Holocaust Memorial Day January 27th 2012
Between the outbreak of war in 1939 to its final total defeat in May 1945 Nazi Germany ordered, orchestrated and carried out the deliberate murder of 6 million Jewish people from every and territory in Europe in which the Nazis had control in an effort to kill every single human being of Jewish descent in the world.
That is the barest factual statement of what happened. To try to say more is to fall into an abyss, once started it seems impossible to find a decent point to stop without it being somehow inappropriate. There is always so much more to say.
It is impossible to fully tell the true story of what happened across every country in Europe, across uncountable different communities, millions of individual experiences and 6 years, in what were really a series of associated atrocities by different methods united by the same evil purpose. If I started now and kept talking without pause to a ripe old age I could only tell you a small fragment of the whole story of what happened to so many people.
One of the major historical and popular arguments about the Holocaust relates to whether the Holocaust was in some sense unique. The precise answer to that is that it depends in what manner you mean. The less precise, but fundamentally more accurate answer is simply, Yes. There have been other massacres, other atrocities, other genocides, other periods when more people were killed in total. But still the Holocaust is unique. The Holocaust was a uniquely significant event in Western history and world history as a whole.
In the most trivial sense all historical events are unique. They all involved different places, different people, different real lives and experiences, different contexts and circumstances. The impulse to lump them all in the same and rank them by various criteria, as though it were some crude measuring exercise, should be avoided at all costs. It is cheap and unworthy, as well as intellectually lazy, to try to reduce them to a few rough yardstick criteria. Especially when they involve such vast but personal tragedy.
But even in those crude senses the Holocaust is still unique. Despite a sad series of events that have made a mockery of the solemn vow 'Never Again', the Holocaust is still the largest single genocide in human history. But that is not what makes it truly unique.
Even in the 2nd World War, the Jewish Holocaust happened within a much larger campaign of indiscriminate mass murder of unarmed prisoners and civilians by the Nazis and their allies in areas under their own control including (in roughly descending order of size) Soviet POW's, Polish gentile civilians, Romany and Sinti Gypsies, Serbs, Soviet civilians, disabled people, Homosexuals, Left Wing political activists (social democrats, communists, trade unionists), Freemasons, Jehovah's witnesses, Catholic and protestant clergy, and political prisoners who resisted the Nazis. Including all these groups raises the number of victims to 11-12 million. And this is itself small next to the 65 million victims: massacred civilians, civilians killed due to total war, and military deaths in WW2 as a whole.
I have often thought that there should be separate accepted words to refer to the specific destruction of the Jews and the wider campaign of murder by the Nazis using the same methods and infrastructure: mass shooting, starvation, extermination through labour, gas chambers. Possibly one of the commonly used words Shoah or Holocaust could be assigned to refer to each one. This proposal does have one significant problem though, namely the visceral and etymological connection both of these terms have to the specifically anti-Jewish campaign of Genocide.
What makes the Jewish Holocaust unique is not the size though. What makes it so unique is the nature of the event, the place it takes in the psychological development of western civilisation. The Holocaust was a continent-wide campaign to murder every man, woman and child of a scattered nation of 9 million people based on nothing more substantial than a wind of vaguely defined, nonsense, paranoid, racist fantasy. To this end one of the largest and most developed states in the modern world directed every means and instrument at its disposal, utilised its every branch and department in all their administrative complexity and efficiency, the most advanced expertise in science and engineering of the time, and the entirety of a vast professional military and police establishment as well as the help of collaborators in every country it reached. All to the end of murdering specific human beings with the greatest efficiency and speed possible, all thoroughly documented and recorded with all the precision one could expect of a modern state bureaucracy.
The genocide was at the centre of the very purpose of the Nazi state as seen by those leading and organising it. In the midst of Total War, even when they were losing that war, Nazi Germany prioritised the genocide over prosecuting the War. Even into 1944 & 1945 trains deporting Jews were given priority for precious space on Europe's railways over desperately needed war materials heading to the armies. Scarce resources were directed into killing millions of skilled workers despite Germany's desperate inferiority in industrial production. Vital military personnel and administrative capability were tied up in organising and directing the genocide despite the steady collapse of the Nazi state. Quite simply the Nazis would rather murder Jews than win the war. And all for nothing.The Holocaust had no purpose, no possible practical gain, even by the flimsy standards and excuses of historical genocide and mass murder. It was not central to securing anyone's power or some tangential military or economic advantage. It was just pointless, brutal, sadistic murder and destruction for its own sake.
The Holocaust shattered all that. European, modernist, rationalist, arrogant Enlightenment myths of superiority, civilisation and progress that laid at the basis of so much Western self-belief were destroyed for ever. Along with so many assumed truths about what modern man was capable of, about the possibility for evil in supposedly ordinary, decent human beings and even the providence of God. The Nazis twisted all the things that modern, western civilisation had built its assumption of superiority and civilisation on into the utmost mindless evil. Organisation, law, modern technology, industrial efficiency, modern medicine, even the language and dressings of science and rationalist, naturalist enquiry itself. The Holocaust revealed the veneer of civilisation, morality, compassion or religion, on which we place so much faith, to be dangerously thin and transparent and devastated western faith in itself, in civilisation and even in reason itself.
Its horrors were so great, so widespread, so unthinkable, so utterly without meaning or purpose but also so targeted, so regimented and so coldly planned that they penetrated into the very core of the understanding of western civilisation in a way no other event ever has. And uniquely among historical events it was so powerful that it shocked the Western World into taking a real step back and considering itself again: The United Nations, War Crimes, International Human Rights Law, Genocide, Israel, Crime against humanity, European Union, Refugee Status, Hate Speech, Memorial, Education & Intervention.
All these were developed, or greatly increased in importance, as a response to the War in general, but particularly the Holocaust, which was by far the most shocking and horrifying nadir even in a conflict not otherwise short of horrors. These ideas were radically creative and new, driven by a deep-seated sense that the tragedy represented something radically, horribly new in our shared history and hence required an entirely new response. A recognition that the instruments and assumptions of the old world had proved totally inadequate to what had happened and that if the civilised world was to hold onto or regain any sense of justification then it had to formulate a new response.
These measures also came from a wider horrific realisation that responsibility, if not guilt, for the Holocaust did not just rest with a handful of Nazi criminals, or even all Germans. It was facilitated and passively supported by a deep spiritual and moral malaise in societies across the western world. As early as the 1930's Hitler made no attempt to hide his desire for personal dictatorship, nor the violent and barbaric methods of his henchmen, nor his rabid hatred of Jewish people but he succeeded anyway because, to quote Norman Davies, "the prevailing political culture in Germany at the time did not preclude the election of gangsters". Hitler could not have legally abolished the constitution with the votes of the Catholic Centre Party, a liberal, bourgeoisie Christian Democrat party that at the crucial moment voted with Hitler and thus ensured its own destruction and the horrors that followed. He pursued racist and violent policies to harass and exclude Jews from German life well before the outbreak of War. But still he had defenders and supporters in Western countries, or just well meaning politicians like Chamberlain, who were able to believe he was anything other than a grim, anti-human psychopath.
His crimes were only possible because anti-semitism and political violence were deep-rooted and accepted within German culture whether among mainstream conservatives or the wider population even among those groups that would never on their own have gone as far as the Nazis did. The Christian churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, even where in some cases they half-heatedly opposed Nazism or Hitler's excesses, such as Michael von Faulhaber Archbishop of Munich, had a long history of promoting mindless anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism to the point where it pervaded German society as an acceptable component. This all meant that when the time came the plight of Jewish citizens was met, admittedly not by joy, but also not by resistance or outrage, but by indifference. To quote Ian Kershaw "the road to Auschwitz was laid by hatred, but it was paved with apathy".
And the German Nazis could not have acted alone. In almost every country they exploited widespread anti-semitism to one degree or another. Anti-semitism that meant there were always those willing to collaborate to one degree or another and in vast numbers those willing to stand aside. Anti-semitism that had been a widely accepted part of culture and life even among supposedly civilised and liberal countries. In some countries like Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania the locals were willing participants in pogroms and massacres. In others, like France or Hungary, the local police and security forces were willing, even eager participants in rounding up and deporting Jewish people in their country at the Nazi's command, to the point where their enthusiasm surprised the Germans.
That inadequacy was not limited to those countries occupied by the Nazis. In the environment before WW2 countries had very strict limits on immigration and refugees, regardless of circumstance, unless a person was very wealthy or important. Many refugees fled Nazi occupied Europe, in the 1930's and even after war started, but were turned away by country after country that would not accept them, either through anti-semitism or sheer indifference. Even in Britain or America desperate refugees were deported back to central Europe, where they would later be caught up in the Holocaust and murdered. Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust museum has a whole program devoted to remembering those relatively few non-Jews who did risk their lives to rescue Jews. Among these people is a whole category made up of diplomats in various European countries who, faced with the desperate refugees, ignored the strict rules governing immigration at that time and mass produced the official Visas these people desperately needed to cross borders and be safe in other countries. Tens of thousands were saved by the compassion of a few people in important places in handing out these documents without the usual checks and procedures. But perhaps hundreds of thousands more died because the vast majority of such diplomats, faced with these people and their obvious terror, stuck, mindlessly, to the rules they had been given, and thus trapped them where they would be killed.
During the War the Nazis made some effort to hide the full extent of what they were doing. But even despite this, primarily thanks to the astonishing bravery of a few incredible individuals who escaped the death camps, news about what was happening slowly leaked back to the West. These people were widely disbelieved, their honour doubted, their stories written off as wartime propaganda. Tragically symptomatic of the inbuilt indifference and lack of seriousness given to the horrific events that were occurring.
After the War, though tentatively at first, Western society grasped all these things. And took some steps, some efforts to change. The concepts of International Human Rights Law, or War Crimes and the need to formally try and convict people for such acts, were created out of thin air to give some of legal framework to respond to the atrocities that have happened. The Nuremberg trials were criticised at the time for having no legal basis in existing law. This was undoubtedly true, but the words of the Chief US Prosecutor at Nuremberg best described why the Trials had to occur regardless. "Civilisation asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance." The word and concept of 'Genocide' was invented and recognised, and made a particular recognisable category of War Crime, with the hope that explicitly recognising the type of event would make it easier to ensure that it never happened again. 'Refugee' status was explicitly defined and, shamed by the way they had failed so many refugees from the Nazis, the United Nations members accepted an unprecedented new duty to accept those fleeing persecution regardless of restrictions on numbers or place of origin. In the political sphere it drove the creation of the UN, the EU and the state of Israel and the turmoil that surrounds those institutions even down to today reflects the turmoil that drove their creation and the fact they were created in an emotional response to the tragedies that had happened, and not necessarily in even-handed consideration of the circumstances.
More widely there was a new commitment across the Western World to banish and reject the casual bigotry, prejudice and hate speech that had been such an accepted part of even civilised society. I believe this had a powerful impact on the unprecedented drive to remove the casual bigotries, whether sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist that had shaped the assumptions of western societies, especially from the 1960's onwards. The horrifying circumstances these attitudes had enabled gave a powerful and sustained reproach that drove the move to make those attitudes unacceptable in any polite society. The near immediate abandonment of the previously popular idea of eugenics in British and American society being one good example. The concept of Hate Speech was invented, and has taken on a powerful role both in law and in our political and social discussions. Western democracies took on a new and continuing emphasis on education, on intervention and memorial, a drive to ensure people never forgot what had happened and the lessons of those terrible events, to fight against their causes in society root and branch.
All these changes were real breaks with what had come before rather than an attempt to return to the status quo ante and carry on as though nothing had happened. This was more or less unprecedented in the history of our civilisation. What this amounted to can only be described in terms more usually reserved for talking in a religious sense: Repentance. Not in the trite sense but in the real, deep and ancient sense, the sense of conversion, which, like revolution, literally means a-turning-around. A complete turning around and real painful change in your life that involves a substantial sacrifice on your part of what is being repented of. In the sense of taking up sackcloth and ashes, of utterly repudiating what has come before, and making real efforts to turn around.
This can best be seen in Germany itself. Following the War and the Holocaust West and then re-unified Germany made an unprecedented effort, partially driven by the demands of its Allied occupiers, but also genuinely taken up by native politicians and leaders, to truly repent of what had happened. To fundamentally change the whole culture of the country and its people in a manner I don't think any other country has in western history. Obviously this has not been a perfect process, or a complete one. But it has been real and frankly remarkably impressive. Germany self-consciously accepted guilt for the War and took upon itself a debt of guilt for the atrocities that were committed, rejecting any attempt to justify its conduct in the War or attempt to justify its own losses in people or territory, and accepting the need to utterly repudiate what had happened in its name.
It stripped out the deep-seated militarism in German society and very deliberately adopted pacifism, rejected nuclear weapons, and took a deliberately unassertive political stance. It took great steps to educate its own people about the war and German guilt for what happened, supporting museums and public memorials to those who lost their lives at German hands.. It also took steps to make what penance it could, both in terms of symbolic gestures public apologies by leading politicians like Wily Brandt, to material and financial support for the State of Israel or in providing an estimated hundred billion marks in compensation to those surviving victims who had suffered under Nazi rule.
On the international stage it threw its political energies into supporting peaceful European Union, providing constant support and money from the Treaty of Rome until today in what can only be explained as another form of national penance for the past. On the domestic stage this can be seen as well. The German political parties post-War were entirely new foundations without connection to the parties that had failed under Weimar and then been swept away by the Nazis, which on the Centre-left and centre-right were for decades after the War led by individuals with solid Anti-Nazi credentials, as rare as those were in Germany at the time.
This repentance has also taken the form of deliberate silencing within German society itself. From the perspective of Britain having laws labelling denial of the holocaust as a criminal offence, or giving the courts the right to ban political parties deemed anti-democratic or supportive of Nazism, or banning any symbol associated with Nazism or any other banned political party, even greetings or songs, seems like bizarre restrictions of free speech. After all it is not the words that hurt people. But they make perfect sense when considered in the context of a deliberate and conscious attempt to banish and repress those elements that within living memory over-ran German society and almost destroyed all Europe.
This is not to say that this process of repentance and repudiation was complete or spontaneous within German society. It was not. It was, at first, deliberately encouraged and enforced by the Allies, in order ensure that an other stab-in-the-back legend did not arise, and risk threatening Europe in another 20 years time. Each step was faced by considerable opposition within German post-war society itself, but was forced through. Even today there is a noticeable far-right, neo-Nazi presence within Germany itself, if banned from organising in public.
Despite this though Germany's repentance for its crimes was far deeper and more genuine than that of any other modern country. Italy has never come to terms with its fascist past in the same sense. Its vastly smaller role in the War, and the fact it technically defected to the allied side in 1943 has allowed to avoid a full share of responsibility for what happened. Japan, despite committing atrocities on an equivalent scale to Nazi Germany, has never come face-to-face with its past in the sense that Germany has forced itself to. 'Mainstream' elements of Japanese society continue to display to ambivalent attitude to War criminals and to engage in vicious denialist efforts to re-write history to remove Japanese crimes in a manner directly parallel to Holocaust denial. There is nothing like German acceptance of past guilt in Russia over the crimes of the Soviet Union, nor an equivalent in Britain, France or other colonial states for the evils committed then, nor in America over its treatment of native Americans or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in American sponsored anti-communist efforts during the Cold War. In all these countries limited awareness co-exists with self-serving justification and semi-deliberate ignorance.
For all this, Germany deserves a great deal of credit. For achieving something unprecedented in human social moral development. And for demonstrating that there can be a better way of responding to and dealing with the crimes of the past. This is not to say that this response has been perfect, or even that it has come without damaging and painful side-effects, especially to those younger generations of Germans that have no responsibility for what happened. It was also merely a single part, though the most dramatic, of a positive, synthetic response by the whole community of the developed world to positively build a set of institutions and concepts to respond to the tragedy that had occurred, particularly in the Holocaust, but also the wider genocide and the entire War itself. This constituted a significant and ongoing attempt to move our social and political awareness of each other onto a different level. This is a process that has been painfully partial and stunted, but is still creeping onward year by year, and informs our current arguments about our response to crises of refugees, to intervention in other countries, to political unions such as the EU, to our response to Crimes against humanity and those who commit them, and the importance of fighting bigotry and prejudice within our own society.
Because of all this the Holocaust remains unique even in the bloody history of human society, both in of itself and as the most horrendous, distinct and identifiable atrocity within the horrors of the entire War. Not just because of its scale and ferocity, nor the traumatic effect of such an event happening in the civilised heart of the developed world, but principally for the response it engendered in western society to react in a new and better manner. To take a discrete and unprecedented step towards building institutions that would ensure such tragedies could never happen again, as much as that was and remains very much a work in progress. Still, that period of genuine openness and innovation provides the best example to our future efforts and the kind of genuinely new thinking that is necessary to achieve real steps towards a better world, and better way of human beings relating to each other at a global, political, social and individual level.