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Some years ago I visited Berlin and stayed with friends in the peaceful suburb of Grunewald.
As the name suggests, it is a wooded, leafy area, with mostly expensive houses and apartment blocks scattered among lakes and trees.
Its little railway station was also, as my friend described to me, the place where Berlin Jews were rounded up and put on trains to be sent to the concentration camps.
Today the names of those victims are inscribed in some of the railway sleepers, as a constant reminder of the horror which began there.
Grunewald was chosen, I was told, precisely because it was away from the city centre, and so less likely to be noticed.
There are thousands of such memorials scattered across much of Europe, evoking memories of Jews sent to concentration camps from France, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Italy.
Every country occupied by the nazis saw its Jews persecuted, segregated and then usually deported.
There are some events in history which are so terrible that, if they were portrayed in a work of fiction, would be regarded as literally incredible.
The story of the Holocaust is perhaps the most obvious of these.
It is so spine-chilling and horrific that it seems hard for most people to imagine it, let alone accept that it was carried out with industrial precision.
When Hitler first came to power in 1933, the Jews were his main scapegoats.
However, they were not necessarily the first people to be persecuted.
In 1933, the nazis ensured that their first victims were members of trade unions, socialist and communist organisations, who were brutally crushed.
In the months after Hitler came to power, 100,000 Germans were arrested, often tortured and killed. Many more were sacked from their jobs.
The effect was to destroy the left organisations so that by the late 1930s, apart from small secret groups which were able to meet, communist and socialist organisation had been wiped out.
This took out the most political and organised opposition to the nazis.
The laws introduced by the nazis ensured that Jews, Roma, homosexuals and those with physical and mental disabilities were targeted, subject to a series of restrictive laws and in the case of Jews eventually placed in ghettos, from where they could more easily be deported to the camps.
The end result we know — six million Jews died in the concentration camps, plus millions more other victims.
Those who survived were scarred physically and mentally as a result of their experiences, and millions more were forced into exile.
The question that sprang to my mind in Grunewald that day and which so many have asked in the nearly 70 years since the camps were liberated is — how could this have happened in our time?
The Jews were scapegoats from the beginning of Hitler’s coming to power, subject to discrimination and harassment which worsened after Kristallnacht in 1938, when synagogues and Jewish businesses and shops were attacked across the country.
But it was only after the second world war began that the systematic wiping out of Europe’s Jewish population really began.
Specifically, the invasion to the east, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, is inextricably linked to this process.
It was here, as the German army advanced through Poland and its western parts, that masses of the Jewish population lived.
At first they were systematically executed by SS troops, killed by the trenches which would become their mass graves.
Vassily Grossman’s novel Life And Fate describes very movingly the terrible carnage this involved.
The scale of the extermination was such that the nazis looked for more “efficient” methods to carry it out.
Gassing was first introduced in eastern Poland, for Jews incapable of forced labour, and then introduced into mass extermination camps, notoriously Auschwitz.
Towards the end of 1941, around the time that he declared war on the US, Hitler spoke of the Jews being responsible for having brought about another world war, and having to pay the price of their own Vernichtung (annihilation).
The Wannsee conference, which took place in January 1942, talked about the “final solution to the Jewish question” involving the deportation and extermination of 11 million Jews across Europe and north Africa.
This marked a turning point after which the nazis and their collaborators in occupied countries moved decisively to ensure this deportation.
It was carried out as a precise industrial operation, using Europe’s railways to transport the Jews to their deaths, and using manufactured Zyklon B gas to kill concentration camp victims in unimaginable numbers.
The Holocaust was the terrible logic of fascist policies, but these policies were backed by big business in Germany which saw the nazis as a necessary means of breaking a strong working-class movement and defeating “Bolshevism” or “Jewish Bolshevism” as it was often described.
Today we mark the Holocaust by remembering the day Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945.
The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who died are taught that this must never happen again. We treasure the stories of the survivors.
However, we should not see this day as simply a commemoration of the past, important though that is. It is also about the present and the future.
Once again in Europe unemployment, austerity and misery ravage the lives of millions. Again, there is scapegoating of minorities — in Britain, of Romanians and Bulgarians, of Muslims and of immigrants generally.
People who cannot find houses, or places for their children in primary school, or jobs, are being encouraged by government and media to blame those who live alongside them for taking those things, rather than the rich and powerful who decree that we must suffer while they enrich themselves.
There is no Hitler in Europe today, but there are plenty who would like to be Hitler, like the fascists of Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary.
Fascism is an extreme form of capitalist government, but it was turned to by the capitalists in Germany and Italy when the crisis got sufficiently severe as a means of crushing the working-class movement.
So Holocaust Memorial Day should be about remembering what happened to the concentration camp victims under Hitler and about marking other genocides, such as that in Rwanda or the Armenian massacre during the first world war.
But it should also be a day to rededicate ourselves to fighting against scapegoating, against racism and fascism, and against working-class people paying the price for the capitalist crisis.
Lindsey German is convener the Stop the War Coalition.
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