The changing significance of Auschwitz – and what we must do now

It is 70 years today since the liberation by the Soviet Red Army of Auschwitz, a word now synonymous with the Nazi atrocities and specifically with the death of six million Jews.

At the time, however, the liberation of Auschwitz made little impression on the British public. It was not until late April 1945, when British and American troops marching across Germany discovered the atrocities in Buchenwald and Belsen concentration camps, that the truth took hold. First-hand reports quickly made their way into the British press and any remaining disbelief was soon dispelled and outrage took its place.

For the next years and decades, it was Belsen, liberated by British troops, that was synonymous with Nazi atrocities for the British people – Auschwitz barely registered.

Furthermore, and hard as it is to believe, the Jewish identity of the majority of the victims – the result of the Nazi’s extermination policy – was barely mentioned.

There were several reasons for this, not least the unstable political situation in Palestine where British occupiers were in conflict with the Jewish resistance. Arousing sympathy among the British public for the Jewish people at that time would have been counter-productive.

However, the discoveries in Belsen and Buchenwald did trigger an explosion of debate and discussion in the political sphere, in the press and in the street. Voices from the right were keen to stress the responsibility, if not guilt, of the whole German nation for these crimes. They mostly ignored the national, ethnic, religious or sexual identities of the victims, some of whom were in fact German and would therefore undermine their claim that all Germans were guilty.

Figures on the left were keen to use the discoveries at Buchenwald to castigate those (mostly on the right) who had defended Nazism and sought to appease Hitler in the 1930s when Buchenwald was already a well-established camp for political prisoners. ‘Look’, they said, ‘we failed to stop them so the Nazis just carried on imprisoning and torturing those who didn’t agree with them. We carry our own share of blame now too.’ This argument failed to address the changed role of Buchenwald after 1942 and ignored its millions of Jewish prisoners.

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard
http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

The left also spent their time challenging the idea that the German nation was collectively responsible for the Nazi crimes by pointing out that some of the victims were German.

In all this political wrangling, the significance of the Jewish identity of six million of the victims was buried and the chance to challenge widespread anti-Semitism in Britain was lost.

The images emerging from Belsen enraged and shocked the British public. Numerous letters were published in the Evening Standard deploring the “terrible crimes”, “the unspeakable horrors” and “the barbarities”. The time was ripe for endemic anti-Semitism in Britain to be challenged by focusing attention on the horrors to which such groundless prejudice could lead. Yet most reports failed to mention that most victims were Jewish and the chance slipped by.

Unlike prejudice against black minorities or the gay and lesbian community, which, in the post-war decades, was confronted and stigmatised through powerful mass movements, anti-Semitism has been allowed to rumble on, unchecked. The undeniable rise of verbal and violent expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe over the last few months and years testifies to this fact, although you will of course find few Britons who deny that the Nazis’ Final Solution was horrific and wrong. This hypocrisy must be confronted.

It is expected that 15,000 Jews will leave France for Israel in the wake of the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. The numbers of British Jews choosing to emigrate has also been rising over the last two years.

The opportunity was missed in 1945 for a concerted challenge to the prevailing anti-Semitic mood in Britain. The time is ripe for such a challenge now and must not be missed again.

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