A note to the reader: click on this link and begin reading as the violin begins to weep
We seem to go to great lengths to be more efficient at it, either by training in the skills, or creating the tools to achieve the most damage with the least expenditure of effort. We have rules to make sure we only harm or kill people in certain circumstances. The paradox and hypocrisy can be utterly shocking as we look back on our history as the master race of the planet.
It is now agreed that genocide is unjustifiable either during war or peace time, and the 1948 Geneva Convention definition of genocide almost reads like a description of The Holocaust. Of course, it is quite clear that this is in response to the fact that most of major nations in the world have committed mass murders or genocide in some way in the past in order to conquer land and territory. The USA and the UK have their own dark histories of trying to rid themselves of inconvenient native or indigenous populations.
So what is it about The Holocaust that hits us so hard? Why does that genocide command such a place in our history books? The horrors no doubt come at least in part to the size of it in terms of the numbers who were killed. But I think it has something to do with the unique nature of the killing – the intent behind it, as well as the fact that it was a goal in itself rather than just a means to an end in order to conquer land.
World War Two reshaped war into a beast where even innocent people became the target – and in the case of the Jews, the Nazi’s made it into a social, chemical and genetic science. That intellectual and advanced scientific angle to mass killing made it more chilling than ever before. The fact that in practical terms it was carried out face to face by soldiers and officials, systematically, and with a cruel pragmatism, seems to make it even more chilling. Nazi Germany even established the Nuremberg Laws to place anti-Semitism at the heart of the duty of all citizens. Everyone had a direct or indirect duty to help in the persecution, and as a result of a lot of unnerving propaganda a lot of people were happy to comply.
What the Nazis aimed to do was to commit a specific genocidal holocaust. The etymology of those words can be traced back to the ancient Greek roots: “race”, “kill”, “whole”, “burn”. The aim was to wipe out a race from the population genetically, educationally, and even historically. If it had not happened, but someone had written it as a fiction, I am sure we would be scoffing at the idea for being “unbelievable”.
Adolf Hitler made his policy and beliefs for the Holocaust clear from as far back as writing Mein Kampf.. Hitler instructed a committee of officials to attend lakeside villa in Wannsee to mastermind the mechanics of the “Final Solution.” This meeting is re-enacted the 2001 film Conspiracy, bringing to life just how specific the decisions were as they mapped out the eradication of Jewish blood from the ‘master race’ they were trying to create.
The plan included identification and classification of Jews to ensure they were made easier to segregate from a more homogeneous population. They agreed restrictions on how Jews could be moved around, controlled, and have their money and assets ceased. They removed all rights for Jews from being citizens. The unnervingly familiar comparisons with the way Syrian refugees are being treated as “swarms” now is something we should take heed of – especially if we wish to claim he have learnt for past mistakes.
But worst of all they debated the methods of disposing of the Jews on a mass scale, discussing the idea of gas-vans, as well as larger buildings to achieve the targets. Not every character – or real member of the committee – supported the ideas and it is almost reassuring to think that some Nazis might have been human enough to object. Nevertheless, as you watch the film, you know how futile their objections are.
The victims were entire families of men, women and children. Whole communities. Whole generations. If previous genocides had shown a darker side humanity, the Holocaust showed us just how black the heart could get. But it wasn’t just the way it happened that sticks in our minds – it was the systematic, callous, ‘scientific’ self-justification of the genocide that shook the world ever since.
The darkest depths of depravity committed under the cover of science.