Sixty years ago today, soldiers of the Soviet Army, pressing westward toward what would be the final defeat of Nazi Germany a few months later, entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, in occupied Poland. There they found 7000 prisoners, mostly Jews, still alive, but barely. The German captors had led anyone well enough to walk on a death march to camps further west; the 7000 were those too weak to move.
My grandfather was a German solider. Is there any solace for me that he was a footsoldier on the front lines, part of the Nazi machine of conquest, not of the SS extermination machine for Jews? Someone who spent the end of the war in a PoW camp himself, where he contracted the tuberculosis that killed in him 1947, more than twenty years before I was born? Maybe, maybe.
Death camps like Auschwitz are perhaps the apex of our human ability to be intelligently evil. They were apparently set up, in part, because SS soldiers were having psychological difficulty shooting so many Jews, and disposing of the bodies was becoming a problem. The camps were engineered, for instance, so that the crematoria were as efficient as possible at burning coal. (There were patents on the design.)
That horrific purity, and the camps' focus on the annihilation of Jewish people, is why we remember the Holocaust as probably the worst thing people have ever done. Millions also died as Europe conquered the New World, as aboriginals were overrun in North America and Australia through the 19th century, in and around World War I, at Nanjing and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Stalinist Russia through the '40s and '50s, in China's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward of the '60s, in Cambodia in the '70s, in Congo in the '80s and '90s, in Rwanda and Bosnia in the '90s, and in Sudan today. Those are not trivial events, or mere shadows of the Holocaust. They are their own horrors.
But Auschwitz and its brethren are why we have the word genocide, and why the symbols of Hitler's Nazi party are reviled more widely than the hammer and sickle or the Little Red Book. We say "never again," yet genocide has happened again and again, and continues today.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, rational, calculating people said and wrote, "The Jews are our enemies, and they—with the Slavs, gays, gypsies, and others—are inhuman. We shall wipe them out." Those people made plans, spent money, created an infrastructure—and they did it. Hitler's plan to conquer Europe and beyond was ultimately a complete failure. His plan to get rid of the continent's Jews was an abominable success.
So it is important not just to remember, abstractly, but to know what happened there, to understand it. And to do something now so that the evil within us can be tamed—so that Auschwitz continues to be our human nadir, something we can never repeat, or exceed.