On the 1st of September, 2006, I gave a paper on ‘reducing health inequalities’ to the biannual meeting of the European Society for Health and Medical Sociology in Krakow. To be honest I was less than impressive. I recall wishing afterwords that I’d been more articulate, more on the ball, not least because old friend Ray Fitzpatrick was in the audience. Ah well: win some, lose some. But this is not the focus here. Close to Krakow lies Auschwitz. I had visited Dachau in the past. Annette and our youngest daughter, Miranda, both conference attendees (we are a family of sociologists), very understandably did not want to see this terrifying and ultimate symbol of 20th century inhumanity. I’m not sure why I did, but there was some lingering sense that I ought to.
I hired a taxi to drive me to the complex that allies Auschwitz and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The historical emergence of these killing factories is only too well documented, yet it is almost as difficult to communicate as is my brief visit. Sybille Steinbacher offers a summary account in her Auschwitz: A History, and I draw on this here. The keystone of Nazi conquest was the acquisition of ‘Lebensraum in the east’. Moreover Poland offered a barrier to Bolshevism. An annexed Auschwitz was rapidly assimilated into the German Reich and a programme favouring ‘racially valuable Germans’ and expelling all Jews and most Poles imposed. Early in 1940 Auschwitz ‘caught Hiimmler’s eye’: the 7th Nazi concentration camp was constructed (Dachau being the first).
Himmler appointed Hoss as Commandant or head of this new camp on 4th May 1940. It grew and grew rapidly in size and capacity. Steinbacher: ‘at no other place in the Nazi sphere of power were so many people killed as in Auschwitz’. At first a prison for Polish political prisoners, we know what over time it became. Independent of the important issue of accuracy, estimates of the numbers murdered defy comprehension. Based on the incineration capacity of the crematoria, the Soviets estimated four million. Hoss spoke of 2.5 million killed by gass, plus half a million more who died of hunger and epidemics. It now seems certain that at least 1.1 million, and possibly 1.5 million, people were murdered in the Auschwitz complex, which translates into the annihilation of 20-25% of all Jews killed during the course of the second world war (in total, the Nazis killed 5-6 million Jews). It was, as has often been recorded, not only Jews who were condemned to death.
As when I walked around Dachau I was unsure of myself. It felt almost vulgar, inappropriate for sure, to be there, to go through that archway. On the other side of this infamous entry point was a group of teenagers picking at the sparse grass, chatting, laughing; I felt a surge of anger before, almost instantly, forgiving and turning grateful for the new normal they represented.
It’s a bit of a daze, what I saw. There were offices, barracks, stores, piles of teeth and hair, and there was the crematoria. A little further, shielded as it were, was Hoss’ pleasant dwelling. If it was possible to envisage Hoss and the known who inhabited this land, it was hopeless to bring to mind, except by the vaguest and most inadequate of leaps of imagination, the anonymous hundreds of thousands of the (sometimes still) unknown who were put to ritual death there.
If the main Auschwitz site evaded summary, nearby Auschwitz II – Birkenau, an immense and barren mass factory of killing more than equalled it. It was bleak beyond austerity. It was horrible. Artists and poets are needed, and have of course been found, if rarely. It would be too easy to weep, an embarrassment in fact: I have found that all I could and can do is create a file in my mind for a handful of under-articulated images, emotions and remnants of thought.
Historians have laboured long, hard and importantly to document people and events, as well as to search for explanations. They tend to stick with discrete decisions and actions and sequences of tumbling inter-related events. Sociologists have involved themselves too, but moe theoretically. Elias wrote extensively about the salience of the late and militaristic formation of the German nation state for the precipitation of WW1 and WW2. Bauman, in his award-winning Modernity and the Holocaust, dug deep not only into the banality (Arendt) but the strategically planned bureaucratisation of a regime of evil (Eichmann was the epitomy of both). More recently I have read the German sociologist Kuhl, who subtely and expertly shows how the behaviour of individual Germans in and around the death camps emerged. His core message, surely significant, is that it emerged out of mundane everyday norms, habits and practices, such as not wanting to (be seen to) let comrades down. Sadism there was; but the Nazis could never have annihilated so many on sadism alone; there was a bedrock of socially imnstitutionalised norms, habits and practices that could be, and were, perverted en route to the executing and gassing of so many innocents. We must never think it could never occur again.
The holocaust has given rise to many narratives, included unforgivable deviant discourses of denial. I think each of the following propositions true, and I have to say I don’t deem any of them controversial:
- The holocaust has left an dark and indelible stain on the twentieth century, representing a genocide beyond imagining. It is far from the only example of genocide, even in modernity, but: (a) it was the culmination of centuries of anti-semiticism and persecution of the Jews, and (b) there could be no ‘return to normal’ after 1945.
- The holocaust was a powerful narrative in the creation of a Jewish homeland and, ultimately, the state of Israel.
- The formation and consolidation of the nation state of Israel on Palestinian territory was a geopolitical act on the part of the Western powers, most notably Britain and the USA.
- Israel has become a racialised and militaristic state, practising apartheid against a Palestinian citizenry ‘managed’ and treated as second-class.
- Given the unparalelled atrocities experiencsed by Jews in Auschwitz and elsewhere, the Israeli persecution of the Palestinians, presently in Gaza, is as difficult to understand as it is criminal.
- While it is critical that: (a) we are all and always starkly reminded of what happened at Auschwitz and in the regime it symbolised, and (b) we stand with Jews (and other ethnic groups) against racism, discrimination and persecution, it is important too that we contest the weaponising of accusations of anti-semitism to serve the interests of Israeli domestic and foreign policy (as has been the case with a Labour Party led by Corbyn and seen as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause).
Even as I write this, and just prior to its posting, I have learned that I have apparently been reported to the Labour Party for ‘anti-semitic tweets’. It is precisely this politically purposeful and devious conflation of critiques of Israeli policies with charges of anti-semitism that needs to be resisted. And I might add that it is time now, in June 2017, for the Labour Party to confront and face down Israeli lobbyists. There may well be residues of anti-semitism in all our political parties, and these should be addressed and rooted out, but the weoponising of anti-semitism to deflect criticisms of Israel insults Jews as well as non-Jews.
So I have here made stumbling reference to my quiet walk around a horrific place. I was able to adjust to teenage gossip and laughter within the camp’s boundary, even as I felt part of a ubiquitous community of mourning. It was a humbling and emotive journey. Your legs feel like giving way. You pause to think but don’t know what to think. You absorb horror, as if by osmosis. Maybe above all you feel like saying sorry. Reflecting now, I would say there are vital lessons: (a) we must learn ever more about why and how genocide occurs; (b) this must include, in particular, a focus on why and how otherwise tolerant and peace-abiding people can be recruited to evil causes, to abandon their very neighbours to systematic annihilation; and (c) above all, we must work for futures in which all forms of genocide are, using critical realist terminology, ‘absented’ .