As I mentioned earlier in the week, last week I visited Krakow. I have a strong interest in Nazism and the Holocaust, and I’ve wanted to visit Auschwitz for some time so it was, without sounding morbid, the perfect destination for me.
As well as visiting Auschwitz, we also managed to get to the Schindler museum, which is actually in the real Schindler factory. It covered the whole period of occupation as well as what Schindler did during the war. Both places gave me another angle onto this period of history.
I think one of the fascinating things about this period is that there is such a wealth of material. So many aggressors, so many victims, so many countries. War on a civilian level rather than just military. A modern society geared towards racial purity that took the rest of Europe with it. There is not just evidence from that time, but there is also the aspect of what happened next, how it impacted on the next generation. So many people were involved and touched by it that there is so much to learn about and read over. Perhaps if you study it like a scholar you can learn it all, but for me, there is always something new.
During my time in Krakow, I found that there were two new things that I hadn’t really thought of in much detail before. The first was the attitude of the SS men. At the Schindler museum, there were photographs from the occupation. There was a strong Nazi presence in Krakow; it was designated the capital of the General Government and even had its own camp, Krakow-Plaszow in the southern suburbs of the city.
These photos were SS men personal photos rather than official Nazi snaps, and they were really inappropriate. The subject of each photo was a Nazi or two, grinning like they were on holiday. For me, the picture was somewhat marred by the dead body lying in the street in front of them, or the seven men hanging from the gallows in the background.
The smiles were more shocking than the death. Somehow, it demonstrates the contempt the Nazis had for the lives of non-Germans (or Austrians) far more effectively that the horror of the torture. Bothering to harm and humiliate them at least shows an understanding of their humanity, even while using it as a weapon. The dead did not seem to have been placed in the photos specifically, as in, ‘here, let’s have a photo in front of these gallows’. They just happened to be there. Having a complete lack of interest in the carnage around you, to the point where you don’t even notice it, there is something very disturbing in that.
That brings me onto my next point, the lack of logic inherent in the Nazi doctrine. For example, while I was at Auschwitz, I learned that political prisoners were able to smuggle information out to resistance workers, because they were placed in the administration blocks. Now, to my mind the last place you would want to place political prisoners would be where you keep your plans. Certainly it would not be my first choice. However, that was precisely what the Auschwitz commanders did, and for the sole reason that the political prisoners were more racially pure than the Jews. There is no strategy or sense there, merely the conclusion of a bizarre racial idea.
Similarly, there was the Lebensborn program. I think this is the most illogical thing I have ever heard of. As we know, Germans (and I suppose Austrians) were the most racially pure. Britain was quite good. France, Spain, Italy, they were ok. Eastern Europeans were subhuman, followed by the Jews at the bottom of the heap. Colouring-wise, we had beautiful blond Aryans at the top, and then dark haired dark eyed Slavs and Jews at the bottom.
However, sometimes there might be a blond Eastern European. Despite the fact that they were clearly Eastern European, SS men thought nothing of snatching these children off the street, carting them back to Germany and proceeding to Germanise them. It was all about accruing more Aryans, and because these children were fair, their colouring seemed to outweigh the fact that they were Slavic. On the one hand, Nazis were desperately trying to purify the race, on the other, they were deliberately adding people they perceived as racially impure. The mind boggles.
I think both these points illustrate what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. Her point was that you don’t need lots of maniacally evil people for something as horrific as the holocaust to occur. All you need is dull people who are willing to blindly follow one mad individual, to accept what they are told and what is happening without question, either because they are afraid to do otherwise or because it does not occur to them to stop for a moment and think about what is happening. Mitchell and Webb make a very similar point in this sketch which never fails to amuse me.
Whenever I think about Nazism and the holocaust, one thing always shines out. We were lucky. Germany in the 1930’s was modern and bohemian, not at all dissimilar to how we live now. It happened there, and it could happen anywhere at any time. I read a great quote the other day which unfortunately I have now forgotten, but the essential point was if we forget about these atrocities, they can happen again. You just need one charismatic individual. I am loathe to call David Cameron a charismatic individual, but he has worked to demonise the poor and a lot of the country has gone along with it, preferring to shutter themselves away from poverty and blame those suffering from it for its very existence rather than stopping to really think about what that means. It is always important that we keep thinking, keep reading, keep questioning. To stop can have far-reaching consequences.