I’ve just made a belated first trip to Auschwitz. Of course, it has prompted in me what it prompts in (almost) everybody: horror, shock, and a sense of incomprehension. How could people be so evil? That incomprehension can act as a comfort blanket to those of us looking in from the outside today, as it seems inconceivable that it could happen again. I think that might not be right, for two reasons.
As ever, we tend to approach the past the wrong way round, looking at something always through the lens of what it eventually became. Thus the concentration camps are synonymous with the Final Solution, as if they were set up originally with this in mind. This isn’t right. Although no expert, I did a bit of work on the historical context before I arrived. What I discovered was a surprising chaotic and disorganised beginning to the whole system, where piecemeal attempts to imprison Polish intelligentsia morphed into more systematic brutality, with experiments in killing then leading to the vast, cold, bureaucratic machine to eradicate an entire race. What’s my point? Well, looking at things from their conclusion, it is comfortingly distant from anything likely today. However, chart the Nazi’s descent from irrational paranoid hatred of “them”, through the threshold of institutionalised harassment (Kristallnacht etc), then to individual violence, and finally, in the numbing surroundings of an industrial war, to an industrialised slaughter. Looked this way, it becomes more conceivable, particularly as some aspects of its genesis persist bizarrely today….
One of the more shocking aspects of my dip into this awful story is the extent to which SS guards still hold onto the crazy paranoia they were fed in the ’20’s – that there is a shadowy “world government” peopled by Jews, that was responsible for the German defeat in the first war and for its awful penury in the Weimar years that followed. No matter that their behaviour was hellishly brutal towards the Jews, it was justified by the crimes they believed had been visited on them. The Germans were not alone in this vengeful paranoia: some parts of Eastern Europe found it surprisingly easy to comply with Nazi requests to give up their Jewish population.
Fast forward to to now, and you would have thought that such ridiculous paranoia would have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Er, not a bit of it. Depending on the source used, a majority of people in the US (and, in my experience, closer to home) seem to believe in some form of shadowy global government – indeed, the global financial crash of 2008 seems to have acted to encourage such nonsense: why bother trying to get to grips with over leverage, the consequences of the positive supply shock from China’s accession to the global economy and the misfiring of the Collateralised Debt Obligation market when you can simply blame a conspiratorial elite?
So, when you look at the awfulness of Auschwitz, don’t focus on how it ended, but the ingredients for its start: incoherent, angry paranoia mixed with authoritarian government and a political system that institutionalised the priority of “us” over “them”. In an age where the grumps of particular tribal groups are not only tolerated but pandered to, “the road to somewhere” could lead to a very dark spot indeed.