Auschwitz's 21st-century legacy

Fred Halliday
26 January 2007

Adorno famously said that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz; the great independent Marxist writer Isaac Deutscher (many of whose relatives died in these places) thought that any lessons would take centuries to offer themselves.

Yet here in southern Poland, on a sunny morning sixty-one years later, the lessons do seem to flood in: inchoate yet powerful, in ways that make this citizen of the age, teacher, and parent feel that all human beings should listen to and act on them.

The approaches to the Auschwitz complex - an extensive area that included forced labour and detention camps as well as places of extermination such as Birkenau - do not prepare the visitor for what is to come. The drive from the beautiful Polish city of Krakow, through attractive villages with flowers in bloom and churches newly painted, takes less than an hour. The only premonitory moment comes when stuck in a tunnel under a railway line, and an old goods train, its wheels and connections clanking ominously above, evokes an echo of the transports of death.

Then, without warning, my driver points to some distant buildings: "Now you can see Birkenau". And, suddenly, there it is. The all-too-familiar watchtower that stands over the main entrance, with the railway line running underneath; the ghastly forking of the railway lines where the transport trains came to a halt and the new arrivals were separated and despatched, sometimes within a few minutes, to their death.

From the watchtower itself, the expanse of a few acres is clear enough: the blockhouses, mathematically constructed so that even now you can peer from the window at one end and look right through the whole complex past the sections where individual groups - women, Czechs, Roma - were incarcerated.

Upwards to the left are the remains of one of the several gas-chambers. The roof is broken after the SS sought to blow up the traces of their crime as they retreated, but ramp down which the victims made their final descent makes it all too identifiable. Elsewhere are the sites where bodies were burned, stolen goods collected, and the ashes of the murdered scattered.

At 10.30am, the tourist buses have not yet arrived. This space of evil is entirely empty and - apart from the birdsong - silent. I keep walking, past the gas-chambers to the post-second-world-war memorial urging the world never to forget these crimes; then through a small gate at the back and into the long grass of the field beyond, at the end of which my guide - whose instructions I had been following - is waiting.

Three lessons

The experience of walking through and out of a place that took the lives of so many, and who never found a friendly guide waiting on the other side, is in its way the key to an initial response to Auschwitz. Life has gone on, it will go on, and we must never forget what happened here. My son visited this place at the age of 19; I feel that all people of the world - starting with the students of around the same age and older whom we teach at university - should be encouraged to do the same.

This is not least because, in the six decades since the Nazi genocide, other terrible and in their own way incomprehensible crimes have been committed: in Cambodia and Rwanda, at Sabra and Shatila, Halabja, and Srebrenica, to name but some. Humanity has, evidently, not progressed, and in the turmoil of the early 21st century would appear to be unlearning whatever the genocide might have taught it.

What happened here, and across the myriad sites of the Nazis' exterminatory project? It was not some providential or religious event, as the biblical term popularised in the 1960s, "holocaust" (literally "total burning") might imply. The descriptive, secular Hebrew term shoah ("catastrophe" or "disaster") is both more accurate and more enabling as a tool of humanity's self-education.

For there are indeed lessons to be learned here, that remain true to the sufferings of those who died and the injunctions on the Birkenau memorial.

The first is an insistence on the importance of universal human rights, and of those institutions set up to protect them, not least at a time when they are under attack from so many quarters. The starting-point is the United Nations, the universal declaration of human rights of 1948, and all the other conventions and treaties that have followed from them - prominently the convention on genocide.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.

His last column article:

"A The Left and the Jihad: a "liberal" riposte" (12 January 2007)

The uniqueness or otherwise of the Nazi killings of (at a minimum) more than five million Jews may absorb historians and moral philosophers, but there can be no question that the lessons are universal. This was recognised in the Nuremberg trials themselves, where the Nazis were prosecuted for crimes against humanity, and equally in the corpus of UN human-rights law.

The recent work of writers such as Michael Mann, Zygmunt Bauman and Mark Mazower has further tried to relate these specific events to the broader place of violence, extermination, and coercive racism within modernity itself. Modernity may not be necessarily murderous but it has had more than a chance relationship to mass murder as well as to its subsequent denial.

A second lesson concerns the presentation of these events solely in terms of victimhood. Those killed in Birkenau and elsewhere were victims, in large measure unaware of what awaited them and powerless to prevent it. Yet there is a danger and a distortion, involved in the general presentation of the shoah as one of passivity and fate.

Many Jews, the overwhelming majority of those killed in the camps, resisted before they met their fate. The uprising of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1943, doomed as it was, inspired others to resist across Europe. Thousands of Jews fought in the armies that defeated Nazism: from the Red Army in the east, to the United States armed forces in the west, and in the French and Italian resistance movements. Many, and the large numbers of others who defied the Nazis, did so in the name of the countries of which they were a part and/or of humanity and its ideals as a whole.

This theme of resistance is one that is suggested, albeit in a largely unrecognised way, in the choice of 27 January - when, in 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army - as "Holocaust Memorial Day". For late January was the moment of another significant wartime event; the first armed attacks on German troops by inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto took place on 18 January 1943 (albeit the main uprising itself began only in April).

A third lesson is about solidarity. It can be approached by noting the way in which the shoah is portrayed in other memorials to these times. In Warsaw itself, there are several monuments to the 1943 uprising, most famously the large frieze by Nathan Rapoport (originally erected in 1948) portraying the heroic people on the front and the desperation that followed on the back. The message (in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish) is simple, and without broader political connotation: "To the Jewish people".

At the site in the former ghetto where Mordechai Anielewicz and his comrade made their last stand, there is a deliberate attempt to link the insurrection and its heroism to the broader cause of humanity. The Warsaw insurgents were a coalition: some Zionist, some Bundists and others considering themselves Polish nationalists.

In other memorials, themes of universalism and resistance also receive due recognition. In Berlin's Jewish museum, the exhibit on the second-world-war extermination is (at the request of its Israeli sculptor) explicitly dedicated to all victims of war. In Yad Vashem, the mountainside site in Jerusalem commemorating these events, there are several monuments to the Jews who fought, including one to an estimated 1.5 million Jews who served in the armies that defeated Hitler, thus recognising the place of resistance within the story as a whole.

It happened here

These three broad, even universal, lessons carry a particular charge when seen in the light of contemporary debates and events, particularly in the middle east. Two currents are immediately apparent and inescapable:

  • the selective and instrumental usage of the shoah by the Israeli state - to justify some of its actions and violations of international law, and to convey some prior moral entitlement (over land or sovereignty) on part of the Jewish people and at the expense of the Palestinians (an early indication of this was the trial in Jerusalem in 1962 of Adolf Eichmann for crimes not against humanity, but against the Jewish people)
  • a grotesque inversion of the same false linkage, whereby those (most recently Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) opposed to Israeli policies or to the very existence of an Israeli state, extend their argument to deny the very fact of the Jewish genocide itself.

The two currents share a disabling fallacy, namely that the shoah itself should serve as a legitimation for Israel; whereas the case for an Israeli state rests not on some spurious ancient privilege, but on the same grounds as that of any other people in the world to their own state, namely their existence as a nation, with rights to territory and recognition following from that.

About Auschwitz-Birkenau - and Sobibor, Treblinka, Dachau, Belsen, and all the rest of a terrible litany - it is too soon for silence. Far from it: what took place here in the 1940s contains much that is necessary for shaping a vision for humanity's future. Indeed, it is perhaps only by revisiting and discussing these 20th-century events that we will be able to purchase our entry-visa to the 21st. In so doing we might even learn to free ourselves from their abuse in modern Europe and the middle east, and begin to move on.

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