A unique reminder of inhumanity that should never be forgotten

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The Independent Online

The sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz today has a special sense of dignity. As with the D-Day anniversary last year, there is inevitably a sense of a passing of the generation who remembered and were part of it, a thinning of the cord that connects the past with new generations who must learn about it afresh.

The sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz today has a special sense of dignity. As with the D-Day anniversary last year, there is inevitably a sense of a passing of the generation who remembered and were part of it, a thinning of the cord that connects the past with new generations who must learn about it afresh.

This is reason perhaps to feel a particular solemnity this year, to stand in sorrow at the loss of so many lives and in appalled knowledge of what man is capable of doing to man. Only those who survived, those who witnessed the death camps or who had relations who died there, can know the full extent of grief that the Holocaust brought. But it remains in its scale and its full bureaucratic ruthlessness a crime that had, and must continue to have, reverberations through all humanity.

Auschwitz itself was not only an extermination camp for Jews, of course. Tens of thousands of Poles, Russians, gypsies, homosexuals and others whom the Nazis defined as subhuman, also died there. But it has come to have a special meaning in the Holocaust, accounting for up to 1 million of the 6 million Jews who died as victims of the world's most horrendous genocide.

Was the Holocaust then a unique event, an "exceptional" act of mass murder that can only be understood in Jewish historical terms, or was it part of a wider pattern of brutality, a peculiarly brutal part to be sure, but one with implications for us all?

The answer must be that it was - and is - both. The anti-Semitism that encouraged the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond and allowed the Nazis to define them as a sub-species of mankind to be wiped off their lands has not disappeared. It did not start with the rise to power of Hitler and it did not end with his fall. Given that history, Jews have a special reason for feeling that the Holocaust should be invoked as a constant rallying cry to stamp out even the most isolated signs of a resurgence in anti-Semitic propaganda and assault.

But the Holocaust was not alone as an act of genocide in a century filled with massacres of civilians and ethnic violence. Armenians, Tutsi, Chechens, Aborigines, Marsh Arabs, Nubian tribesmen - the list of victims of race or colour is endless, not to mention the millions of their own countrymen killed or starved by Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. In that sense the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz cannot be just an occasion to remember a uniquely horrifying episode in history. Within five years millions of Hindus and Muslims were being killed for their religion in the break-up of India. Half a century later, Rwanda proved that virtually an entire people could be slaughtered - and the world would let it happen.

There is reason for optimism as well as gloom. The reaction to the horrors of Nazism and the World War it unleashed led to the creation of both the United Nations and then the European Common Market. It is now impossible to conceive of any resurgence of the national conflict in Europe that brought with it two world wars. The collapse of the Soviet Union has also brought with it an opportunity for countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania to face up to their past, and particularly the Holocaust.

But faced with the ethnic violence and civilian massacres in Darfur, no one could say that the lessons of the last century have been learnt, or that the international community has yet found a way of preventing them. Nor, listening to the debate about immigration, can anyone say that all people have learnt generosity towards their fellow men. Fear of the foreigner, suspicion of the outsider, lies close to the surface of every society, ready to break out in calls for action when pressures seem threatening. One man's concern about security all too easily becomes a crowd's call to imprison or reject a whole group. We will need to remember Auschwitz long after its last survivor has gone.

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