On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember those who died as part of Hitler’s Final Solution – but we’d also do well to reflect on today’s creeping intolerance and spread of fascist politics, says Ben Chacko, editor of the Morning Star.
Holocaust Memorial Day marks the liberation of the nazi death camp at Auschwitz by the Red Army on this day 71 years ago.
By any reckoning the Holocaust was a uniquely terrible crime in human history.
There have been other genocides, whether the Turkish butchery of Armenians at the end of the first world war or the orgies of mass murder and theft which marked the white conquests of Australia or the Americas. But there has never been so calculated an attempt to wipe out an entire race as the way Hitler’s Germany organised the extermination of six million Jews.
Jews were the most numerous victims, but not the only ones of course.
They, like the Roma, were killed for their race in a deliberate bid to annihilate it.
Millions of others also died because of their racial origin — Serbian, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and many other civilians — though those massacres took a less systematic form.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were killed for their religion. Homosexuals were killed for their sexual orientation. While not usually categorised as part of the Holocaust, at the same time the nazis were “euthanising” people with mental or physical disabilities. What all these people had in common was that they were murdered not for anything they had done but for who they were.
It is absolutely right that we put a day aside to mark this slaughter every year. The atrocities of the nazi regime have no historical parallel. They must never be forgotten.
But there is more to honouring the victims of the Holocaust than placing a wreath on a memorial once a year. Such actions are meaningless unless we take the trouble to learn from history and to ensure that these horrific crimes are never repeated.
The actions of the nazis didn’t come out of the blue. Nor did the physical extermination of Europe’s Jews feature in their electoral manifestos.
Hitler rode — and fed — a tide of insecurity, fear and ultimately hatred. He was ushered into power by corporate backers worried that economic depression would lead to socialist revolution.
Crushing any possibility of that revolution was his number one task: immortalised by Pastor Niemoller in his famous poem, First They Came for the Communists. The communists were followed by the trade unionists in being rounded up and jailed as strikes and other forms of industrial action were banned.
The top priority for his government was to break political and industrial opposition. Once it had done so, as Niemoller records, it could do as it pleased: “There was no-one left to speak out.”
This is why it is in everyone’s interests to resist any drift towards authoritarian government. David Cameron’s bid to boot the poor and peripatetic off the electoral register doesn’t make him a nazi. Nor does his attempt to outlaw strike action or hand the security services power to snoop on all our emails.
But they make government less representative and less accountable while weakening the ability of ordinary people to stand up for themselves against it. The long-term consequences of this direction of travel are dangerous.
We’ve seen a number of ominous signs recently that intolerance and discrimination are on the rise in Britain. G4S’s outsourced thugs painting asylum-seekers’ doors red in Middlesbrough, leaving the residents of these marked homes prey to National Front and other far-right abuse.
Asylum-seekers in Cardiff have been forced to wear prominent wristbands, again putting them at personal risk.
Councillors in Kent protest that they cannot find safe homes for “citizen children” because of the arrival of child refugees, while our government averts its eyes from the human misery in ramshackle refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk. No matter that these people are fleeing wars Britain helped start.
In Britain creeping intolerance and ever more draconian government are unsettling. Elsewhere in Europe they are terrifying.
Fascist parties are on the march in France and Greece. In Poland, a reactionary right-wing Catholic movement is rewriting the constitution to entrench executive power and stifle opposition. But the situation is most desperate of all in Ukraine.
The coup — supported by the European Union and United States — which toppled the elected Viktor Yanukovych government almost two years ago has led to nothing but suffering for the Ukrainian people.
They are trapped in a downward economic spiral, with current GDP just 60 per cent of its size in 1990 at the end of the Soviet period. Inflation hit 44 per cent in December as consumer prices soar, while an IMF-inspired fire sale of public assets will deprive the state of the means to get back on its feet.
That’s not to say that things were going well under Yanukovych. Ukraine’s economy has never recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, its 2007 post-Soviet peak still only about 74 per cent of the 1990 figure.
As detailed by Andrew Murray in his book The Empire and Ukraine, power in the country has been jostled over ever since by rival clans of oligarchs, with little to differentiate a Yanukovych, a Tymoshenko or a Poroshenko in political terms.
What makes the current crisis different is the resurgence — and, in Kiev’s eyes, respectability — of openly fascist politics.
We should not perhaps be surprised that Washington and Brussels were happy to let far-right thugs from the Svoboda and Right Sector parties do their dirty work in 2014 and act as the street-fighter wing of a neoliberal putsch.
The West and its Gulf allies have armed equally murderous jihadist organisations when it comes to dislodging other unwanted governments in Libya and Syria.
But it’s worth dwelling on Ukraine this Holocaust Memorial Day. Because the neonazi Azov and Aidan battalions the Kiev government has unleashed to fight its own people in the Donbass openly revere Hitler and the Holocaust.
The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which the Kiev authorities have made it a crime to “disrespect,” played an active part in the Holocaust, murdering tens of thousands of Poles and Jews in their bid for an ethnically pure Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk famously turned history on its head a year ago, claiming that the Soviet Union had invaded Germany in the second world war, while less than a month ago MP Artyom Vitko — who ironically sits on a committee to improve Ukraine-Israel relations — was filmed singing “Adolf Hitler is with us” and performing nazi salutes.
While the war rages on against anti-fascist resistance forces in the Donbass, within the rest of Ukraine the murders of 46 trade unionists in Odessa in May 2014 has never been investigated. Dozens of members of Yanukovych’s former Party of Regions have died in mysterious circumstances.
And Pastor Niemoller would not be surprised to learn that the Communist Party has been banned.
Doubtless some will claim that raising these issues is disrespectful or “politicises” Holocaust Memorial Day. But those who whitewash or excuse the return of fascism are guilty of greater contempt for the memories of the dead.