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To modern European minds, the Holocaust is almost incomprehensible. The death toll of some six million Jews ranks it among history’s bloodiest genocides. Stories of men, women and children forced to dig their own graves, starved and gassed seem to shatter the limits of human cruelty.
But the tragedy also presents us with a different kind of horror. In the years preceding it, mounting persecution slowly isolated Germany’s Jewish population. A whole people, once a thriving part of society, were dehumanised by propaganda and oppression.
The biggest single blow was Kristallnacht, when Jewish shops and synagogues were smashed and burned. A mounting mass of decrees expelled Germany’s Jews from jobs and schools, forced them to wear a yellow star, and subjected them to bans on everything from phones to typewriters.
As marginalisation increased, it seemed a small step to separate the Jewish community from other Germans, in ghettoes. From there, it did not seem remarkable to summon all Jews to ‘outside-work duty’ – a euphemistic term for the concentration camps.
Victor Klemperer, one of the few Jewish Germans to survive in 1940s Dresden, kept a record of these insidious changes. He saw his diary as a testimony to a community drained of all hope, not by a ‘blow to the head’ but by ‘1,000 mosquito bites’.
Many think this gradual dehumanisation the most disturbing part of the Holocaust. Why? Because it happened as millions of people lived side by side with Jews. The Nazis enforced persecution, but many citizens boycotted Jewish shops, informed on others and directed hatred and violence toward their Jewish neighbours.
Still more stood by as the persecution went on. One Polish witness describes seeing prisoners building a camp, working at ‘brutal pace’ to build something that ‘wasn’t meant to aid mankind’. His response? ‘I got on my bicycle and went home’.
On Monday, Holocaust Memorial Day highlights the division and indifference that led to bloodshed. Organisers will ask people to ‘build a bridge’ between diverse groups in their communities: to reach out to neighbours and foster cohesion and understanding.
Can memory of the ‘Final Solution’ help promote this? Some have doubts. Worrying that any division or prejudice could lead to mass murder, they say, is unhelpful. Understanding should be about strengthening communities and enriching lives – not guarding against an ever-present threat of imagined genocide.
Others say the Holocaust is a brutal but necessary warning about intolerance today. The deaths of six million people was founded on tyranny that seemed unremarkable enough to be ignored. Our unexamined divisions and prejudices are not as far from atrocity as we might like to think.
1. Is it useful to view prejudice and intolerance in modern society through the lens of the Holocaust?
2. The Historian Ian Kershaw said that ‘the road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference.’ What do you think this means, and why is it relevant today?
1. Think of three things you could do to increase understanding in your own community.
2. Imagine you are a German living under the Nazi rule in 1940s Germany. Write about the changes that are happening around you, how they make you feel and what you think your response could be.
A selection of poetry about the Holocaust, collected in a handy document.
An expert discusses the impossibility of talking about the Holocaust, and why its lessons may be misleading.
This excellent review of Klemperer’s diaries paints a moving picture of the Jew’s experience in Nazi Germany.
An archive of filmed testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust in Germany and Poland.
The Holocaust Memorial Day webpage has a wide range of resources on the ‘building bridges’ theme, and ideas for ways that you can mark the day.
Q: I can’t really see any groups being persecuted like that in this day and age.A: Perhaps not. But the rise of the far right across Europe has many people worried. In many nations hatred is directed toward immigrants, and especially Muslim communities, by groups like the EDL. Such groups hold demonstrations and spread propaganda arguing that British culture is under threat from ‘Islamisation’. Such tactics perpetuate prejudice and have been linked to racist attacks.
Q: But that’s a totally different thing!A: You may have a point. Some think comparisons between the modern far right and Hitler’s Nazism are unhelpful: today, such ideas are not embedded in government, nor associated with genocidal extremes. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t damaging: vigilance against such attitudes stops them becoming embedded in society.
Six million Jews – This figure, though shocking, does not illustrate the full extent of the Holocaust. Recent estimates, arrived at with new information from the Soviet Union, suggest the final death toll may have been closer to eleven million. The higher figure includes other groups targeted by the Nazis, such as trade unionists, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and the disabled: those that resisted the Nazi Party were also met with harsh punishments.
Insidious – This word comes from the latin insidiae, which means plot, snare or ambush. It means something developing in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.
Testimony – For many survivors, recording experiences became a crucial part of life after the Holocaust. The need to ‘bear witness’ to the horrors of the concentration camps has generated a vast range of films, books and writing about the Holocaust, and some credit their survival to the need to give testimony to the atrocity. ‘Even in this place one can survive,’ wrote Primo Levi, ‘and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.’
Final Solution – The Nazis often referred to their policies and activities using euphemistic language that concealed the full extent of their evil. The ‘Final Solution’ – die Endlösung in German – was often used to refer to the Nazi’s plan to annihilate the Jewish people.
‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’John Donne
What do you think?
History, Religious Studies & Ethics