You will have seen across the internet and the news various holocaust stories told once again to remind us of the horrors of the death camps and to attempt to ensure that it can never happen again. I don’t propose to revisit these stories. There are plenty of places to look to find out the grisly details of what happened to innocent men, women and children who were unfortunate enough to be categorised as Undesirable. For an excellent set of resources I would recommend www.ushmm.org.
Teaching the Holocaust is an enormous responsibility and one which we don’t always get right. Most of us know about Auschwitz, some of us know about the death marches at the end of the war, a few of us might be aware of the Nuremburg Trials which attempted to right a few of the wrongs of the Second World War. But history is often taught in discreet blocks of time and for many of us the Holocaust is something that ended in 1945 with the liberation of the camps. What we forget is that after that, the survivors had to continue to live in a world populated with people who had been trying to kill them. We forget that SS guards and prisoners returned to live in the same villages and towns. They would queue at the same post offices. They would drink in the same bars.
We forget as well that the psychological impact on survivors was simply not properly understood nor investigated. Primo Levi, possibly the greatest writer on Holocaust experiences, made it clear that survivor guilt was not only inevitable, it was, to him, entirely appropriate. It was, he said, impossible to survive on the rations given out in the camps and thus staying alive depended on either stealing from others or being complicit in the torment and murder of other prisoners. A significant number of people who managed to stay alive in the camps killed themselves afterwards, overcome by feelings of guilt.
Holocaust literature has become more popular as authors create stories of hope and survival against the odds. But the reality is that there were far more Stangls than Schlinders, far more bystanders than resisters and far more perpetrators than have ever been held to account. If you are interested in reading around the period please do start with Primo Levi whose writing manages to capture the pain felt on every level by survivors. For historians, I have previously recommended Mary Fulbrook whose recent book Reckonings investigates the aftermath for perpetrators, victims and bystanders. I would also recommend the work of Gita Sereny whose interviews with Albert Speer count as some of the most insightful and dogged journalism to have been written on this subject.
There are so many questions which remain unsatisfactorily answered. What do you do with people whose lives you have destroyed? Where do you put them when their homes have been redistributed? How do you punish those responsible when everyone was complicit to a greater or lesser degree? How can amends possibly be made for wiping out whole families? These are the questions that we tend to forget when memorialising the Holocaust. The aftermath was for many, as traumatic as the camps themselves. Anti-semitism did not suddenly disappear and many Germans wished to simply move on and forget (easier of course if you still had your job, home and family in place).
We use the phrase “Never Again” but it is alarming to see how little the world has learned from this terrible period. To see displaced people and to react with fear rather than compassion; to look at a group and apply characteristics that belong to individuals; to blindly believe what you are told without critical analysis: all of these things could be seen as Germany marched towards mass murder. All of these things are happening in the world today and anti-Semitism itself remains a serious and growing problem both in Germany and the rest of the world.
The theme of this year is "be the light in the darkness" - it has rarely felt more important.
The General Reader
There are an awful lot of books out there at the moment with Auschwitz in the title. I would implore you to avoid these wherever possible as there is a nasty whiff of torture voyeurism around them. Instead I will again guide you towards: Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld. All of these write with the benefit of their personal experience and are generous and brave in acknowledging their own pain and guilt. For younger readers, the Diary of Anne Frank remains an important book for renewing our awareness that the victims were not simply statistics but were children and families with hopes, dreams, flaws and talents of their own. The recent prize winner The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather tells the story of an extraordinary man who entered Auschwitz deliberately in order to spy for the Polish underground. It is an exceptionally well researched and written book which gives human faces to the victims.
Anti-Semitism and the History of the Jews
As distant as the particular events of the Holocaust may be, the causes are worryingly present today as they were eighty years ago. Keep an eye out for David Baddiel's new book: Jews Don't Count for an insight into the modern problem of anti-Semitism. Simon Schama has also written an impressive (if difficult) two volume history of the Jews that ends before the Holocaust began - an important reminder that the religion should not be reduced to what was done it.
For some of the more detailed historical analysis of the period it is well worth looking at Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men which considers the role and responsibility of the Einstatzgruppen. It is brief and focussed but offers an insight into the difficulty of writing a history that people wish to deny. For a flawed yet convincing rebuttal, read Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. This has been the subject of much controversy but remains an important interpretation of the causes of the Holocaust was able to take place. Mary Fulbrook's recent Reckonings (mentioned above) is one of the best works on the aftermath of the Holocaust I have ever come across.
Finally, Gita Sereny's seminal biography of Albert Speer remains one of the greatest works of journalism of the twentieth century and illustrates the problems of dealing with witnesses and participants when there is still the threat of retribution and where memories have been reformed to ensure their own comfort.