This week, Europe marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, a grim reminder of one of one of the continents darkest pages in history. It is a landmark that demands of us to remember, not out of shame as many see it, but as our duty to our future generations. A honest appraisal of the lessons learned by Christos Mouzeviris.
Naturally, the extermination of millions of people, not just from the Nazi’s but their collaborators across Europe for simply who they were, should make us feel ashamed. However, the purpose of such commemoration, should not focus on making us feel guilty or hate, rather it could be an opportunity to educate and learn to tolerate. Because even after being exposed to numerous commemorations, documentaries, films and inspiring political speeches about the Holocaust, its causes and aftermath, Europe-although it has made huge progress, hasn’t managed to rid itself of old prejudices and nationalism entirely.
Transposition of hatred
Even nowadays, there is a reported sharp rise in Anti-Semitism across our continent, with Jewish cemeteries being vandalized in France, Germany and elsewhere. We even the UK’s Labour Party, being investigated of its alleged anti-Semitic views. It is peculiar to think such a catastrophe which cost the lives of millions of people – not just the Jews of Europe – people would still see an ethnic group as responsible for all their troubles and problems. So much in fact that they would prefer to align themselves with outright criminal ideologies.
And it is even more worrying, that this hatred spreads to many other ethnic or religious minority groups of Europe. Our continent has become multinational, multi religious and multiracial and that is a direct outcome of the Holocaust’s legacy. People for many years have chosen to abandon hate, prejudice and preferred to include and tolerate individuals of different background, as result of the horrors of fascism, nationalism and populism they have experienced. The EU itself was created from the ashes and remains of the old Europe, with a promise that never again would Europeans die in such wars, fuelled by hate.
However, our continent is still struggling with its identity and future. And it is not just the Jewish people that are being targeted this time. Islamophobia is also a worrying trend, in addition to the rising xenophobia and Euroscepticism. Seventy-five years ago, it may have been the Jews of Europe that faced the brunt of our hate, however if we are not careful in the future it could be others. In addition to commemorating the loss of nearly six million Jewish lives in the most horrid manner, we could also start telling the stories of others that perished in the same way. And even though the numbers were fewer, their deaths should not be forgotten in history.
Other groups persecuted
With the European Jews, the Nazis exterminated a large part of Europe’s Romani people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities and their political opponents. According to some estimations, about 1.5 million Romani people have died alongside those of Jewish descent. Other historians bring that number down to anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000, however the numbers should not be the only thing that we should be concerned, rather the reason and the manner.
Many of them died in concentration camps, while wearing a brown inverted triangle. Others were shot while fighting against the Nazis and alongside their compatriots. Many found a gruesome death, while Nazi scientists were conducting experiments on them, like pouring chemicals into their eyes to attempt a colour change.
Yet while the Jewish Holocaust is greatly discussed and commemorated, the “Porajmos” or Romani Holocaust is still not being spoken about, or as extensively studied. There seems to be no films or documentaries made about the suffering of the Roma people from those days and even if the German government has officially recognised it since 1982, it has never paid any reparations to the Roma victims, like it did with the Jewish ones.
Perhaps that is one reason why the Romani victims are not portrayed in any Hollywood blockbuster movie, together with the fact that they do not have a strong lobby in America to promote their rights and even worse, not even in Europe-their birthplace. Romani people are part of our continent for centuries. But even today, they are among the poorest of people, facing discrimination and lack of opportunities in all countries they reside on the European continent. About 80% of the 12 million Roma in Europe today are living below the poverty line, while in average they live 10 years less than the average European with high infant mortality. Only one out of four Roma people are employed, while fewer than that have finished their education: 20% cannot read or write.
Perhaps if we started viewing them in a different manner, we could end this outrageous discrimination and maybe we could start by telling their stories during the Holocaust, to sensitise people about their rights and cause.
Another group that usually is left out of the commemorations are homosexuals. They do not get as much sympathy, as they are not an ethnic group and nowadays, they enjoy their rights and equality in most European nations. However, their stories should also be told, as a reminder that hate and intolerance is not always targeting foreigners, ethnic or religious groups. In addition, viewing the unjustifiable suffering that these men and women had to endure, could once and for all silence critics of LGBT rights.
An estimated 100,000 gay men in Germany were arrested as homosexuals between 1933 and 1945, with 50,000 being sentenced. Of that number, around 15,000 of them ended up in concentration camps with a high mortality rate, of about 60%. Homosexuals in concentration camps faced an unusual degree of cruelty, with experiments being conducted on them, in order to find a cure for their homosexuality or other medical diseases. Others were forced in having sex with Jewish women, prostitutes or lesbian women, in order to force “normal” sexual desires onto them. Castration, boiling of their testicles and violence driven by the homophobia of the Nazi guards, were often reported. Many were beaten by other inmates, while Nazi soldiers used to practice their shooting skills, by targeting the pink downward triangles sewing on their uniforms to distinguish them, ultimately killing them on sight. Homosexuals in concentration camps were considered the lowest of the low, classified as “asocials” and the true number of the victims remains unknown.
Again, many would not consider the stories of these men worthy of being told and brought into the greater public knowledge, since the gay community enjoys a great number of freedoms and degree of equality. However, we must never forget how easy it is for a society to slide backwards and what can happen to people of such communities if we allow it. Germany prior the rise of the Nazis, had a vibrant gay community and in Berlin, gay and lesbian bars and clubs were abundant. Just because at one given time, a community enjoys a certain set of freedoms, it does not mean that it can be taken for granted; sadly, that is why the commemoration of the Holocaust is necessary even today.
It is becoming evident that it should not be focused only on one ethnic group’s tragedy and the injustice inflicted upon them, rather view it as a lesson of what we can lose if we make the same mistakes again. It will not only be millions of lives, of many ethnic or religious minorities, but above all it will be our humanity and some of our most cherished values, that contribute to Europe’s uniqueness and success: our diversity, equality, tolerance and freedom.
Thank you Christos. Especially for the inclusion of the Romani, gays and all others, perhaps I might add the Slavs who were systematically slaughtered too. We especially remember the Jewish victims as the largest group. In fact, all of the numbers we use are estimates rather than precise. Proportionate to their place in populations, Roma were as persecuted and exterminated as Jews. The whole picture is grim.
However, I go beyond this picture to remember what history tells us about our inhumanity and just how often we have allowed these things to happen. It is full of them. I live in France, in fact in what was ‘Vichy France’ where brave people died and others persisted to shelter Jews until the liberation of their country. Yet in its own history, sheltered three centuries ago there is something as awful that is eldom spoken about.
A number of towns and small cities in this area of SW France are still sometimes referred to as ‘protestant’. During the French Wars of Religion in 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre saw King Charles IX command the killing of a group of Huguenot leaders, after which the slaughter spread throughout Paris. Over several weeks, the massacre spread to other towns and cities and the countryside. Estimates of the number of dead across France may be as much as 30,000. In 1685 Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau saw many more massacred. He claimed that they had been reduced from about many as 900,000 to less than 2000. Louis XV continued the purge until he died in 1774 by which time Calvinism had been all but eliminated from France. It was not until the Revolution in 1792 and then the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, that French protestants regained equal rights as citizens. They had gone from around 10% of over 16 million, or 1.6m, and a growing number in all French dominions to more or less a handful.
Historically that is as significant as the Holocaust, but in its time. To this day members of protestant sects are frowned on. In this area there are quite a few, albeit small, protestant groups, their churches and meeting places, but they are still discrete and often quite marginal. Descendants of survivors are never honoured in any way and there has never been any kind of real remembrance or apology. The underlying prejudice in what is by law a secular state is still there. The past that belong beside what we are remembering right now tends to be discreetly ignored instead of added to a bigger picture of inhumanity.
In this area, Vichy during WW2, large numbers of Spanish republican refugees were eventually interned, along with Roma, the few remaining Jews and those whose politics were considered punishable. Communities and households that sheltered any of them were harshly punished, there are memorials to local French victims. The rest of the people who just disappeared are unacknowledged and very few people who know are willing to talk about what happened.
For every Holocaust memorial day, concentration camp ceremony and all such 1933-45 connected events should be matched by probably hundreds more. I use the French examples simply as that, examples. I am not an expert on the topic but I could fill many pages with what I do know. Yes, remember the Holocaust, but also remember it was not just Jews but Roma, the disabled, political opponents and many others whose numbers also run into millions. Then also remember all of the rest of the enormous massacres before and since that period. When it becomes a level playing field of remembrance, perhaps some of the people with a ‘what has it to do with me’ attitudes might just drop that.
Those are simply examples in the country I live in. We should also remember the other massacres and exterminations like the Katyn massacre of around 22,000 Polish officers by the Russians, what actually happened in Spain during the civil war, back to what the Romans did in what is now Israel and Palestine to kill all the infants because of the rumours of a new born messiah. Then through to the present, via Amritsar in India on the British ‘plate’, the indigenous people of what is now the USA, Australia and other colonised parts of the world, what the Japanese did during WW2 through to and including the Rohingya at present. When we look at the whole picture and have hung our heads in collective shame long enough, then perhaps we can once and for all stop it happening ever again. It has to be a level playing field in which no single massacre, mass murder, extermination or other horror is made more important than another, so that we can remember them all as repeated examples of the inhumanity of our species against itself that if we are to consider ourselves to be in any sense civilised should never happen again.