Recently, I started reading Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’m only forty-odd pages into it, but from even the slim amount of the book I’ve read so far I can say that anyone with an interest in that period, or modern world history in general, should read it. It was whilst reading Black Earth that I began to reflect on my visit to Poland a few months ago, and a question that struck me during my visit to Auschwitz, and which has stuck with me ever since.
It goes without saying that my visit to Auschwitz was an incredibly harrowing experience, and it’s a place that I think everyone should visit at some point in their lives. Just, and permit me a tangent here, if you do go to Auschwitz, or Dachau, or any other site where millions of people were killed, do me a favour: don’t barge people out of the way to take photographs of the crematoria, or pose in front of the buildings, or take selfies, or any act of similarly twattish behaviour. Show some basic respect to the memories of those who were killed, and don’t treat a visit to Auschwitz like you would a trip to the park.
Ironically, it was whilst watching this behaviour that I started to think about the question which will form the basis of the blog, and the more I thought about it, the more it started to worry me. My question is this: one day, will people see the Holocaust as just another part of history? I should probably explain what I mean by that, lest I come across as flippant. I don’t mean that people will stop visiting Auschwitz or other former concentration camps, nor do I mean that school pupils will no longer be taught about the Holocaust. What I mean is that I began to fear that the Holocaust would lose the direct emotional resonance, and universal moral significance, which it has today; and furthermore, if people feel comfortable taking selfies in front of gas chambers, could it be argued that it already has?
After all, there are plenty of examples of genocide and mass crimes against humanity which have occurred in the past, but which do not evoke the same universal outrage as the Holocaust. Take, for example, the United States’ policy towards Native American Indians in the nineteenth century. Even if you don’t consider it genocide, by any modern standards the policy of the ‘Indian Removal’ was morally repugnant, involving the mass slaughter of thousands of Native American Indians, and the forced migration of thousands, more, whose land was stolen from them and who were then forced to live on reservations, often thousands of miles away from their homeland.
We don’t even have to look that far into European history to see an example of genocide. During the Bosnian War of 1992- 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces carried out a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing, including the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995; and in this case, those responsible were found guilty of genocide. However, whenever a politician arises who argues for extreme solutions to the (and I hate to use this word) ‘issue’ of immigration, we don’t call them a mini-Milosevic, or say that we can’t let another Indian Removal happen again. We usually refer to Hitler and the Holocaust. This is what I mean when I say the Holocaust has a universal moral relevance and emotional resonance: we only have to mention it, and people instantly understand the immorality and inhumanity of what is being proposed.
So, will the Holocaust ever lose this impact? I don’t think so, and I think this for a few reasons. The first is that, in Britain at least, World War Two is so deeply embedded in our national culture as the time Britain ‘stood up for what’s right’, that any discussion of World War Two will involve the discussion of why we went to war, and as such the Holocaust. Even if you think this interpretation of history is bunkum (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this perspective is an oversimplification at best) I still feel it is a relevant point. World War Two is arguably the last (and, depending on your point of view, only) time that Britain acted as a definitive force for good, and as long as this remains the popular narrative for Britain’s involvement in World War Two, I still feel the Holocaust will retain its emotive resonance.
Secondly, and to bring this post back to where we started, the fact that people can still go and visit concentration camps is another reason why I feel the direct moral relevance of the Holocaust will not be lost on future generations. The realisation when you visit places such as Auschwitz or Dachau that this is actually the place where millions of people were killed gives you some sense of a connection to the past, and a greater understanding of the scale of the horrors that occurred there. Admittedly, the fact that people do clearly see visits to sites such as Auschwitz as an opportunity for selfies is somewhat troubling, but as long as places such as Auschwitz remain I believe they will still allow people to fully appreciate the cruelty and savagery of the Holocaust.
Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, is the fact that so much first hand testimony has been produced by Holocaust survivors. As I argued in a post last year, figures can only tell you so much about the horrors of events such as the Holocaust, and no matter how skilled a historian is at constructing a narrative, theirs can never have the same emotional impact as the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust first hand. The works of people like Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl convey the real human cost of the Holocaust, not just in the sense of the men and women who were killed, or the nature of the suffering they endured, but also the long term impact the memory of the Holocaust had on those who survived. It’s for the same reason I believe oral history projects such as Gideon Greif’s interviews with former Sonderkommandos, are so important, as without these sources, we would lose sight of the true cost of the Holocaust.
It’s for similar reasons I feel that World War One will never lose its emotional resonance. Even though we in the twenty first century have devised even more horrific ways to kill each other since then, reading Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front is still a harrowing experience, not just because of the stark portrayal of the brutalities of trench warfare, but also because these books captured that profound sense of loss that permeated throughout the later stages of the war: not just loss in terms of physical loss, but loss in the sense that, no matter what the outcome, the world would never be the same again.
I guess the final question would be, why did this idea worry me in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the issue I myself raised at the beginning, namely that if we can let the memory of a genocide as horrific as the Holocaust fade away, then more recent genocides, such as those in Rwanda or Bosnia, will lose their moral resonance as well, and we will be unable to learn from the lessons of history. Whatever the reason, I felt it was an issue worth addressing, as I believe the emotional and moral resonance of the Holocaust is something we cannot afford to lose.