by Hannah Rose
On 19 April 1945, leading BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby reported the scene at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, four days after its liberation by British Forces:
Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted tracks. On each side of the road were brown wooden huts. There were faces at the windows; the bony, emaciated faces of starving women, too weak to come outside, propping themselves against the glass to see the daylight before they die. And they were dying, every hour and every minute. I saw men wandering dazedly along the road, stagger and fall. Someone else looked down at him, took him by the heels, and dragged him to the side of the road to join the other bodies lie unburied there.
At first, the BBC refused to broadcast Dimbleby’s report, believing it to be too implausible to be true. The Nazi’s systematic dehumanisation and persecution of six million Jews as well as the murder of five million LGBT+ individuals, people of Roma, and Cinti descent, political opponents and disabled individuals – even seventy-five years later – are facts that are still barely conceivable for the human mind.
The steady erosion of each of those victim’s humanity can be traced back to the the Nazi’s first attempts to exclude Jews from public life. These efforts culminated in the concentration and extermination camps, with Auschwitz-Birkenau featuring as the spiritual centre of the Nazi genocide. This journey from expressions of racial hatred to the extermination of a people provides valuable lessons for how the conditions which we create as a society on a micro-level can lay the foundation for large-scale oppression. In particular, we learn from the Holocaust that there were three types of people: the perpetrator, the victim, and the bystander. Without all of these categories fulfilling their respective function, Nazi antisemitism would not have been able to industrialise and expand to its infamous extent. It was only through the societal normalisation of the Nazi dehumanisation project that the conditions for genocide could be allowed to take root and develop. Therefore, it is only through mass resilience to prejudice that we can immunise our society. From education about the Holocaust, we all have not only an opportunity, but even more so a responsibility to play our part in preventing the road to genocide.
Although the crimes of the Nazis may appear self-evident, recent research of British adults published by ComRes reveals revisionist attitudes seeping once again through the fringes of our discourse. Of those surveyed, one third said they knew little or nothing about the Holocaust, and the same portion said that Jewish people usurp the Holocaust for their gain. Whilst often such beliefs come simply from a lack of education, some conspire that the facts are deliberately being skewed in order to benefit Jewish people or the state of Israel. Such rhetoric, present on both the far-right and the far-left, is reminiscent of the sinister conspiracy theories that allowed the Holocaust to happen in the first place.
Meanwhile, in mainstream European politics, the Holocaust has been a topic of hot debate. Particularly in Poland, where the Auschwitz-Birkenau were respectively located in the villages of Oświęcim and Brzezinka, that memory is an especially vivid one. Recent legislation which criminalised accounts of Polish complicity in Nazi genocide received global condemnation for its attempt to revise and remove blame for the Holocaust. It became illegal to refer to concentration or extermination camps in Poland as ‘Polish camps’ despite there being definitive evidence of complicity by some Poles and Polish institutions in these war crimes. Though this ruling was later overturned, the Polish government had already given the green light to historical revisionism and growing far-right sentiments in the country.
This issue is not isolated to the Jewish population of Europe. Mass demonisation of minorities has in the past been employed to perpetrate genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. Currently, ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi people in Syria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the Uyghur people in China’s Xingjiang province is living proof that as a global community we have failed to sufficiently learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
In the year of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen, Auschwitz, and the Jews of Europe more generally, remembrance must not be a noun, but a verb. In the age of alternative facts, deep fakes and the reshaping of information for political purposes, the state of knowledge itself will not prevent persecution. It is our responsibility not just to know, but to teach; not just to listen, but to repeat; not just to understand the lessons, but to action them.
Hannah Rose is the former elected President of the Union of Jewish Students in the UK, and spoke on this topic in Brussels on a panel with Holocaust survivors and diplomats from Israel, Germany, and the European Commission. In her previous roles, Hannah Rose worked as an MP’s staff for the chair of the APPG on Holocaust Education, and interned at the Holocaust Educational Trust. In April she led a bus of Jewish youth around Poland and to Bergen-Belsen for the anniversary of the liberation. Rose is currently enrolled in the MA Terrorism, Security, and Society programme at King’s College London.