60 years ago today – 27 Jan 1945 – the Russian army liberated Auschwitz, revealing a horror that had been gradually building since 1933. Giving the world yet another, sickening reminder of how human beings can do just about anything to one another, just as long as they can justify it to themselves.
And that justification doesn’t come over night, it needs time to build. Lots and lots of little, incremental steps that end up with places like Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Belsen. Incremental steps that no doubt seemed like rational decisions to the people taking them. After all, who gets up in the morning and says, “Today, I think I’ll become a monster.”? Monsters take time to grow.
The gas chambers are a perfect example of this – in August 1941 Himmler went to Minsk to visit the Einsatzgruppe B headquarters and discovered, much to his surprise, that murdering women and children was making his troops depressed, irritable and upset. Leaving them psychologically damaged. Talk about your basic ‘No shit Sherlock!’ They’re killing people: not accidentally, not in battle where at least you can claim it’s kill or be killed, but in cold blood. Walking up and putting a gun against their heads: of course they’re ending up traumatised - but it's still a hell of a lot better than BEING SHOT! People aren’t supposed to do that kind of thing. And so the gas chamber is born, making it a lot more impersonal and easier for those involved to rationalise. By the spring of 1942 the chambers are in full swing and millions of people are sent to their death.
The crematoriums at Auschwitz don’t come into play until March 1943: the previous summer is so hot that the huge numbers of bodies produced by the gas chambers are rotting, the burial pits can't cope. Another little, incremental step.
And Auschwitz wasn’t a one-off by any stretch of the imagination: all over Nazi-occupied territory hundreds of thousands of people were being systematically exterminated, though only in the camps did it achieve the status of truly industrialised mass murder. Most other places it had to be done by hand (in Bogdanovka, Ukraine, for example: 41 thousand Jewish men women and children were shot between the 21st of December and New Year’s Eve). I can’t even begin to imagine how anyone could actually take part – how you could do that and convince yourself you were still a human being – but then I’ve never taken those dreadful, little, incremental steps.
Mankind, of course, has learned his lesson. You only need to look at Sarajevo, and Rowanda (and the rest) to see that, don’t you? Dehumanise, demonise and dispatch. Can’t really be murder, can it – they’re different from us – and whatever’s wrong with me: that’s their fault. And it’s hardly a modern thing: history is littered with the bodies of civilians. We really are a spectacularly wonderful species.
So today serves as a sobering reminder of just what a bunch of vicious, heartless fucking bastards we can be to our fellow man / woman.
Holocaust Memorial Day