LAST WEEK, the world commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Nazis’ death camp, Auschwitz. Around 2,000 camp survivors huddled in the snow, along with key European leaders, including France’s Jacques Chirac, Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Britain’s Jack Straw and Prince Edward, outside the museum whose name has become a synonym for mass extermination and evil.
But although Auschwitz has come to symbolise the systematic mass murder of an entire race by a seemingly cultured and developed people, it is only the tip of the iceberg. During World War II, six million Jews and a further five million Poles, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, invalids and mentally handicapped people were killed throughout Germany and Eastern Europe. In fact, contrary to popular belief, Hitler’s war against Europe was not really aimed at France, Britain or the US, but it was rather an ideological war against what the Nazis believed were the Slav ‘sub-human race’ and the Jewish ‘pests’.
It is not good enough to suggest that these were mindless and barbaric acts, carried out by a relatively small group of ideological fanatics desperate to please Adolph Hitler and create a racially superior Aryan breed.
Modern research shows that ordinary, non-uniformed Germans, Ukrainians, Estonians, Lithuanians and Poles were quick to denounce their Jewish and Communist neighbours to settle old scores, to gain property, or simply out of ignorance or jealousy. Indeed, the Russians persecuted the Jews for centuries, forcing them to live in the so-called Pale of Settlement, and regularly carried out violent programmes.
There must be a collective responsibility for what happened – from those who worked out the train timetables to the death camps, the German companies that perfected the methods of extermination, the informers who denounced their neighbours, to the Gestapo and those who filled U-boat life jackets with Jewish human hair.
To ask how such a thing could happen in a civilised European society is both naïve and stupid, given what we know happened in Bosnia and Kosovo during the past 15 years.
An image of horror
To illustrate the point that ordinary men and women were actively engaged in killing their neighbours, one only has to look at the fate of the Jewish population of Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1941. Local Lithuanian people, encouraged by German troops, gathered together a group of Jewish people and clubbed them to death, screaming “beat those Jews”, while an accordion player trampled the bodies and people sang the national anthem.
After the war, American playwright Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, The Crucible, amply demonstrated how easily people’s ignorance and fear can be manipulated into a witch-hunt against scapegoat minorities. Anyone in any doubt should perhaps take the time to read the play or watch Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
And, after all, the number of SS and Gestapo in Germany and occupied territories, overseeing the ‘final solution to the Jewish problem’, were relatively small. Hitler’s ‘willing executioners’ were ordinary citizens like you and I – farmers, railway workers, office bureaucrats, the next-door neighbour, the teacher, café owner, doctor and dentist who ultimately made it all possible.