Auschwitz’s memory trap

President Obama recorded a video message today for the ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz: We have a sacred duty to remember the twisted thinking that led here—how a great society of culture and science succumbed to the worst instincts of man and rationalized mass murder and one of the most ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
574038_auschwitz_02.jpg
574038_auschwitz_02.jpg
People walk to a ceremonies in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 2010, to mark the 65th anniversary of the notorious Nazi death camp's liberation by the Red Army. Sirens wailed as Auschwitz survivors, Soviet veterans and leaders including Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday marked the 65th anniversary of the notorious Nazi German death camp's liberation. From 1940-45 some 1.1 million people perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- one million of them Jews from across occupied Europe -- mostly killed in gas chambers but also from shooting, hanging, starvation, disease, slave labour and pseudo-medical experiments.AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama recorded a video message today for the ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz:

We have a sacred duty to remember the twisted thinking that led here—how a great society of culture and science succumbed to the worst instincts of man and rationalized mass murder and one of the most barbaric acts in history.

We have a sacred duty to remember the cruelty that occurred here, as told in the simple objects that speak to us even now.  The suitcases that still bear their names.  The wooden clogs they wore.  The round bowls from which they ate.  Those brick buildings from which there was no escape—where so many Jews died with Sh’ma Israel on their lips.  And the very earth at Auschwitz, which is still hallowed by their ashes—Jews and those who tried to save them, Polish and Hungarian, French and Dutch, Roma and Russian, straight and gay, and so many others.     

President Obama recorded a video message today for the ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz:

We have a sacred duty to remember the twisted thinking that led here—how a great society of culture and science succumbed to the worst instincts of man and rationalized mass murder and one of the most barbaric acts in history.

We have a sacred duty to remember the cruelty that occurred here, as told in the simple objects that speak to us even now.  The suitcases that still bear their names.  The wooden clogs they wore.  The round bowls from which they ate.  Those brick buildings from which there was no escape—where so many Jews died with Sh’ma Israel on their lips.  And the very earth at Auschwitz, which is still hallowed by their ashes—Jews and those who tried to save them, Polish and Hungarian, French and Dutch, Roma and Russian, straight and gay, and so many others.     

But even as we recall man’s capacity for evil, Auschwitz also tells another story—of man’s capacity for good.  The small acts of compassion—the sharing of some bread that kept a child alive.  The great acts of resistance that blew up the crematorium and tried to stop the slaughter.  The Polish Rescuers and those who earned their place forever in the Righteous Among the Nations.

Obama’s remarks were very well written, though the sentiment suggested in them was hardly new. Each time a Holocaust anniversary comes around, we hear the same speeches about how these camps stand as a symbol of the human capacity of evil and the duty to prevent it, yet nations are still just as slow to respond  to modern-day cases of genocide and atrocity or take steps needed to prevent them.

Writing for Foreign Policy in December, the International Crisis Group’s Andrew Stroehlein, who was led international delegations to Auschwitz, suggested that using it as our model for genocide might be the problem:

There is probably no more appropriate single location than Auschwitz-Birkenau for grasping the scope of the Nazi horror. But the unprecedented and unequaled nature of that horror makes it somewhat inappropriate as a useful lesson for preventing genocide today. When you’re waiting for something that looks like Birkenau, it’s almost too easy to say, "never again."

From March 1942 to late 1944, Birkenau was the largest factory of mass murder in wartime Europe. Every day, trains arrived carrying thousands of people — mostly Jews, but also Poles, Roma, and others — and apart from a limited number deemed fit for slave labor, they were sent immediately to their deaths in massive, purpose-built gas chambers. At its peak, Birkenau could kill as many as 20,000 people a day, and in the end, this place was the worst of the extermination camps: The Nazis are estimated to have murdered over a million people here.

It was the mechanization of murder on a scale never before seen, and it stretched far beyond the grounds of this camp. With victims shipped in from all across Europe, this was an integrated system of collection, transport, and execution that covered a continent. It was precisely that sort of industrialization that I feared might inhibit an understanding of mass atrocity among the participants. Walking around Birkenau with these diplomats, some of whom represent states on the edge — a few perhaps even over the edge — of mass atrocities right now, I got the feeling some might have missed the point.

The Holocaust was a minutely organized and completely structured — not to mention disturbingly well-documented — genocide, miles away from the messy realities of their countries. They could look at the camp and the gas chambers and recognize nothing familiar. In fact, the visit may have only confirmed their belief that their countries were incapable of mass atrocities, when all they are really incapable of is the industrialized method. […]

This issue goes far beyond a couple dozen participants in a seminar in Poland. I suspect too many people in the wider international community still only recognize genocide in this one most specific sense. They are always looking for Birkenau — expecting industrialized killing rather than seeing genocide the way it unfolds today. They ignore the evidence that in the right environment, simple machetes can be just as effective as rail networks and gas chambers.

The whole piece is well worth reading. Particularly this week,  it’s useful to consider whether when leaders say "never again," they mean "never again will Germans kill Jews here" or something more universal. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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