We look back and say we would have ‘done more to stop it’ when posterity will judge our own age unflatteringly
Today marks 70 years to the day since the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.
Aside from the sheer obscenity of the Holocaust, the continued ability of the death camps to shock is heightened by the fact that the genocide was set in motion by a literate and advanced civilisation. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote when it was still fashionable on the right to see National Socialism as some kind of ‘bulwark’ against communism: “Today, not only in the peasant homes, but also in the sky-scrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth.”
Those who view the west’s battle with the Islamic State as a ‘clash of civilisations’ should take note: the Holocaust demonstrated that ‘civilisation’ contains its own kernel of barbarism – and vice versa. The most advanced society can in a few years become the most barbaric; and it will often be ordinary men and women who stand ready to acquiesce in atrocity. “Monsters exist”, as Auschwitz survivor and 20th century moral titan Primo Levi wrote, “but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
It’s quite common today to ask whether we have collectively ‘learned the lesson’ of the Holocaust. In some ways the question is a foolish one: we can never really stop taking stock of such a giant catastrophe because there will always be new examples that emerge of the depths to which humanity sunk during the Shoah. But it is a worthwhile question all the same; not least because when confronted with human suffering we still seem ready to turn our heads resolutely away.
In Britain we are at present experiencing what might be called the ‘Ukipification’ of politics, with government asylum policy often dictated by the spluttering bore in the pub. Across the continent hard-right parties are equally in the ascendant and as such the word ‘foreigner’ has become as toxic as salt is to a snail. Several European nations, including our own government, recently made it government policy to let refugees perish in the sea.
And then there’s the public indifference to the war in Syria. Despite being bloodier even than Iraq during the darkest days of 2004-2007, the British government has tried its utmost to wriggle out of any firm commitment to take in a meaningful number of Syrian refugees. It’s allowed to get away with this largely because there isn’t enough pressure from below for a change in policy. Amnesty International certainly haven’t minced their words, describing as “absolutely shameful” the fact that Britain has failed to provide refuge for more Syrian asylum seekers.
So it does seem appropriate to ask: is there not something mawkish about Conservative politicians paying tribute to the horrors of the Holocaust while slamming the door shut on today’s victims of genocide? Being compassionate in hindsight is after all one of the easiest things in the world precisely because it requires so little effort or sacrifice. We look back 70 years and say that we would have ‘done more to stop it’ when posterity will judge our own age unflatteringly.
This is not to relativise Nazi crimes through the prism of competitive suffering. Indeed – be very wary of that. But it is to politely ask whether, when today’s politicians stand in front of lecterns to boldly proclaim ‘never again’, they really mean it. For if they did they might be show a little more compassion toward the unfortunate people who still wash up on British shores.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.