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

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard

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.


Some thoughts on D-Day

Last weekend’s D-Day anniversary made me more than a little uncomfortable. The commemorations were meant to be acts of sober remembrance and a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come as a (more or less) united Europe since 1944.

There were indeed plenty of solemn moments, but these were sandwiched between re-enactments featuring paratroopers, men in jeeps and military uniforms and Spitfires painted with invasion stripes. The stone villages surrounding the Normandy beaches were packed with World War II-era jeeps, children excitedly waving American flags and signs across storefronts welcoming the liberators: “Merci a nos liberateurs!”

There’s no doubt that D-Day was a hugely important milestone on the road to defeating D-Day_landingNazism in the Second World War. There’s no doubt that it should be remembered. But 20,000 men died that day and, however just the cause for which they were fighting, we must continue to mourn that tragic loss of life. Yet Friday’s events showed just how easily sober commemoration can turn into celebration.

It’s easy to remember the things that went well, the victories. The war as a whole, and D-Day and the Blitz in particular, have acquired a special place in the narrative of British national identity. As Jonathan Freedland discusses in an article in ‘The Spectator’ back in 2012, the events of 1940 ‘have acquired the status of a creation myth, the heroic and finest hour in which modern Britain was born’. That myth was cemented by the actions of over 83,000 British men on June 6th 1944.

But nations are formed by more than just victories. Germany is a country that knows this perhaps better than any other and has refused to shy away from the horrors of its past. Every year on 27th January, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked by a moment of silence in the German Parliament as well as lectures, theatre performances and church services across the country. German cities are pockmarked with monuments, statues, plaques and sculptures memorialising the Nazi crimes. Some are vast and intimidating, others almost hidden, but each embodies a city’s awareness of the need to make the Holocaust a part of the everyday reality of today’s Germany.

There were many Germans at Normandy last week too. They came despite fear of hostility – one group recounted how locals refused to serve them at the 65th anniversary in 2009 – and despite the inevitable emotional difficulty of facing both the increasingly frail Allied veterans and the sea of gravestones, the many thousands who died that day in the fight against Nazi Germany. They came because they know they should, because they know the importance of continuing to confront their nation’s past, even (perhaps more so) as it recedes out of living memory.

Britain’s history, too, is blotted with acts of horror. But we’re much less good at confronting this. Where is the day commemorating the violence perpetrated by Britain in north America and Australia in the name of colonisation? Where is the day to remember Britain’s role in the deaths of 250,000 people during the Indian partition in 1947? Where is the day to commemorate the almost total destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne and many other German cities during the Second World War?

In his study of British area bombing of Germany during that conflict, philosopher A.C. Grayling looks in detail at that policy and its effects and concludes that it was neither necessary nor proportionate, that it contravened humanitarian principles and general moral standards. ‘In short and in sum: was area bombing wrong? Yes. Very wrong? Yes.’

Immoral actions remain immoral even when fighting a just war. And to point out that the Allied record is not unblemished does nothing to diminish the enormity of the Nazi crimes, as some seem to fear.

Rather, to acknowledge the less admirable, even abhorrent, aspects of our nation’s history is to say, “this must never happen again”. Michael Gove wants “British values” to be taught in our schools. Let’s follow Germany’s example and make sure this includes real examination of Britain’s history, warts and all.  Only then can the rose-tinted image of our past be replaced with a humbling narrative that inspires future generations to build a better “Great” Britain.