Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lest we forget

Earlier this week saw Holocaust Memorial Day on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I’m afraid it passed me by. I actually wasn’t aware there was a Holocaust Memorial Day, but it makes sense of the recently-published study that suggested that 81% of Germans wanted to forget Auschwitz.

At least, that’s how it’s been reported. I haven’t yet been able to find the study — news websites I’ve looked at just vaguely refer to “a study” and, because this is the internet, neglect to link to the source — so it’s hard to know what to make of it. Politicians, of course, know what to make of it (they always do): this is very disturbing, and we must never be allowed to forget.

The devil is always in the detail you never see, though. Did 81% of those polled say they never wanted to hear anything about the concentration camps ever again? Or did they merely say that right now, Germany has more serious issues to deal with?

UPDATE: Thanks to @HollyGoMadly for providing a link to the actual study. According to this, 81% of Germans agreed with the statement “We should concentrate on current problems rather than on crimes committed against the Jews which happened over 60 years ago.” Interestingly, so did 64% of Israelis polled. Also, 55% of Germans agreed with the statement that we should not keep talking about the persecution of the Jews and instead draw a line under the affair, but the report points out that since 1991 the number of people saying they disagree with the statement has steadily risen. It seems the press have conflated these two results to come up with “81% of Germans want to forget Auschwitz”. See pp 24 and 25 of the report.

I have a certain sympathy with the idea that perhaps Germany has been overdoing it with the self-flagellation on this subject; and as I write this, I realise the sound of thin ice cracking under my feet has reached my ears. But it has been two generations now, and there’s a sense that Germany hasn’t yet quite managed to move on. And by “move on”, I don’t mean “forget”.

The years of Nazi dictatorship were bad — horribly bad. The systematic torture and murder of millions of people based on things like ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views and religious affiliation, together with a warmongering mindset that eventually laid waste to most of central Europe, can’t ever be swept under the carpet. But neither was the Nazi regime the only one of its kind: human history, including recent human history, has endured (and continues to endure) countless others: Stalin, Pol Pot and (if the sketchy and often unverified accounts are to be believed) the Kim dynasty of North Korea all belong on that list.

Is it possible that in trying too hard — almost eagerly — to display hitherto unprecedented levels of contrition, Germans might simply be giving themselves a complex?

It seems appropriate in a country that has given us philosophy and psychanalysis and with them words like angst and weltschmerz that it should give itself something to agonize over. The same study revealed that an awful lot of Germans strongly disapprove of Israel’s policies in the Middle East; the implication for some hand-wringing politicians appears to be that an awful lot of Germans are antisemitic. Does this mean that those Germans who welcome Muslim refugees from that part of the world are antisemitic (because if Israel is right, they have no business claiming to be victims of persecution)? Must Germans choose between antisemitism and islamophobia?

The obvious answer, of course, is that opposing a government’s official policy is not the same as hating that government’s subjects. I can, say, speak out against the death penalty in the US; this does not imply that if you happen to be American, I will refuse to be your friend. But we humans have a tendency — a need, really — to categorize things as neatly and as simply as possible, into things that can hurt us and things that can’t, which is how the whole sorry mess got going in the first place. A system that puts antelopes into a category of safe things and tigers into a category of harmful things works well for hunter-gatherers, but doesn’t work for human society. We end up categorizing people who think like us as safe and people who think differently as harmful.

And that does an awful lot of damage all round. The Nazis persuaded people that certain easily identifiable groups of people were harmful. Pegida wants us to put all Muslims (except those willing to “integrate”) into the “harmful” category. Quite a lot of people want us to label as harmful all Germans (“because they’re Nazis and always will be Nazis”). Some would like us to believe that all those who criticize Israel are antisemitic. Some, that all those who do not criticize Israel are militant zionists. We still haven’t really stopped.

The truth is that each individual is a mess of different opinions about everything, and most people are not really extreme at all. Imposing labels on them — “antisemitic”, “islamophobic”, “fascist”, “bleeding-heart liberal”, “feminist”, “misogynist”, whatever label you want to impose — is nearly irresistable for us humans, but it’s unhelpful and forces people into corners they don’t want to go. It’s one of the reasons you’ll never get me to tell you which political party I support: you’ll just assume that I agree wholeheartedly with everything you think that party printed in its most recent manifesto, and I can pretty much guarantee you’d be wrong.

I think, with the Holocaust, as far as Germans are concerned, the focus is slightly wrong. The focus shouldn’t be: “We Germans were horrible to the Jews.” It should be: “This is what happens when human beings stop seeing individual human beings as individuals.”

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