A few days ago I was in Oxford for the History Faculty Open Day, and at some point, I found myself reminiscing experiences of visiting the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, something which me and this guy had in common. (Except a desire to study History at Oxford).
Anyway, we started by talking about the experience of visiting Auschwitz, and broadly concluded that despite being the most harrowing thing either of us had either seen, it was something that everyone should experience at some point in their lives. I really can’t describe what it was like there, but I know that, on that bitter December day, I was freezing in my skiing jacket, and that I was terrified and changed by what I saw. Auschwitz continues to exist as a memorial to those who died, and also as a warning from history, a warning of what humans are capable of, and of how far we have to fall.
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, MOSTLY JEWS. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1940
(The Plaque in Auschwitz II)
So I was drawn to a more interesting question - what will we make of Auschwitz in 100 years time, or in 500 years time, or indeed ? To my mind, Auschwitz stands as a monument today for a number of reasons, but primarily because the Nazis are still on the edge of living memory. There are still, I believe, a few Holocaust survivors, who give interviews, as well as a wealth of literature from writers like Primo Levi. All this serves to keep the Holocaust in our minds. But I think there’s a far more obvious reason than that - there have been genocides since, there have been European genocides since, Srebrenica being the largest, but the sheer scale and industrialised monstrosity of the Holocaust means that it stands alone.
So I suppose, what I had wondered was what Auschwitz would be like in 500 years time. Obviously it will no longer be living memory. But much as it saddens me to even think this; it probably won’t be the biggest, most industrialised genocide of all history hitherto. But perhaps the camp will still exist; perhaps that most haunting gas chamber will still exist; perhaps the railway tracks will still be there, decaying; and perhaps, beneath a layer of moss and dust, that plaque will still be legible. But the whole camp could have become something else - stripped of its comparative scale, stripped of the memories of survivors, stripped of the families torn apart, stripped of the literature and film that surrounds the Holocaust, the camp will have become something like the Tower of London. (There is already a gift shop and a cafeteria)
These days, Traitors gate, in the Tower of London is little more than a historical curio, something that we can collectively stare at, and think ‘Oh, weren’t they so uncivilised, putting heads on spikes there.’ We look at Tower Green, where countless people were executed by the state, and to be honest it’s just good fun - children play with swords, tourists lick ice-creams. The same is true all over the place; every castle, every romanticised battlefield. They’re good fun.
And perhaps, Auschwitz too, will become good fun.
Maybe that sounds like a fantasy, as we emptily echo ‘Lest we should ever forget’. But how many among us know when Holocaust Memorial Day is? And even then, why does that matter?
To quote the History Boys [Irwin says this about WW1, but I think it applies for the Holocaust too], all the mourning veils the truth, it’s not lest we forget, it’s lest we remember. There have been too many genocides since for us to claim that we have remembered. Bosnia. Serbia. Rwanda. Cambodia. Argentina. China. Manila. Guatemala. Iraq. Countless more.
Millions more have died. Auschwitz may still be revered by those who go there, but it’s wider significance never truly existed, we can’t forget Auschwitz; most of humanity seems not to have learnt from it at all.