The horrors of war: must they ‘be seen to be believed’?

I recently visited the archives at the Imperial War Museum in London. I wandered through the exhibits, trying – and failing – to find the research room, which I eventually discovered hidden away at the back of the second floor.

Refreshingly clean for an archive and filled with natural light and the sound of children’s laughter drifting up from below, it seemed entirely the wrong place to be reading about atrocities.

I was there to read first-hand accounts of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen in April 1945. The handwritten letters spread before me, I couldn’t quite believe that these faded, almost illegible messages on such fragile, yellowed bits of paper were written by some of the first people to witness these horrors.

They wrote in great detail of the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded them, but told their husbands or wives, fathers or fiancés that ‘it must be seen to be believed’.

It was probably several days or even weeks before these letters were received. By this time, newspapers, radio and cinema newsreels were broadcasting news of the discoveries to an incredulous British public.

BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby was the first to send a report from the camp, but the broadcast was delayed until its contents had been confirmed by other sources. On its own, it was simply unbelievable.

In the following days, the camps were the major topic of conversation in shops, offices and public transport up and down the country, while box office records were broken by unprecedented audiences streaming to cinemas to watch footage from the camps. No one could quite believe the news.

Words such as ‘Auschwitz’, ‘Holocaust’ and ‘concentration camps’ summon up the very same images for us that so shocked the British public in 1945.

Yet our world has become so saturated with images of atrocities – images of the Holocaust, famine, natural disasters, conflict – that by the time we reach an age where we might begin to comprehend the magnitude of any of these events, we’re in danger of being desensitized to their horror.

A graphic exhibition of photos showing victims of the Assad regime is currently on display at the UN in New York. ‘It is imperative that we at the United Nations not look away’, said Michele J Sison, the US deputy representative to the UN.

It seems that we must go to ever greater lengths, display ever more horrific imagery in order to arouse the shock and anger that should be our natural reaction to stories of suffering humanity.

Perhaps it is still true that the horrors of war ‘must be seen to be believed’. But we must not give up our capacity to empathise with those who suffer, wherever they are in the world.