‘It seems all the stories we heard about the concentration camps in Germany were almost all true. But the only people in these camps were Jews and political prisoners. We both agreed that the Jews should be exterminated and the political prisoners were just fools.’
Garfield, 2004: 509, Our Hidden Lives, Random House, London.
Yesterday marked 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, to mark the occasion this week’s Wednesday post is going to be an insight into post-war Britain… and it’s probably not what you’re expecting.
I read a book recently about writing historical fiction, the book emphasised the importance of giving your characters era appropriate attitudes. When you’re writing characters that lived many years ago you have to understand and accept that they’re not going to have 21st century attitudes towards equality and discrimination. They’re probably going to be sexist, racist and xenophobic.
After the First World War Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, one of the conditions of this treaty was that they would take on all responsibility for the war, this also included financial responsibility. As a result of this Germany soon found itself in a desperate state.
If you transported yourself back to the 1920s and 30s you’d find that anti-Semitism was rife, especially throughout Europe. Germany had been left broken and bankrupt by the Treaty of Versailles and the German people were angry and let down. They needed someone to blame, and who better than the group of people commonly stereotyped as secretive and rich?
We’ve had some tough financial times in the UK recently, this has seen the rise of right-wing parties such as the UK Independence Party; eighty years ago a humiliated and broke Germany watched the rise of a right-wing party… the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.
A combination of factors lead to the popularity of the Nazi Party; at its core was a racist ideology that tapped into the anger of the German people. Jews were widely blamed for the failure of the First World War, and therefore for the state that Germany had found itself in.
So, where am I going with this?
We see anniversaries such as yesterday as opportunities to stress the importance of challenging prejudice and standing up for minorities.
I think that we’ve been taught so much about the Holocaust that we (rightfully) see it as an atrocity that was horrific beyond what we can imagine. However, we mistakenly think that everyone in the 30s and 40s felt this way. Anti-Semitism was common in this time period, as were many other attitudes and beliefs that we would now label ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’. Most people didn’t think that the correct thing to do was round-up and murder thousands of people, but they were deeply mistrustful and resentful of the Jewish community.
Germany wasn’t some strange island of anti-Semitism; it was felt all over the world.
I recently read a book called ‘Our Hidden Lives: The Everyday Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945-1948’ this is a collection of diary entries from ordinary British people detailing their lives and thoughts following the Second World War.
This period also covers their reactions to the Holocaust and the Palestine issues; when I first started this book the introduction warned that there were some anti-Semitic comments in the diaries. I wasn’t quite prepared for how bad they were. The one at the start of this post is the only one directly about the Holocaust, the others all stem from the Palestine situation.
There were a few milder comments, but nothing positive and nothing openly decrying the actions of the Nazi party and the horrors of the concentration camps.
The reason that I’m writing about this and using those examples is that I want to highlight that it’s too easy to demonise the German people. History is written by the winners, we all need to take responsibility and make sure that situations like this never happen again. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or how you’ve been brought up, it matters how you chose to live your life.
The Holocaust didn’t automatically change the attitudes of everyone in the world; it didn’t end anti-Semitism, the recent attacks in Paris show that. We shouldn’t assume that these attitudes are a thing of the past, they’re still present in our society and we need to fight them.
’til next time,