Stopping the Banality of Evil

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Camps.  In this post, I remember travelling to Auschwitz as well as other camps I have visited and why memory remains important today. 

In 2012, my father and I travelled to Krakow.  During our visit, he reminded me of a phrase: the banality of evil [1].  During the second day of our visit, I saw that as well as the scale on which evil can operate.

One of the main reasons for visiting Poland was to visit was the camp outside Oswiecim known more commonly as Auschwitz, its German name.  The numbers are well known, around 1.5 million killed including at least 1.1 million Jews.  Terrifying and impossible to imagine death on such a scale.

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Struthof

And this was not my first encounter to human loss on such a scale: I have seen it in the graves on all sides in both world wars to the concentration camps at Dachau and, particularly, in Struthof in Alsace, France.  The scale of the suffering is huge there, but so much greater at this camp.

On arrival I was surprised: Auschwitz is in a surprisingly urban setting.  It is a little smaller than I had expected.  The rooms describing the murders (particularly in the death block) were chilling.  And yet the thing that stuck me was the permanent nature of the camp.  One imagines wood sheds but here were 2 storey brick buildings: this was a long-term elimination of a race and the nature of the project surprising.  But these houses also reminded me of the 19th Century Work Houses one sees in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.  Blocks to house large populations needed for major industrial projects.  The normal used in a truly awful way: the banality of evil.

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Auschwitz I

 

Some 3kms from here is Birkenau, the part of Auschwitz which is closer to the typical depiction of a concentration camp.  It operated under the name Auschwitz II but was actually quite distinct and the only camp created solely to kill people.  This was closer to what I had expected before I arrived: the sidings where people were removed from cattle wagons and selected for death or work; the cold, basic, accommodation designed for animals not humans; a vast scale taking 20 minutes brisk walk to cross any boundary.  Awful.

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Auschwitz Birkenau

Yet, one of the most striking moment for me was the shower block.  The 1 in 4 selected for imprisonment rather than instant death were processed here and there journey through the processing unit was clear: undressing, losing their hair, washing, dried and allocated new clothes then being sent to a camp.  Daily tasks here each flowed easily on from the last in a ruthlessly designed example of organisation efficiency which aimed to dehumanise and terrify the individual ahead of their residence at the camp.  The banality of evil.

Poland has a complex history with remembering the Holocaust.  During the Cold War years there was little or no public memory of the events but European institutions have played a key role in creating a collective memory of events which some say is ‘Europeanising’ memories [2].  Some are uncomfortable that Poland is associated with the Holocaust, reminding us that it was a Nazi German camp which happened to be on land attached to contemporary Poland [2] but, for some, attempts to legislate that the camps were not Polish is too close to Holocaust Denial [3].

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Plaszov

Back in Krakow, we later visited one of the lesser known concentration camps today in Krakow: Plaszov.  Bleak, eerie and sinister as the snow came down.  At many corners the remaining concrete blocks of huts.  Yet the one remaining building was the Commander’s House.  It is now council flats and behind it a modern estate.  The world has moved on and yet this memorial, this memory continues.  And it must continue.  But rather than searching for new people to condemn for the actions of our forefathers and blaming ourselves, perhaps communal guilt needs to be replaced with communal learning.

 

And this is tangible history; these camps closed only 7 years before my Father was born.  This is not some historical event but truly living history.  Only 8 years after Auschwitz was closed, Europe was  trying to form the European Coal and Steel Community.  The leaders of countries at war which had committed atrocities such as these were trying to find a way forward, trying to find a “durable peace”.  The fact it has stopped war for a generations though mass death has still been seen too close to its shores.

Standing there, amongst the horrors that had happened, it reminded me of the need for us a European citizens and, more fundamentally, as human beings to stop evil ever becoming banal again.

References

I have a series of travel tips including recommended books & podcasts in a separate blog post on Krakow and the fall of communism.

[1] Ardent, H. (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem.  The New Yorker, February 1963, Online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1963/02/16/eichmann-in-jerusalem-i

[2] Kucia, M. (2016) The Europeanization of Holocaust Memory and Eastern Europe.  East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 30(1), pp.97–119.

[3] BBC (2017) Israel criticises Poland over proposed Holocaust law.  BBC News, 28 January 2018, Online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-42848842

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