Last Wednesday was Holocaust Memorial Day marking the deaths of the six million Jews, three million Soviet prisoners of war, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people and gypsies systematically murdered by the Germans in the Second World War.
The Holocaust was and remains the most appalling act of barbarism in human history. The words ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ are banded around in the course of normal debate so often now that we forget what those people did. In the pursuit of power, power over all and at all costs, they butchered millions of innocent people in cold blood. It was not the work of a man, Hitler, or a party, the Nazis, as much of that of an entire people. A people that gorged itself on lawlessness, hatred and blood over a dozen years from 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor. There is simply no equivalent to the man, the movement or the mass mind-set in modern Western politics, and to pretend that there is (whatever people say of Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen) distorts our understanding of history and ability to analyse the present.
Without that understanding of the period, I don’t believe it is possible to properly understand much of modern politics or society. I am currently reading Alan Bullock’s excellent life of Hitler. While I should like to write a longer piece on it at some point, four lessons from his early life seem to me to be highly pertinent to the attitude we should take towards our modern day parliamentarians. These are:
- We suspend our sense of the ridiculous at our peril. In his physical composition, mannerisms, social awkwardness, sense of entitlement and sheer unreasonableness, Hitler was a deeply ludicrous figure. We are used now to the idea that politics is solely the domain of the deeply strange, but the more we abandon the field to them, the odder the country they create from under us. We should all make more effort to laugh at politicians and stop treating seriously the odd people who lust for power over us.
- A country that doesn’t enforce the law places itself in great danger. Time and time again, the simple expedient of applying the law would have arrested the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. As we choose to disregard a variety of inconvenient laws, from those covering cannabis to those covering treason, we should not be surprised that criminals become bolder and society less stable.
- We need to look beyond language. Hitler’s gift for the language of peace in international diplomacy lulled the British governing class in particular into a sort of hypnosis. We are still suckers for the soothing word over the right one – referring to doubling the national debt as “austerity” being a case in point.
- Power for power’s sake is a despicable motive for a politician. In recent British political history there is a distinct correlation between the lack of fixed principles and the harm a man has done his country. That the press continues to confuse lack of principle for strategic brilliance is one of the most depressing features of the age.
But a more important message still is that found in the life of St Maximilian Kolbe, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1941 (what follows is a brief summary of his life, there is a more detailed version here).
Born in Poland to an ethnic German father and a Polish mother, he took his final vows in 1914 having pledged both martyrdom and purity to the Virgin Mary in a dream early in his life. Having spent some years in the East as a missionary, he returned to Poland in 1936 to the monastery he had founded in 1927, Niepokalanów near Warsaw. Refusing to register as a German and therefore standing to receive privileged treatment by Nazi troops when Poland was over-run, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was frequently beaten for continuing his priestly duties.
Following an escape from the prison, the camp hierarchy decided to starve ten men selected at random to death as a collective deterrent. One of those chosen cried “O my poor wife, my poor children! I shall never see them again.” When told of his fate, Father Kolbe offered to take his place.
Locked in an underground bunker with nine other men and denied any food or water, Father Kolbe led the condemned men in prayer. Bruno Borgawiec was the camp janitor and an eye witness:
‘In the cell of the poor wretches there were daily loud prayers, the rosary and singing, in which prisoners from neighbouring cells also joined. When no SS men were in the Block I went to the Bunker to talk to the men and comfort them. Fervent prayers and songs to the Holy Mother resounded in all the corridors of the Bunker. I had the impression I was in a church. Fr Kolbe was leading and the prisoners responded in unison. They were often so deep in prayer that they did not even hear that inspecting SS men had descended to the Bunker; and the voices fell silent only at the loud yelling of their visitors. When the cells were opened the poor wretches cried loudly and begged for a piece of bread and for water, which they did not receive. However, if any of the stronger ones approached the door he was immediately kicked in the stomach by the SS men, so that falling backwards on the cement floor he was instantly killed; or he was shot to death.
“Fr Kolbe bore up bravely, he did not beg and did not complain but raised the spirits of the others…. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Fr Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men. Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Fr Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long; the cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German, a common criminal named Bock, who gave Fr Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Fr Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men with the executioner had left I returned to the cell, where I found Fr Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant.”
In many ways, the example of Father Kolbe and the sacrifices, unrecorded except in heaven, of those like him are the most important lesson of all from the horrors of the concentration camps. At a time when man’s evil destruction of man had been systematised, bureaucratised and lay heavy over a continent, his example of love served to break the spell, to give hope to the incarcerated, and cause for thought and repentance to those committing the crime. As the Polish Bishops put it: “The life and death of this one man alone can be proof and witness of the fact that the love of God can overcome the greatest hatred, the greatest injustice, even death itself.”
It is easy to look across the modern world and see only the corruption, the slow and grinding normalisation of wickedness and hypocrisy – in our politics and our societies. But the lesson of Nazi Germany is that no matter the circumstances, one good man prepared to act courageously can and will always make a disproportionate difference to those around him, and that as long as there is a single good man or woman left among us, a better way is far closer than we might think. The onus is on us to be that example.
(Image Courtesy Yortw, Flickr)