What my generation can learn from the Holocaust

We should recall that hatred continues to be fanned against entire peoples, and that man is capable of both wonderful benevolence and unspeakable horrors

Share

A few months ago, I stood with a close friend on the abandoned platform 17 of Berlin-Grunewald railway station. Seven decades ago, on this same platform, his grandmother’s relatives were crammed into a train with hundreds of other German Jews. They would be shot in the forests near Riga in Latvia, before the Nazis settled on gassing as a more efficient means of extermination.

It’s a spookily quiet place now, with trees growing from the tracks; difficult to imagine wailing children being dragged into overcrowded trains on a journey lasting days without food or water, on their way to be remorselessly, bureaucratically murdered. A steel grate by the tracks chronologically documents the butchery: on 18th October 1941, 1,251 Jews transported to Lodz; on 17th March 1943, 1,160 Jews sent to Theresienstadt; and so on.

It was Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday, but for a new generation, the Shoah – the Hebrew word for calamity – often seems too distant, too overwhelming, too horrific to be real. Easy to think of it as an abstract horror from another universe, not an atrocity that remains a memory in the minds of people, some still tattooed with their concentration camp numbers. The author Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, recounted how the ashes of murdered Jews became fertiliser or lined the path of SS commando villages. How could such grotesque schemes even be thought of, let alone proposed, let alone realised, by human beings?

Lost on some

The gravity of the Holocaust is lost on some. In the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, the Lib Dem MP David Ward wrote of being “saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution in the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians.” A later clarification was even worse: “It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated.”

A dismissive generalisation of a whole people should always provoke alarm. So should attempts to conflate the Israeli government and the entire Jewish people. Or, for that matter, to try and portray an entire people as homogenous, as though Jewish critics of Israeli policies such as Naomi Klein, Harold Pinter or Noam Chomsky can be lumped together with Ariel Sharon and Avigdor Lieberman.

But the lessons of the Holocaust must be learned and re-learned by each new generation. The first is that vigilance against the poison of anti-Semitism must remain. In Latvia, there have been marches to commemorate Nazi collaborators as patriotic freedom fighters. In Hungary, the deputy chair of Jobbik – the country’s third biggest party – called for a national register of Jews to determine whether they posed a “national security risk”: thousands of Hungarians laudably marched in disgust.

Yet neither should we fatalistically believe that anti-Semitism is somehow inherent or part of the European condition. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of prejudice and persecution, and unlearning that heritage was never going to be instantaneous. Britain’s last anti-Jewish riots were in 1947, not long after the emaciated survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec and Treblinka had been liberated. But anti-Semitism – once rampant in Britain – has been driven back, and can be defeated everywhere.

The Shoah should be remembered as a unique warning from history. Mass murder, even genocide, predate the gas chambers: indigenous people were wiped out across Latin America; up to ten million died in Congo at the hands of the Belgian King; millions perished from avoidable famines in British-ruled India; German colonists themselves committed genocide against the Herero and Nama people in South-west Africa.

But the Shoah – along with the Porajmos, the Nazi extermination of the Roma people – was unique as an industrialised, systematic attempt to wipe out an entire people. It was bureaucratically planned and executed; all the appropriate forms were diligently filled in. It was capitalism gone mad as corporate giants like IBM, IG Farben and Siemens provided the required technology and profited from the slaughter.

The Holocaust should teach us that evil does not exist. An odd, perhaps ludicrously offensive statement. But to dismiss such atrocities as “evil” is to abdicate responsibility, to comfort ourselves by pretending somehow it was not human beings committing such sickening acts, but monsters who are nothing like us. Germany was one of the most advanced countries on earth at the time. Studies suggest that only about 1 per cent of humans are genuine psychopaths. Millions helped the organised slaughter of Jews – as well as Roma, disabled people, socialists, Slavs and so on – and they were thinking, feeling human beings capable of grief, love and fear, however distressing it may be to accept that fact.

Infinite malleability

The atrocity teaches us about what it means to be human. As a socialist, I am compelled to have an optimistic view of humanity, to believe we are not all motivated by greed, selfishness or hate. But what the Holocaust reveals is the almost infinite malleability of humanity: that we have the capacity to do wonderful things, and yet to perpetrate the most unimaginable horrors.

It demonstrates the terrifying potential of dehumanisation, too. When you strip someone of their humanity, you become capable of committing unspeakable acts against them; you immunise yourself against normal human emotions. This is the process that allows suffering to be inflicted on innocent people on a daily basis.

We must remember, too, that hatred continues to be fanned against entire peoples. Muslims are the current target of choice for the European far-right; they are demonised by the mass media and mainstream politicians; nearly half of Britons polled think too many live here.

The Holocaust cannot be glibly remembered in passing as a tragic aberration, an extreme and unrepeatable atrocity that happened because millions of people somehow went mad. The remembering and learning has to go on. As Karl Jaspers, himself persecuted by the Nazis, put it: “That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz