Yesterday I went to my uncle’s funeral. 88 years old and alert and amusing until the day he died. I never knew that he was in the RAF during the war – back-end technical support, I believe. One of the engineers who kept the planes flying during the Battle of Britain. Not as glamorous as being a Spitfire pilot, perhaps, but absolutely vital and insanely dangerous nonetheless (messing around with bombs and ammo while surrounded by fuel tanks, often ducking German air raids while he was at it).
Last week I was down in the West Country visiting my 85-year-old grandmother. In 1940, at the age of 17, she felt the call, left the tiny hamlet in which she had spent her entire life down in a remote part of Cornwall and moved to London to train as a nurse. She hit the wards of Guy’s Hospital just as the bombs of the Blitz started hitting the streets and houses.
In the previous war, her father – my great-grandfather – had likewise signed up as soon as he could (this despite, or perhaps because of his Prussian father’s internment on the Isle of Man), being shipped out from the back-end of Cornish tranquillity to the trenches of the Western Front, and lasting all the way, through both the Somme and Passchendale.
My great-grandfather went on to become a teacher. My grandmother a housewife. My uncle an accountant. They became ordinary, everyday people again, and none of them liked to talk about their experiences. And herein lies the problem.
The recent attacks on Roma settlements in Italy and plans to fingerprint all Roma in the country have so many obvious echoes of the early anti-Jewish rumblings of inter-war Germany (and pre-WWI Austria, where Hitler gained his political education thanks to the populist likes of Schonerer, Lueger and the like, for that matter), that they shouldn’t need to be underlined. Indeed, by likening anything at all to the actions of the fascists of the 1930s/40s it’s hard not to fear slipping into hyperbole – and on the internet, of having Godwin’s Law brought up yet again.
The problem is precisely that everyone knows about the Nazis and about the Holocaust. It’s part of the education of pretty much every European child, and has been for more than half a century. In some countries, the teaching of the Second World War would even take preference over more general national histories, so important has it rightly been considered (while I was at school we spent two years on the Second World War – with not a single lesson on the British Empire). Documentaries about the Nazis are on a constant loop on the various history TV channels. History sections of bookshops are dominated by picture books and chunky tomes about the Third Reich and the chaos it wrought.
And what do we learn? That the Nazis were evil. That this was an extraordinary moment, an unprecedented time.
None of this, of course, is entirely true. There were countless precedents for nationalist aggression and the persecution of minorities, the Holocaust itself just the most devastating of centuries of anti-Jewish pogroms.
Yes, it was an extraordinary time – but the people who were involved were neither extraordinary nor, for the most part, evil. My uncle was not extraordinary, and neither was my grandmother. They just did what they felt they had to. In Germany, not all Nazi party members were extraordinary either – they were ordinary men and women caught up in an extraordinary historical moment. Just as a generation before, countless tens of thousands found themselves marching slowly through mud and barbed wire into a hail of machine-gun bullets, by the late 1930s countless tens of thousands of Germans (and by the early 1940s Austrians, Italians, French, Belgians, Dutch, Polish, Danish, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Greeks, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Russians and more) found themselves complicit to an ideology they were powerless, as individuals, to stop.
But none of the ordinary, everyday men and women caught up in these events – no matter which side they were on – ever liked to talk about their experiences (history not just being written by the victors, but by the leaders). Whether it’s thanks to unpleasant memories or embarrassment, so much of this vital first-hand knowledge has already been lost.
And in any case, we all prefer the broader picture – not to mention the battles, the action, the glamour of the likes of Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone. Every now and then we may go for a bit of Schindler’s List and try to grasp the true horrors – but we can’t. Because the true horror isn’t just the slaughter of innocents – it’s that people just like you and me were the ones doing the slaughtering, not just Hollywood villains like Ralph Feinnes’ Commandant Goeth. That’s something that no WWII film I’ve seen, or history lesson I sat through at school, has ever quite managed to get across.
Hitler, Goring, Himmler, Speer, Goebbels and all the rest – they were men, not monsters. But over the last six decades and more they have been progressively demonised to the extent that far from never forgetting about their crimes, their crimes have become all too familiar – a pinnacle of horror, a benchmark of evil that somehow, we feel, is so bad that it can never be surpassed.
But in reality we have focussed on their crimes because these are the lesser horror – the idea of the deaths of millions in concentration camps is far easier to process than the idea that people just like us were responsible. (An aside, but that was Tolkien’s finest achievement in The Lord of the Rings – albeit something that was entirely lost in the films – the depiction of the corruption of the noble Boromir…)
Rather than being vigilant to ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens again (which, of course, we’ve already failed in doing in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, etc. etc. etc.), we have elevated the crimes of the Nazis to such an extent that we have become complacent – we now simply assume that they will never happen again. That they can never happen again. Because we’re all keeping an eye out now. Because we’ve learned our lesson. Because the UN will do something. Because there are no longer monsters like that in the world.
But there are. There are plenty of disillusioned artists and ex-soldiers out there just like Hitler, and plenty more just like the ordinary people of every conceivable background who made up the SA and SS, just like the men and women who may not have become actively involved in promoting the fascist cause, but who did nothing to stop its advance. They’re out there in Zimbabwe. In Burma. In Sudan. And on every street in every country in the world. You may be one. I may be one. Our children may grow up just like them.
We will never forget the Holocaust and its victims. But we also need to remember who carried out the Holocaust. It was through the complicity of countless thousands of ordinary, everyday men and women. Not just those who helped in big ways or small, but by those who turned a blind eye. Countless thousands of men and women who went on to become accountants, housewives, teachers…
The Holocaust was carried out by us. This is what we must never forget. And yet still we ignore anti-Roma violence in Italy, even though they too were targets of Hitler’s death camps. Still we ignore rising levels of homophobic attacks in Poland, even though it was in that country that thousands of homosexuals were held in camps and murdered by the Nazis during the war. Still we forget about Darfur and Burma when they’re not on the telly and in the papers, and when the pop stars have stopped writing songs about them. Our promised vigilance is failing us. Despite our experiences, Europe – and the world – has become blind once again.