Discover more from Joel Bowman ~ Notes from the End of the World
Remembering not to forget
“Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being.”
― Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel
“Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.”
– Primo Levi
Above the entrance to Building 7 in the KL Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, are the following words:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The author, George Santayana, died in 1952 in Rome, Italy, seven years after the end of WWII. We have no idea if the man ever set foot inside the infamous Nazi camps, though his sentiment seems to have been crafted with their horrors in mind.
Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound is almost too much to bear. The mind simply cannot fathom the events that took place there. The scale... the magnitude... the sheer scope and cold ambition of the operation. It's all far beyond our comprehension. Walking the vast grounds (Birkenau alone covers 425 acres), you often see people shaking their heads in disbelief. You see puzzled looks on their faces and hear unfinished questions drift off into the mist...
"But how could...?"
"Why would someone...?"
"Didn't anyone try to...?"
A common (though perhaps misused) corollary to Godwin's Law states that anyone who raises the subject of the Nazis... or Hitler... or anything Reich-related... automatically loses an argument. As you can see, according to this edict, your Editor has surrendered his point before even making it.
But this "Law" robs inquiring minds of the opportunity to remember just how bad things can get... and in doing so, makes following Santayana's sage advice rather difficult. Moreover, it deprives us of recourse to reductio ad absurdum - that is, taking illogic to its ultimate, often gruesome or absurd ends. We beg the reader to therefore pardon our semantic infraction and to read on...
When people hear the term "concentration camp" employed during an argument against The State, they generally respond with something like, "Yes, but that could never happen here," or, "I see, but 'my' government would never do that," as if The State's proclivity for misery and human suffering is somehow unique to Nazi Germany.
If only that were so.
Actually, the term "concentration camp" was probably first used to describe the result of a particularly nasty tactic used by the British military during the Second Anglo-Boer War, a conflict often referred to as the Engelse Oorlog (English War) in Afrikaans.
Under Commander in Chief Herbert Kitchener, whose many decorations (KG, KP, GCB, OM,GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, ADC and PC) include such preposterous statist vanities as "Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George" and "Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath," the British armed forces carried out what is known as a "Scorched Earth" policy against the Boers.
The strategy, a historical favorite of ruthless military regimes dating back to the times of the ancients, involves the systematic destruction of crops, mass slaughter of cattle, poisoning of water supplies, salting of the land and razing of farmhouses and properties.
(The deplorable maneuver was banned under Article 54 of Protocol I of the 1977 Geneva Conventions... though the protocol applies only to those States that chose to ratify it. The United States, Israel, Iran and Pakistan, to the surprise of few, chose not to.)
This policy the British army carried out under Kitchener's direction, before forcing the displaced Boer (and black African) refugees into camps of considerably subhuman conditions. Measles... dysentery... typhoid... malnutrition... starvation. The concentration camps had all the amenities one would expect of compulsory State accommodations. It is estimated that around 26,000 women and children perished in the camps. Tens of thousands of male prisoners were sent overseas to be sold on as slaves.
Of course, it wasn't only the British government with blood on its hands. The governments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa all volunteered troops to aid in Kitchener's murderous expedition. (Australia did so, first as one of Britain's six separate, self-governing colonies and later, in 1901, as one of its first orders of business as the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia.)
The atrocities committed by the British State (& Co.) in the Boer Wars are preceded by a long list of similarly heinous acts. Though not exactly in name, the idea and execution of concentration camps predates even that particularly wretched undertaking.
The Spanish government, for example, didn't wait until the Francoist concentration camps of 1936 to 1947 to involve itself in the human-caging business. Spain had already interned tens of thousands during the Ten Years' War (against Cuban independence). Likewise, the American government had carried out its own "reconcentrados" during the Philippine-American War, long before the too-seldom-mentioned internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The German government, too, operated concentration camps well before the Third Reich came to power, notably in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) during its genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples there.
In fact, looking back through history, there is barely a government on Earth that has not, at one time or another, citing one "reason" or another, interned a whole group of people whose only "crime" was having the "wrong" skin color... believing in the "wrong" God (or even the "wrong" version of the "right" God)... or, perhaps most senseless of all, being in possession of the "wrong" government-issued papers.
In other words, it's not only the countries occupying the "enemy" columns in Western high-school textbooks that deserve our scorn and derision. Alleged "nice," "benign" governments, like those of Australia... New Zealand... Sweden... Denmark... the Netherlands... to name just a few, are all guilty.
None of the above, it must be said, is written to compare one tragedy against the next... Hitler's actions to, say, Mao's or Stalin's or Pot's or any other genocidal maniac. Each mass tragedy is, in a sense, comprised of individual tragedies, each as meaningful to the people affected as the next. We mean only to remember... to remain vigilant... so as not to repeat the darkest impulses of State-sponsored terror.
Indeed, it seems there is no limit to the kinds of evil one can get away with if only he or she is able to obtain some kind of government title or qualification. Who in their right mind would ever refer to a fellow human being as "an illegal" were it not for the constant scare campaigns and relentless xenophobic propaganda from the State? What civilized individual looks upon a child and, deciding the "offender" is without some arbitrary, government-issued document, insists the poor creature deserves a sentence separated from their family, caged behind razor-wire fences?
When States label human beings as "illegal," they restrict freedom at its most basic levels: freedom of movement and freedom of association. Without these twin pillars of liberty, evil can - and all too often does - prevail.
Santayana encouraged us to remember and learn from our past, in order that we not repeat the worst elements of it.
Bearing Santayana's words in mind, the next time you hear someone employing the vacuous "it will never happen here" bromide, kindly remind them that, chances are, it already has.
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