Bruce Anderson: Auschwitz is no subject for point-scoring, and neither party emerges with any credit

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The Independent Online

A friend of mine once spent a season in Hell. The late Gerald Draper, subsequently a professor of international law, was a wartime colonel. In 1945, as one of the Allied interrogators dealing with war criminals, he was tasked with interviewing Rudolf Hoess, the Commandant of Auschwitz. Before beginning their sessions, the Colonel and his colleagues would work out the best way to extract the maximum information. In Hoess's case, Gerald decided that the most fruitful approach would be to banish all emotion and take the Commandant through the bureaucratic details of his stewardship, as if he had been running a paper clip factory, not a slaughterhouse for human beings.

Thirty years later, when Gerald retold the story, the emotions which he had suppressed at the time would seize possession of his soul. It was as if there was a poison in his bloodstream, which the cleansing organs were powerless to eliminate, even after several decades. His face would become etched and drawn as he recounted the questions and answers in German. The memories were indelible. They haunted his dreams, turning them into nightmares, foreshortening sleep. The horror stayed with him as long as he lived.

At the time, he had summoned all his self-control to stick to his chosen tactic. He listened impassively as Hoess explained the difficulties of running Auschwitz. Never did evil sound so banal. There were lots of complaints about Eichmann, Hoess's boss. "He was a terrible fellow. I could never get the trains turned round fast enough for him."

Once, a trainload of children arrived. Even in their innocence, they sensed danger. That availed them nought. They refused to leave the train, so SS men were let loose with machine guns. This created a problem for Hoess: the mess. "I tried to get it cleaned up, but it was hard with blood and brains everywhere. I had Eichmann screaming at me down the phone: 'How dare you send me a train like that? If it happens again, you'll be in front of a people's court' ".

At the end of their sessions, Colonel Draper summed up. (I cannot remember the figures. Perhaps David Irvine could supply them.) "Herr Commandant, we have agreed that during your time at Auschwitz, 1.35 million people were killed." "Oh no, Herr Colonel, I make it 1.16million." Both men checked their calculations. "Ah, I see where the discrepancy arises," said Hoess. "You're including November'43, when I was on that course in Munich, as well as the fortnight in March '44 when I was on sick leave. Even though I was Commandant, I was not in day to day control then. I think you should mention that in your report." Gerald agreed to do so.

"What will happen to me now?", "Well, you'll be called as a witness at Nuremberg. Then you yourself will be put on trial. I imagine you will be hanged." "Will my widow keep my pension rights?"

Hoess was hanged, at Auschwitz, appropriately. Visitors will see the beam of the gallows. It is prominently displayed; when I visited Auschwitz, I almost felt that this was a wrong note. That was nothing to do with pity for Hoess; I am not sure that I would object to watching footage of his execution. But there is another beam, on which some heroes who tried to resist met their fate. As the group I was with stood in front of that memorial to hopeless and ennobling courage, none of us trusted ourselves to speak. Hoess's beam is a mere testament to penal hygiene. It should not be so prominent.

Just as Gerald Draper found it impossible to assimilate his experiences, history cannot assimilate the Holocaust. Man is a wolf to man; much of history is a cry of pain. At the beginning of the last century, there seemed to be grounds for optimism: for hoping that the anaesthesia of civilisation would bring to an end the era of pain. In 1900, men could aspire to Promethean dreams. By the mid century, mankind had barely escaped Prometheus's fate. The first half of the 20th century was the worst period in history since the Dark Ages. The wolves had returned; the hopes had drowned in blood. Far from easing the pain, the resources of civilisation had been deployed to magnify it. But even in that hideous epoch, the Holocaust damage stands out. "No poetry after Auschwitz," said Theodor Adorno, half an injunction, half a prediction. Thus far, he has been proved right. There has not been much of any quality.

The Holocaust is an enduring moral shadow. Yet it must also be studied as a historical event. The Nazi era ought to feature in the school curriculum, though not to the exclusion of all other history. At the end of last week, David Cameron's office got into trouble for appearing to suggest that Gordon Brown was wrong to encourage children to visit Auschwitz. But the Tories had a good point, though they expressed it clumsily. Mr Brown had been trying to take a – literally – cheap trick.

When it was announced that the Government would pay for children to visit Auschwitz, a lot of people assumed that this would apply to all children at some stage in their school career. In fact, the Government is proposing to spend only £4.65m, and the scheme will benefit only two children a year from each secondary school. Moreover, the schools will have to pay £200 towards the cost, which is not easy at a time of strained budgets.

There is a further problem: selecting the children. It would seem natural to award the trip as a prize for promising historians. Yet it might well be the dullards who would be jolted into awareness by the piles of human hair, the heaps of children's clothing. All children should visit Auschwitz.

The Tories are not prepared to go that far. Just as Geoffrey Howe did when he was shadow Chancellor in the late Seventies, George Osborne is imposing rigid expenditure limits on all his colleagues. He insists that before allowing cabinet ministers to commit themselves to spending increases, the next Tory chancellor will need to scrutinise the national finances to ensure that the money is available.

But the Tories have said that they would meet the whole cost of the Auschwitz trip. They are entitled to point out that Gordon Brown tried to extract a lot of credit for a tiny amount of cash. He was hardly pledging enough to pay for a deposit on a Northern Rock mortgage.

Where they went wrong, was including Auschwitz in a list of 26 "Labour gimmicks". There is nothing wrong with highlighting this Prime Minister's tendency to make commitments which he has no intention of honouring; to be lavish with promises, and niggardly with delivery. Yet Auschwitz should never be included in a list of gimmicks.

It would have been better if the Tories had published the details of the other 25 gimmicks, and then dealt with Auschwitz separately. If that bit of the press release had started: "Even when it comes to Auschwitz," there could have been no legitimate complaints.

The Holocaust is not the whole of history. Our children need to learn a lot more than they do about their own country's past. But anyone who thinks about history will never banish Auschwitz and the Holocaust from the forefront of his mind. We do not need to be Gerald Draper to contemplate that evil.