On this very day seventy years ago, the forces of the Soviet Red Army trudged into the complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As they crunched their way through the frozen grass, they encountered acres of barbed wire, air choking with human ash, pits filled to the rim with mouldering bodies, and hordes of emaciated survivors. Thousands of these survivors were so overcome with emotion in the days following their liberation that they collapsed and died of shock. Their bodies could not adjust to the suddenness of their salvation. As Russian, British and American armies discovered more and more of these camps across Poland and Germany, the world began to realise that those remnants of the Jewish people and otherwise were the victims of a crime of unparalleled evil in human history.
One of those who miraculously managed to survive the war was the Italian chemist Primo Levi. A supremely gifted writer, Levi dedicated the rest of his life to acting as a witness for the murdered. He wanted the entire world to know the stark reality of what had happened. Racked with guilt, he believed he could never convey the whole truth of the Nazis’ crimes. As he would later affirm;
“We who survived the Camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.”
Tormented by his experiences, Levi is believed to have committed suicide outside his Turin apartment in 1987.
A few years before his death, Levi left us an important warning – “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.” The survivors of the Holocaust prophesised that there would be a sustained campaign to trivialise and relativise the Final Solution. Some of their contemporaries also understood this. The Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe (and future US President), General Eisenhower, ordered that every inhabitant of the town of Gotha be made to visit the nearby camps of Ohrdruf and Buchenwald, so that the German people could see the truth for themselves and never hide from it. The original witnesses knew that the scourge of antisemitism was ultimately ineradicable and that it would go hand in hand with the trivialising of the Holocaust. The experience of the past seventy years has regrettably shown us that they were right.
Hard core Holocaust denial – including those disputing the existence of gas chambers or the substantive numbers of those killed – belongs to a small network of cranks, losers and conspiracy theorists, at least outside the Middle East where such views remain mainstream. The Irvings, Faurissons and Dukes of this world look to the Middle East’s national socialists and theocrats for a committed audience. Arab, Turkish and Persian media overflows with examples of Holocaust denial and antisemitism that would have Joseph Goebbels weeping out of jealousy. You can imagine what they are really thinking; “We deny the last Holocaust happened, but we sure as hell won’t cry when the second does!”
Obscurantism was the party line dictated by the apparatchiks in Moscow. Almost immediately, Soviet ‘liberators’ erected grandiose monuments to the victims of Fascism, all the while persecuting the surviving Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe. Accounts of specifically Jewish victims and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators were censored, and later, outright banned. The writers of the ‘Black Book’ which documented the Nazis’ crimes (including the notable war correspondent Vasily Grossman) were purged and silenced. In denying many of the victims their Jewish identity, the Soviet Union downplayed Nazi Germany’s exterminationist antisemitism and painted the tragedy as an extreme episode of class struggle. Needless to say, many of the Holocaust’s victims were probably too bourgeois and free thinking for the Stalinists’ liking. The two totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism, were far closer in their distortion of history than many Soviet fellow travellers liked to admit during the Cold War.
Soft core Holocaust trivialisation made its way to the surface in Western Europe and elsewhere. For many decades, public discourse about the Holocaust was either avoided or minimised; the Nazi period was termed a ‘barbarism’, an aberration in German history, and Germans and Austrians were treated as equal victims of Nazism.
A new wave of antisemitism is now on the rise in Europe and the Middle East. This latest virus is a new mutation of an old disease; it thrives in trivialising the Holocaust. Israelis are widely considered to be the New Nazis. They are accused of committing a genocide every day against the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the choruses of hate see Israel as the main threat to world peace; they believe in nothing short of eliminating the ‘Zionist entity.’
The internet is overcome with the spread of these dark forces. Many have already been lost to bombings and shootings carried out by Islamic terrorists. The Jews who were murdered in a Kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month were the latest victims of a campaign of hate which has shocked decent people all over the world. Just last week, Alberto Nisman, a Jewish prosecutor who concluded that the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 had been committed by Iranian backed terrorists, was brutally murdered.
The State of Israel inhabits a region infested by hatred and tyranny. And yet it must be remembered that antisemitism is not just the foe of the Jewish people and their state. As the journalist Christopher Hitchens eloquently reminded us shortly before he died;
“Because antisemitism is the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war, it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people alone, but as the common enemy of humanity, and of civilization, and has to be fought against very tenaciously for that reason. Most especially in its current, most virulent form of Islamic Jihad.”
It is no coincidence that the world’s worst outposts of antisemitism are also the most egregious purveyors of Holocaust denial and trivilisation. We need to know who these enemies of civilisation are and unceasingly resist them.
Alas, the greatest threat to the memory of the Holocaust victims is apathy. Albert Einstein once observed, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” Apathy was the sentiment that led to the cattle trucks and the crematoria. Apathy is the condition that will allow Holocaust denial and trivialisation to thrive. Apathy will let the demagogues and pseudo-historians rewrite the historical record and abuse the memory of the dead.
With each passing year, more and more Holocaust survivors succumb to their mortal coil. In the seventy years since the Holocaust, we have fewer witnesses to the horror than ever before. In seventy years hence, future generations will no longer be able to listen to first-hand accounts, except those recorded in film and audio. The Holocaust – the benchmark of evil, one that defies the belief that morality can never be imposed on past history – will become just another historical event in the mind of a detatched public, just like the Mongol Conquests or the elimination of the Aztecs. This calamity affects every single one of us the same – to commemorate the Holocaust is to put aside any abstract sense of belonging to a ‘race’ or ‘creed’, but to remember our own innate humanity and how we as a species so nearly lost that precious gift in the dark days of the twentieth century.
Primo Levi was wrong in his belief that those who did not return or were “wordless” were the only “true witnesses.” His generation of survivors experienced unimaginable horrors. Their accounts of indescribable tragedy and the pathology of totalitarian ideology are more moving than a million words of Hannah Arendt or Raul Hillberg.
The dead may not be with us, but they are not silent. Their voices reach us through the survivors, the last members of a dying civilisation. They shout at us through the victims’ letters, photos, possessions. They scream in prostrated agony – do not forget us. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
To never forget is not just an empty platitude. It is a sustained promise; to unceasingly comprehend the Holocaust in all its horror, and to transform learning from history into action. To turn away from the truth is to grant Nazism a posthumous victory. The very existence of these survivors is a triumph; their ability to tell the world what actually happened is one that we should never take for granted. Whilst fighting Holocaust denial or trivialisation can easily descend into paranoia, the only thing that can stave off the perverters of history is eternal vigilance.
So where do you and I come into all of this? I live in the knowledge that during my lifetime, someone, somewhere, will be that last Holocaust survivor. And after he or she dies, the Holocaust will cease to be within living memory.
As an active citizen, I believe in the survival of liberal democracies. As a Jew, I feel an instinctive bond with the murdered of Europe, some of whom were my distant relatives. As a human being, I am concerned with the history of mankind.
Visiting Auschwitz a few years ago brought home many raw emotions. As I sobbed uncontrollably outside the Crematorium, I knew that I could never live with myself if I remained silent where I had a voice. I had stared into a version of Hell and yet, unlike so many others, I had come back. I swore to myself on that day that I would spend the rest of my life remembering the martyrs who were murdered there. I feel it is my duty to remind the world on this day, each and every year, in any form, of the crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany and visited on my people as well as many others deemed “undesirable” by the laws of the Third Reich.
I am not so arrogant to presume I know the “laws of history” (even if something so nebulous actually exists), but I do know that events can follow particular rhythms. When I hear a TV audience attack all politicians and bankers, I know where that rhetoric can lead to. When I see governments turn a blind eye to genocide on the other side of the world, I know what the consequences can be. When I see terrorism and revolution break out all over Europe and the Middle East, I know that chaos and instability allows the strong to smash the weak. When I see people lose faith in democracy, I am terrified of the alternatives they could turn to.
Nazism did not survive for twelve years on enthusiastic support alone. It survived because the mass of people who lived under it were so concerned with their own lives and their own well being that they turned a blind eye to the persecution of their neighbours. Nazism thrived in apathy.
To never forget is to throw apathy out of the window. To never forget is to be human. Seventy years from now, let us hope that the world has not forgotten – and that the trivialisers have firmly lost.
Richard Black is studying History at Lincoln College, Oxford University. He has written for a variety of student papers and has worked at StandWithUs and the Henry Jackson Society. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter here and here