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Why I’m glad I saw Auschwitz

There are some things that are simply evil in themselves, and never to be justified

By on Monday, 9 July 2012

An icon of evil seared into the public consciousness AP Photo

An icon of evil seared into the public consciousness AP Photo

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Poland was Auschwitz. My original idea was not to go, but in the end I did go on an organised tour, and I am glad (that is not the right word, I know, but I can think of no other) that I went. The Auschwitz tour, which over a million visitors a year take (one can hardly call them tourists) is educational.

It is always revelatory to visit a place that you have heard much about, and of which you have seen many pictures. The reality is never the same. First of all, there was no such single entity as “Auschwitz”, but rather a complex of camps, some forty-eight in all; but the tour is restricted to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau). The first is the one with the well-known Arbeit Macht Frei over the gate; the second is the one with the haunting railway line passing through a gateway.

Auschwitz I was smaller than I expected, which makes one realise just how overcrowded it must have been; the brick buildings, originally army barracks before they were taken over by the Nazis, are now given over to various explanatory exhibitions. These are understated, and all the better for that; the objects displayed are stark and eloquent. Most people I know mention the huge pile of shoes. I was more struck by the ocean of chamber pots which the deportees had brought with them, which spoke of a perfectly reasonable expectation that their lives were destined to continue after deportation. Those chamber pots tell us that for the victims, as for ourselves, their fate was unimaginable.

Because the Holocaust is something that transcends words – for nothing can describe this horror – Birkenau, which is essentially a large desolate space, is starkly eloquent too. Most of the wooden huts have disappeared, leaving their ghostly outline against what is now a field full of wild flowers and grasses. The gas chambers were destroyed by the retreating Nazis and are now piles of ruins. The surviving huts are terrible beyond belief, unfit for human habitation, originally conceived as stabling for horses. Here too the overcrowding and the attendant filth and disease must have been unimaginable. Now, there are hardly any people, and so the grass and the flowers have grown where once there was only a sea of mud, or a desert of dust.

Birkenau contains the memorial to all those who died in the camp complex. It is a collection of huge stones, vaguely reminiscent of the work of Henry Moore, the significance of which I found rather hard to understand. Somewhat to my surprise there is not much memorialisation at either site, which strikes me as correct. After all, the whole site is a memorial.

I was interested by what our Polish guides had to say when they took us round. Their words were, I think, well-judged. One of the very first things we were told was that though now in Poland, the Auschwitz camps were set up on territory that had been annexed to the Third Reich, and that all the local Polish inhabitants had been expelled from the area. At that time there was no Polish government. In other words our guides wanted to make sure that everyone understood that this was not a “Polish death camp”. But it saddened and surprised me that anyone could think that in the first place.

The second thing our Polish guides did was to draw a moral conclusion from the visit to the camps. This again surprised me, as we are often cautioned about not instrumentalising the Holocaust and using it to make points. But I was glad of what they said, which was to the effect that racism and xenophobia are on the increase, and that we need to guard against trends that might lead to similar crimes in the future.

Auschwitz poses a huge moral question, namely “Why?” Why on earth did the Nazis do this, something completely against all humanity and all reason? And along with the “Why?” comes the reasons why these things should not have been done – why these actions were so wrong. Put simply, there are moral absolutes. There are some things that are simply evil in themselves, and never to be justified, no matter how strong the temptation, how pressing the excuse. The impression I took away from Auschwitz was this: that if we abandon the idea of moral absolutes, this is what will happen to us. And the frightening thing is that already many of the guardians of our culture have in practical terms abandoned moral absolutes.

So, I am glad I went to Auschwitz, as it teaches an important moral lesson, one that we all need reminding of; others will perhaps have other reactions; but this was mine. And I would urge all who have the chance to go there too.

  • Acleron

    as we are often cautioned about not instrumentalising the Holocaust and using it to make points’

    Cautioning you has no effect because you then say

    ‘that if we abandon the idea of moral absolutes, this is what will happen to us.’

    It was those very moral absolutes you so adore that allowed Hitler to do these abhorrhent acts.

    This is part of his justification for trying to exterminate Jews.

    ‘My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter.  …  How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. ‘

    So it is precisely your moral absolutes, issued without thinking and clung to with fanaticism that Hitler used. 

    Any reasonable person would now be thinking ‘perhaps this absolutism thing ain’t so good’. But I won’t hold my breath.

  • paulpriest

    I’m sorry but when you say nothing can describe this horror I’m afraid I have to disagree:

    many things can relate the pure evil of Auschwitz – there’s abortion, eugenics, euthanasia, judicial murder, phoney oil-grabbing ‘liberation’ wars…

    Please: let’s not delude ourselves by dolefully declaring ‘never again!’

    The evil of Auschwitz hasn’t stopped – it’s snowballed, rollercoastered,intensified into a Behemoth – a genocidal Leviathan which now murders hundreds of millions…

    We just have a tendency to look the other way – to ignore that we’ve made the genocide clinical in operating theatres & hospital wards & via pills and smart-bombs…
    …and rather than uniformed teutonic thugs committing the evil..
    …it’s our next door neighbours, our avuncular, matronly or convivial Doctors , academics, social theorists and MPs!

    We haven’t even noticed in this country that 29% of all deaths are via the Liverpool care Pathway
    ..and half of those are without any patient or relative consent. 1 in 7 are euthanised with no voice whatsoever..
    Our neighbours rendered comatose till death or starved/dehydrated to death…

    Auschwitz hasn’t gone away – we’ve merely made it more acceptable & sanitised and brought in the production line – the number of jews killed by the Shoah equals two months of global abortion; the genocide in Rwanda? more Iraqis died through the West’s economic sanctions…

    A human looks on Auschwitz and says never again
    The Devil looks on Auschwitz and says ‘we must never let the humans see evil like this again’

  • paulpriest

     I don’t know whether you’re mad or just plain bad – but you’re certainly sad…

  • Acleron

    It is very obvious the catholic church doesn’t like anybody pointing out the relationship of Hitler and christianity, after all, they have spent many years trying to maintain that the holocaust was caused by atheistic principles.

    So rather than address the point, you maintain that I am bad and/or mad and/or sad. Well I suppose it means you can just ignore your own fallacies.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thank you for comparing me to Hitler. I think you are the first person ever to do that. You should congratulate yourself on your amazing insight.

  • Acleron

    Sorry? Like how did I compare you to Hitler?

    I made the very specific point that your absolute morals that you are so fond of allowed Hitler to justify murdering Jews. Trying to raise a strawman to discredit the point is just not good enough.

  • paulpriest

     Sigh – haven’t got time for your inanity at present – but will provide enough evidence to refute your well-poisoning tomorrow p.m.

  • karlf

    Auschwitz poses a huge moral question, namely “Why?” Why on earth did God let them do it, and for so long??

  • ConfusedofChi word, “freewill” and it down to us to use accordingly

  • karlf

    Yes, I was expecting that ridiculous answer. I don’t suppose that all those millions of innocent people who suffered so horribly had much choice in the matter.

  • Arturo

    No, they didn’t but a few wicked men with power did, and still do.
    In the short term freewill is absolutely destructive.

  • karlf

    so are tsunamis,earthquakes and disease, and God does nothing to save children from those either

  • VP

    I have never known a priest with a phd in moral theology to use sarcasm to throw a moral stone. 

    “if we abandon the idea of moral absolutes” well this idea is not abandoned. racism doesn’t have to result in death to know that it kills societies. 

    racism is in the air when people are, one day, so loving and kind, and when in the presence of someone racist, completely different people. 

    absoluteness is not a reality, ever. disrespect is. it is the fundament of the 10 commandments, and WE DON’T practice these as we should. 

    with all due respect, the sarcasm, then, is a grand surprise.

  • Mjmorani

    Why are their so many white Jesus’s and Mary’s in the Catholic Church’s in England, is it because depicting them as Jews would be to much for the Pope to bear.

  • ConfusedofChi

     ..but I can make a choice to do good or not, or do evil or not!!

  • karlf

    I don’t see what your point is.

  • James H

    And that’s your problem.

    If you can’t understand free will, and the privilege we have as being made in the image and likeness of God, you will continually bump up against the question of ‘Why didn’t someone else stop it?’ Because we’ve been given dominion  over nature, but that wasn’t enough: we said to God, Get lost, I want my autonomy (where else do we hear that?), I want what I want, and no-one will take it from me!

    And God says, it’s your funeral: but remember, once you’ve finished, I want an account of all you did.

    The Nazis said, following Nietsche: Hang your accounting! And we still do that today.

  • James H

    Well done, Godwin’s Law strikes again!

  • Cjkeeffe

    Jesus and Mary are portrayed according to the culture that makes the accuse the pope of racism as you implicitly do “is it because depicting them as Jews would be to much for the Pope to bear.” Is both dishonest and disengenours.

  • Cjkeeffe

    Acleron, I would sugegst to look at teh relationship between social darwinism and teh Nazis. Darwin wrote in the Descent of Man (and i paraphrase) that the civilised man would in the not distant future elinate and replace the savage races of man. That along with seeing human beings as meansd of production and of no intringic value allowed the Nazis to do what they did. So the Holocaust is not neccsarily from an atheitic world view but it is from a social darwianin view unless of course you can explain by reference to christian history the link between catholic orphanges and the Nazi T4 programme that saw the Nazi murder physically and mentally disabled children. Or where in Chrisitan history gypsies and teh Slavs where deemed sub human. In restricting yourself to teh Jews you demean their suffeing and the suffering of other clasess of human beings that Hitler and the Nazis reguarded as human waste.
    Hitler and his henchmen saw christians as limp and inspid wasts of space and that the christian churches needed to be elimanted. They even createde a version of christianity to sell to teh masses, Positive Christianity whcih served not God but the Nazi state.
    It is a pity that you should swallow so uncritcally the nonsense of that Hiotler and christians where buddies in WWII. At the Nuremberg Trials the American prosectors produced substantive evidence to demonstrate teh demonisation of teh churches by the Nazis and their intent to destroy the churches.
    I don;t think you are mad, bad or sad – i just think your misinformed.
    It is interesting that the GCSE Modern History exam course picks this up but an adult can’t.

  • Cjkeeffe

    “Any reasonable person would now be thinking ‘perhaps this absolutism thing ain’t so good’. But I won’t hold my breath”. Is this not in itself an absolute statement?

  • karlf

    Two points:
    1.) Why would God look like an evolved ape, equipped to live a physical life on earth and reproduce sexually?
    2.) How are we to stop tsunamis, earthquakes and plagues?
    Why would a God of love say “it’s your funeral” to millions of suffering children on a daily basis?

  • chartres

    ‘Not everyone who keeps saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven, but only the person who keeps doing the will of my Father in heaven’Matthew 7:21
    Sad Hitler, even his theology was warped. 
    What’s more, satan also believes in God.

  • Hugues Huddlestone

    unclear… what all the dead have to do with that?

  • Acleron

    I didn’t say that Nazis were ‘buddies’ with the religious. I didn’t even say that Hitler was a christian although he was a catholic and was never ex-communicated.

    What I did say was that Hitler manipulated the masses through speeches which were overtly religious in flavour. He relied on the blind beliefs of the populace to support his agenda. The absolutism that the author supports requires that blind and unthinking belief. If all you have is a dumbed down version of history, you may be unaware that this is a technique often used by demagogues. It happens today.

    Trying to argue against the above by reference to social Darwinism is a non sequitur. There is no doubt that the Nazis thought about it. Of course, the religious trying to outbreed other groups is a similar tactic. Of course social evolution can be carried out more humanely without resorting to killing groups you disagree with. It is happening around as as we speak. 

  • Acleron

    Godwin’s law applies to the FIRST person to raise Hitler etc. Try again.

  • DBN

    Father, in your entire post, not once did you use the word ‘German’. Do you really think that forgetting the historical fact of who was responsible will be conductive in preventing such atrocities in the future?