape from the camps like abused children fleeing from a raging parent. It was thought to be war propaganda, viscious rumours to make the Nazis seem all the more terrible. It was just too unbelievable.
It was only in April of 1944 that The Allies began to take reports seriously. Before then the tales of escapees were just too far fetched. Never before had such unspeakable destruction of human life been witnessed or reported on such a massive scale; there was no frame of referance in our history that led us to believe that such evil could exist within the dark recesses of man’s soul. It was apparently muted that Auschwitz should be bombed, one has to wonder if that would not have been more humane.
David Wyman, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Massachusetts, has asked: “How could it be that the governments of the two great Western democracies knew that a place existed where 2000 helpless human beings could be killed every 30 minutes, knew that such killings actually did occur over and over again, and yet did not feel driven to search for some way to wipe such a scourge from the earth?” During his second visit to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on January 10 of this year, President George W. Bush said to Condoleezza Rice, “We should have bombed it.”
I think it is difficult to say whether the camps should have been bombed, because methods of bombing at the time were so haphazard at the time. Personally, I feel that given what was happening in those prisons of the human soul, bombing may have been the more humane option.
And what do we learn now from The Holocaust? What is there about a war that happened sixty years ago, many of the survivors of which are now dead or in the twilight years of their lives. What is there that we, now living in a 21st century world of internets, twenty four hour media, instant worldwide communication, energy crises and global corporations can learn from this unspeakable event that was wrapped within the most destructive war the world has ever known?
To me, there are three things that stand out. That we must always, always question and never be afraid to question what it is that our governments and our media tells us. Never again can we let a leader, however righteous he may appear, control the media and the political system so fiercely. Never again must we accept the marginalisation of any section of society.
Never again must we allow ourselves to go quietly in the face of injustice and hatred. Never again must we permit our species to fall victim to the trickery of propaganda in an effort to mobilise their emotions against any people. We should not have stood for it then, and we should not stand for it now. Unfortuantely though, we do. We report but do not act against the acts of murder that Governments enact on their citizens in nations less fortunate than our own. We acknowledge the horror of The Holocaust, because it was immediate to us, it happened so close to where we are. But the atrocities that other countries are committing today are like smaller scale versions of such barbarity to the people involved in them. We can not allow their voices to be ignored like the victims of the extermination camps were ignored. We must speak out, pressure leaders for action and be prepared to actually, sometimes put ourselves out on behalf of those that are suffering. So many condemn such acts, and so many do so little about them.
And finally, the most resonating message that The Holocaust leaves, that all of us, every person on this planet, is a human being. We must remember that it was simple, common anti-Semitism, xenophobia or homphobia that allowed The Holocaust a foothold amongst the population of Germany. It was that ignored bigorty that no one ever really bothered with that become the soft flesh that its brutal, iron claws sunk into and received support in. From simple dislike came hatred. From hatred followed the second class status. From there the ghettos, and then the death camps. It all started from that simple, quiet, unspoken dislike for groups of people based on nothing more than how or where or to whom they were born. We cannot allow that to repeat itself. Because it will, one day, if we allow it. It happens still around the world. Rascism, homphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia. It is not something we should tolerate or accept. Because it is a slippery slope from there, one that leads to the worst of human nature. And all it needs is one person with the charisma and the voice to gain a little support, and it could happen again. No one ever thought it could be possible in the twentieth century, we must never take such senseless hatred so lightly in the twenty first.
We must never let it happen again.