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Arbeit Macht Frei

August 2, 2007

I visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin last week.

The whole experience was horrible. The journey starts with an hour long train journey to Oranienburg, north of Berlin. This is the same journey that people sent to the camp took. Then you arrive at Oranienburg station, where the good citizens of this horrible little provincial town used to gather to hurl rocks and abuse at prisoners. You walk a couple of kilometres to the camp, along the same route that the prisoners took.

The normality of it all is bewildering. There are houses right next to the camp, with people mowing the lawn, walking their dogs and talking to their neighbours over the fence.

The camp itself is unremittingly bleak. Walking through gates bearing the familiar lie, Arbeit macht Frei, sends a chill through the bones even on a summer’s day. The complex is vast, and it took me hours to walk around it and take in the exhibits.

By the time I left, I needed to get really drunk and kill some Nazis.

The exhibits are effective, particularly the way they humanise both the victims and perpetrators. So much of the Holocaust seems to be about unrelenting, anonymous horror, that it helps to realise this was something people did to each other.

There are displays that say, for example, “so and so, a shop steward for the rail workers union, arrested for leading a strike against Hitler in 1933, shot at this spot in 1936”. It contains photographs, and a life history.

Right next to it is a photo and life story of the Nazi who shot him – and far too many of them survived the war and did fine afterwards.

Like the women who did her PhD on the inferiority of Gypsy children, doing tests on them before sending them off to be murdered at Sachsenhausen. She became a prominent child psychologist after the war.

Would you take your kid to a psychopath for counselling?

The other thing that that’s really brought home by Sachsenhausen is that the Holocaust wasn’t just about Jews. I find it really offensive to the memory of everyone murdered by Hitler that when the Holocaust is mentioned, it’s almost always in connection with Jews, usually quickly followed by the declaration that in order to ensure it never happens again, we need to support Israel.

Norman Finkelstein analyses this exploitation of the Holocaust at some length in his book The Holocaust Industry.

I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, as well as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. They are all powerful memorials to the lost.

But where are the vast memorials to the gays, or the Sinti and Roma, who are still discriminated against in Germany? Where are the memorials to the Edelweiss Pirates, Swing Kids and conscientious objectors and all the ordinary people who resisted Hitler? The slackers, the anti-socials, the ones who sabotaged machinery in the factories to stop Hitler?

How about memorials to the trade unionists, socialists, communists and anarchists who physically resisted Hitler? How about the millions of Soviet POWs who died in the concentration camps?

German communist leader Ernst Thälmann died at this camp.

When we remember the victims of Hitler, why is the focus on the Jewish 6 million? What about the Soviet Union’s 24 million dead? One million died in Leningrad alone, when Hitler turned the whole city into a concentration camp.

I accept that there was something unique about Hitler’s persecution of Jews, about his attempts to wipe out a whole race in the extermination camps to the East. I have been to the house of the Wannsee Conference and seen the documents calling for the final solution.

But Hitler didn’t start rounding up German Jews until 1941. He started murdering Communists a lot earlier – as early as 1919, if you see the Freikorp as his predecessors.

As Martin Niemöller said – and I saw his cell at Sachsenhausen – first they came for the Communists.

The street fighting Left, who formed Antifa to tackle Hitler, were the one force within Germany with the power to stop him. Typically for the Left, however, they were often too busy fighting amongst themselves to mount the kind of opposition that was needed.

Also, 5 000 top German communist fighters went to fight fascism in Spain – Hitler’s trial run for World War two – and only 2 000 came back. Intervention by Britain, France and the US on behalf of the Spanish Republic then would have done a lot to stop fascism in its tracks.

For me the real heroes are the ones who fought back, without being infected by fascism, like the Jewish Communist Herbert Baum, and the partisans Primo Levi writes about so eloquently in his novel If not now, when?.

I also don’t buy this notion propagated by Goldberg in Hitler’s Willing Executioners that the German people were natural anti-Semites and enthusiastic supporters of Hitler’s genocide.

This is a racist slur on Germans. There were hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans who resisted Hitler, and most of them were murdered or imprisoned. Also, several thousand German Jews survived the war because they were protected, at great risk, by their neighbours. As for the silent majority, every country has them – more on that later.

Arriving back in Berlin, it cheered me up no end to see all the Antifa punks hanging around Alexander Platz. There’s a strong grassroots anti-fascist movement in Germany. Fuck holocaust memorials: I’d much rather have Anitifa around to see it doesn’t happen again.

Incidentally, gathering from the political posters and graffitti I saw, the Germans are pretty clear that what we are seeing in the US is the rise of fascism.

And they should know.

Kan, b’misluah haze…

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