Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is the official day when the United Nations asks us to remember the 17 million victims of Nazi terror in the Second World War . Six Million were Jews in state sponsored attempted genocide of a race and 11 million were political opponents-Socialists, Communists, Pacifists, Trades Unionists or other victims of Fascist terror such as Gypsies, Homosexuals and the Disabled. And these were the people that were clinically and methodically destroyed by the political will of the ruling Fascists. Like you’d pass a policy today with a decision and a directive. These people must die, now find a way to do it. Fascism found the clinical industrial way through the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka. Another 20 million military personnel died in a united global effort to end Fascism and thereby to end the terror. A further 40 million civilians ‘got in the way’ and perished in bombings, invasions and deportations. Fascism was the reason for all of this. Hitler came to power by the democratic will of the German people-and then silenced all opposition.
Hitler’s racism was clear in his Nazi manifesto ‘Mein Kampf’. ‘People’ voted Hitler into power and ‘people’ carried out the killings. Other ‘people’ had to fight to stop it as well. And not just on International Holocaust Remembrance Day do people have to be reminded of how fragile democracy is and how easy minds and emotions can be manipulated between good and evil, but every day.
This year people are preoccupied with the Coronavirus. Myself, I have usually visited a dozen countries in as many months with students, musicians, or just tourists. These past 12 months I’ve visited none. So I want to take a few lines to remember why, on almost all of those trips, I try to remind the people I take with me of the lessons of history.
The Czech Republic
Bridgwater has had 30 years of formal links with the Czech Republic. When I take groups to this fascinating country, which has seen every form of Government in the past 100 years from imperialism to, Fascism to Communist to Liberal Democracy, I make sure they see for themselves some of the traumatic episodes in that country’s recent past. We visit the Nazi prison of Terezin, just north of Prague, where political prisoners were kept in atrocious conditions and where Jews were forcibly moved to as a transit stage en route to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Terezin was not an extermination camp, but 33,000 prisoners died there all the same, the entry gate still marked with the Nazi slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – ‘work makes you free’.
When the Czechs resisted Nazi occupation and fought back against their Fascist rulers the British helped them and trained and dropped paratroopers behind enemy lines. The killing of one of the most evil Nazis in Europe-Rheinhart Heydrich, the man who designed the workings of the ‘Final Solution’ to exterminate all of Europe’s Jewish population and who had a racist hierarchy chart which saw the Czechs near the bottom, led to one of the worst atrocities of the war. Singling out the Czech mining village of Lidice, to the west of the Capital, the Nazis made an example and in an act of random terror and repression, systematically destroyed every last vestige of the village – homes, people, pets , even digging up the cemetery. All 173 men over 15 were executed on the spot on 10 June 1942. 60 women and 88 children were taken to extermination camps. 17 children survived because the Nazis decided they looked blond and Aryan enough to be adopted by good Nazi families. Today the empty valley where the village was is a memorial park with a museum where you can hear the testimonies of those children that returned after the war and see the memorial to the murdered children, based on their final school photo.
In Hungary the capital Budapest is a beautiful modern city built either side of the wide river Danube. In World War 2 the Hungarian Fascist Party, known as the Arrow Cross Party, did Hitler’s work for him demonstrating that the racism unleashed was near the surface of people of all nations-it was the cause of Fascism that unleashed it. 400,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up by the Arrow Cross and sent to Nazi death camps. As the war closed in on Budapest with the Red Army liberating East Europe state by state, the Hungarian Fascists actually stepped up their killings in the city itself In just 3 months in 1944 the Arrow Cross Fascists killed 33,000 Jews, lining them up along the banks of the river Danube, making them remove their shoes and then with a single shot disposing of them into the river. Today the moving memorial of lines of replica shoes adorn the banks as they were left and found when the Soviets liberated the city.
The inspiring Polish city of Krakow is a popular destination for Bridgwater tour groups. Students have visited schools, choirs and rock bands have performed in their venues and footballers have trod the turf of Visla and Cracovia. In the city is the factory of Oscar Schindler where the Czech-German ‘good Nazi’ saved 1,000s of Jews by giving them protected employment and saving them from deportation, but not far outside of the city remains the worlds biggest memorial to the horrors of fascism and without reference to which International Holocaust Memorial Day wouldn’t have brought to the attention of the disbelieving world.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a murder factory. Crematoria devoured a production line of human beings like a machine and over a million were gassed and burned.
In Auschwitz 960,000 Jews died plus 21,000 Roma -because legitimised Nazi Racist policy demanded it. 74,000 Polish soldiers and civilians also died along with 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10,000 other European political prisoners.
These were just some of the horrors that Fascism brought to Europe and this is why anti Fascists need to be ever vigilant. It starts small, it scapegoats people, it becomes acceptable, it turns to murder. This is why democracy is so precious and why the power of argument, reason and humanity have to combine with solidarity, unity and remembrance.
The Nazis never went away – and when we say ‘never again’, remembering is the key.