Auschwitz and Empathy


Last November I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I wasn’t sure about going. We were staying an hour’s drive away, on holiday in Krakow for a few days and, on a purely selfish level, I thought that visiting a concentration camp seemed an incongruous addition to a relaxing citybreak. I was also concerned that it would be a ghoulish thing to do. I already knew about the holocaust. What would I contribute by walking round the location where over a million people had been put to death. Was this just a scaled up version of rubbernecking at a road accident?

On the other hand, it seemed churlish to pass on the opportunity to visit the location of one of the key events of the last century, and it seemed a little pathetic to avoid this just because it was potentially unpleasant. In the end we decided to go.

There is a difference between knowing about an event and actually seeing where it took place. It is possible to know that over a million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and still be shocked by the sheer physical scale of the camps. From the railway terminus where inmates arrived, Birkenau spreads out in all directions, the size of a provincial town.

Visiting the camps brought into focus the mundane, practical elements of running an industrial scale killing factory as an efficient, commercial operation. Revenue was generated by cutting all inmates’ hair on arrival and selling this off. Fake shower heads were fixed into the ceiling of the gas chambers, to support the story that inmates were being asked to shower, and thereby reduce the chance of any last minute revolt. 

Specific acts of cruelty were commonplace, yet equally telling were the everyday conditions faced by inmates. Children and the elderly were often killed immediately on arrival. Those kept alive to work in the camps were given only striped, pyjama-like garments and wooden clogs. Winters are harsh in Poland. Inmates would have suffered from hypothermia for several months of the year.

The scale of the camps undermines any idea that they were run by a few hardline fanatics. It required hundreds, if not thousands, of workers to administer the camps, to guard prisoners and to supervise the killing and disposal of bodies. Outside of the camps, there were companies profiting from everything from the manufacture of poison gas, to the ability to buy human hair cheaply for wig manufacture. How did so many people become complicit in acts of mass murder on this scale? 

I believe that the vast majority of people are not intrinsically cruel. People can and do behave badly to each other, but in my day to day life I see more acts of kindness than cruelty. I also don’t buy into the explanation that certain nationalities or groups are uniquely wicked, and the rest of us would not behave in this manner.

Yet events like the holocaust are all too possible when we buy into the story about ‘the other’ - people who are in some way different to us and are defined as inferior, bad or dangerous - to a point where they become dehumanised. Actions against ‘the other’ then becomes a different category of behaviour to how we would normally treat our fellow citizens. Whether the victims were Jewish or communist, trade unionists or gay it didn’t really matter how bad the treatment was, as they were not like ‘us’, not fully human.  

The election of Donald Trump and the referendum in favour of Brexit provide a contemporary reminder of the potency of political campaigns which demonise ‘the other’. People voted for Trump or for Brexit for a variety of reasons, but the common theme from both camps was how ‘we’ (who identify with a white, right wing Christian culture)  are threatened by ‘the other’ (Mexicans, Eastern Europeans, African, Muslims). It is identity politics as its crudest.  

Political campaigns against ‘the other’ can only be effective if there is a clearly defined ‘us’, so it was not surprising to hear Theresa May playing to the same audience with her disparaging comments about ‘citizens of nowhere’, those who refused to subscribe to a narrow nationalist identity. May sets up a false ‘us/them’ dichotomy, but the reality, and a potential counter strategy to bigoted populism, lies within the multiple identities which most people happily manage.

I live in Sheffield, I support the England football team, I am proud to be part of a United Kingdom, I identify as European and, travelling in Asia and Africa, I have always been struck that wherever you travel, most people have the same core aspirations around physical and financial security. Subscribing to multiple identities opens up the possibilities of empathy, finding commonalities with people who seem at first glance, different to us. To quote the much missed Jo Cox, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.  

We can choose not to be either ‘us’ or ‘them’. We can choose to be both and more, we can choose empathy over distrust and suspicion, and we need to if we are to survive in the 21st century without repeating the horrendous mistakes of the past.

David Edwards