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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeb Bush's campaign will emphasise both his conservative record as a former governor of Florida and his commitment to building a more inclusive Republican Party  

American democracy is up for sale, and it’s a warning to us all

Shirley Williams
Pupils arrive at school with their parents at the start of a new school year  

School-run parents: be careful – very careful – what you wish for

Grace Dent
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border