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A new Holocaust history and an old question: could it happen again?

September 19, 2017

Alternative Für Deutschland, a right-wing nationalist group, looks set to establish a significant political  foothold after the upcoming German elections. Should we be concerned, ask the headline writers?

I suppose that depends on what we should be concerned about. The return of the Nazis by another name? A new Holocaust? Only the terminally naïve would believe that the Germany of today is likely to have the means and the motivation to repeat the catastrophic mistake for which it is still paying in terms of its reputation and the enduring suspicion of its neighbours.

Could the Holocaust happen again? Many would argue that it has – in Cambodia, Rwanda and now in Syria, Iraq and Burma. Others might say that later acts of mass killing might qualify as genocide, but that there was only one Holocaust – an event in which the Nazis deliberately and systematically killed over ten million people either directly or by neglect. The approximate numbers of the dead included six million Jews, along with two million Poles, thee million Russian prisoners of war, a quarter of a million Roma and a significant number of homosexuals, disabled people, mentally ill people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The question is relevant, because in a number of countries there’s been an increase in recent years in organised groups that refer to themselves as Nazis. Their currency is anti-semitism, white supremacy and the all-too-familiar regalia of the Third Reich. And for all but a few deniers, Nazism is inextricably linked with the Holocaust

To establish whether these groups are capable of gaining the power to carry out acts similar to the Holocaust, it’s important to understand the circumstances under which the original one took place.

And that’s what Laurence Rees goes a long way towards explaining in his recent book The Holocaust, which I’ve just finished. He traces the rise of murderous intent from the end of the First World War to the annihilation of the Nazi regime in 1945.

Antisemitism in Germany preceded the rise of Hitler. He was not the only angry ex-serviceman to blame the Jews for the degradation of his country in the wake of the defeat in 1918. But as Rees points out, it’s by no means certain that in the Twenties Hitler envisaged the mass slaughter that subsequently ensued. Certainly he wanted to rid Germany of the Jews, but that’s not the same as planning systematic programme of extermination.

Other “solutions” were contemplated, including – after the fall of France – sending them to Madagascar, which at that time was a French dependency.

In fact the Holocaust was far from systematic, and written evidence of Hitler’s specific instructions is hard to find, even though there is little doubt that Himmler, Heydrich and other senior Nazis were acting according to his wishes.

What is clear is that although mass murders began well before the outbreak of World War Two, these were mainly perpetrated on the disabled and mentally ill. It was only after Germany’s conquest of much of Europe that the extermination of the Jews began in earnest. By that time the Nazis were able to act away from the international spotlight.

What comes over strongly in Rees’s narrative was that the Nazis were making up their methods of murder as they went along. First came the death squads – the Einsatzgruppen – and when the mass shootings became too stressful for the killers, more mechanised methods came into play. Mobile gas chambers using carbon monoxide, and then the death camps, fixed gas chambers and crematoria most commonly associated with the Holocaust.

Some were collocated with slave labour camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Others, including Sobibor and Treblinka, were as process-driven as abattoirs. Within hours of arriving by train, thousands were dead every day. An elaborate charade convinced them until the last moment that they were at a transit stop. Fellow Jews, Poles and Russians oversaw the killing and incineration, thus sparing the SS guards direct involvement in the grisly process.

By the time the death camps came into operation, the Nazis had made it their mission to rid every corner of their new empire of Jews. In some cases, they were largely successful. In others, such as Denmark, where the Nazi governor, probably anticipating Germany’s defeat in the war, tipped off the Danish government, which in turn warned the Jews. Most of them escaped to Sweden.

The details of the Holocaust have been extensively documented, both through written records and eye-witness accounts, but Rees’s account as an end-to-end narrative is second to none. He considers his work to be a new history, because he uses sources never used in previous accounts. For a comprehensive discussion of the book, look no further than Nickolaus Wachsmann’s review in The Guardian.

No matter how desensitized one is by the atrocities of organisations such as ISIS, it’s still hard to read some of the eyewitness accounts of the Nazi death camps without curling up in horror.

We remember the Holocaust so that we can ensure that it will never happen again. If ever there was an event worthy of being commemorated with one minute of silence throughout the world, this is it.

Which brings us back to the question of whether it could happen again. Certainly not on the same scale, and probably not in the same way, for several reasons.

The main difference is that today no combatant with murderous intentions would be able to hide behind a war on such a wide scale and for such an extended period. The next global conflict, if it occurs, will be short and even more deadly then World War 2. It would most likely involve nuclear weapons.

Another factor is that the world today is wired, and even those acts of mass murder as occur rarely take place away from international scrutiny. We know about the ISIS killings, just as we knew about the Rwanda massacres and the killing fields of Cambodia. Military intervention in the former Yugoslavia probably prevented worse atrocities than actually occurred. Horrendous as they are, these killings have been confined to a limited area, rather than taking place over a continent, from France in the west to Ukraine in the east, and from Norway in the north to Greece in the south.

Also, there was no precedent for the original Holocaust. Now, the world is alert to nascent movements that operate by the same playbook as did the fascist leaders in the 1930s. After 1945, two ideological opposites – fascism and communism – were equally toxic in the west. For the communist regimes in the east, fascism was still seen as the ultimate enemy – defeated, yes, but still ready to rear its ugly head within the capitalist west. While communism as an ideology has been supplanted in the east by various forms of authoritarian capitalism, fascist continues to be a term used by Russia to label its opponents – in Ukraine, for example.

In the west, there are plenty of people who use the word with gay abandon to describe any leader with an authoritarian bent. The same brush daubs Victor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and even the right-wing of Britain’s Conservative Party. Islamist leaders are often described as Islamo-fascists.

Obnoxious as many of them are, they are not necessarily candidates to kick off the next holocaust. We have become so sensitised to the harbingers of fascism – focus on the leader rather than the state, disregard of the rule of law, the need for a scapegoat or enemy, usually within but often without – that we call out people with those tendencies without hesitation.

Donald Trump, who has been labelled a fascist by opponents and onlookers both in the United States and beyond, has struggled to create the unified purpose and belief that allows fascism to flourish. He’s dangerous, to be sure, but he’s an opportunist, not an ideologue. And unlike Hitler, he’s not surrounded by a cadre of steely ideologues ready to do his bidding. As for the swastika-wielding thugs at the extreme edge of what he calls his base, they are vocal, often violent poseurs with a grudge but not a cause. They are not Trump’s stormtroopers.

The same goes for Europe’s extreme right. They squabble, fragment and make a noise, but none of them has a leader charismatic enough to entice sufficient disgruntled but more moderate voters on board. None of the European countries has since World War 2 suffered a humiliating military defeat and subsequent national debasement that has left a festering and unifying sense of resentment, as was the case with Hitler’s Germany. The one exception is Russia, whose defeat was not military, but economic and political. Resentment over the loss of the Soviet empire is the fuel that fires Vladimir Putin.

So will the next holocaust, if it happens, be perpetrated by neo-Nazis or fascists who manage to take power and then act with impunity against the selected scapegoat? I doubt it.

But that doesn’t mean that a future event on a similar scale to the first one is impossible. In a world in which competition for basic resources – water, food, safe habitat – becomes intense, it’s easy to imagine that unscrupulous leaders might eliminate “undeserving” minorities within their borders, either by expelling or exterminating them.

Countries that are relatively immune to international outrage – probably because they possess nuclear weapons and have sufficient resources to satisfy a dominant majority, but not everyone – would quite conceivably carry out programmes of extermination with impunity. Indeed, if Germany had developed nuclear weapons before the US, it’s likely that within short order there would have been no Jews left in continental Europe, rather than scattered survivors.

As the waters inundate coastal cities, and reduce arable land to salt marshes, or as the great rivers, exhausted by diversion to parched regions, dry up, who would bet against extreme solutions to protect the powerful many at the expense of the weaker few? Or even the powerful few against the weaker many.

Whatever the potential scenarios for mass exterminations in the future, surely today, rather than harking back to the circumstances of the original Holocaust and worrying about a bunch of tinpot demagogues and their torch-bearing followers, the most compelling reason to remember the event is that it reminds us of the ability of seemingly ordinary people under certain circumstances to set aside their inhibitions and work together to carry out acts of horrendous inhumanity.

And in those terms, there are little holocausts taking place every day somewhere in the world. In whatever ways we can, we must call them out and stop them.

From → Books, History, Politics, UK, USA

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