The BBC flew a drone over the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the footage is, as you might expect, profoundly haunting.
Of all the conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers piss me off the most, because they blithely try to minimize or outright eradicate from history the industrialized extermination of eleven million people–men, women, children, infants, the infirm. And I’ve often asked myself how people can completely close their minds to reality and cold, hard evidence. I mean, we have footage of the camps. We have survivor testimonies and admissions of guilt from the perpetrators. We have overwhelming physical evidence: hundreds of thousands of clothing items, eyeglasses, dentures, suitcases, just from Auschwitz alone. We have dozens of tons of human hair. And we have official records, because Germans are fastidious record keepers. They tallied all the victims, and they catalogued everything they kept, down to the last gold filling. We have order forms and receipts for the many tons of Zyklon B pesticide they used. Those who survived the war admitted to the scope of the atrocities and their part in them after the war. So there’s a mountain of solid historical evidence that a.) the Holocaust really happened, and b.) Nazi Germany really did kill millions of people in purpose-built extermination camps.
So how can an otherwise functional intellect close itself to all this irrefutable evidence and claim that the Holocaust was either a hoax or nowhere near as large in scope as claimed?
The answer, of course, lies in the nearly unlimited human capacity for self-deception. We are really, really good at both rationalizing our own preferences, and “explaining away” evidence that points to something we don’t want to be true. Denying Auschwitz is a piece of cake for someone with conviction when you consider that people can deny, on the spot, the reality of things that happen right then and there. That’s how you can have 9/11 truthers. That’s how you can have people claiming that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a false flag operation perpetrated by a sinister race of “magical Jews” who can shape-shift. That’s why it doesn’t even matter if police officers wear body cameras–because you can videotape the most justified shooting of an armed perpetrator, and there will still be people who will watch the video and claim that the police officer executed someone in cold blood for no reason.
It’s because when you are invested in an ideology, you have to make reality subordinate to that ideology. And when the physical evidence points to the possibility that your ideology doesn’t match reality, then you have to deny that reality, or face the possibility that you ideology is wrong. It’s much easier to dismiss historical records or claim that a video was doctored than to examine your beliefs and concede that everything you believe is wrong.
But reality doesn’t go away when you deny it. Those buildings and crematoriums at Auschwitz still stand, and every time someone denies what they were used for, they deny the humanity of all the people who died there. And just as importantly, they deny the human ability to commit such atrocities, which in turn paves the way for a repeat of those atrocities. To borrow my friend Kathy’s words, there’s a world of difference between “Never Again” and “It can’t happen here.”
Because if a society of civilized, educated people, the nation of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven, can build and staff a place like Auschwitz and systematically murder millions of people in just a few years–if orderly, fastidious Germans can go from bookkeeping to putting on a uniform and herding women and children into gas chambers at gunpoint because they perceive the approval of society and enjoy the power they are given–then it can happen anywhere, at any time.
Auschwitz happened. Auschwitz is real. And we must constantly be on guard to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We must make sure others don’t fall into the same cycle of denial and self-justifiying savagery, but it’s equally important–and maybe even more so–that we don’t fall into it ourselves willingly. And every time someone blithely suggests that we just wipe out all the members of a religion or ethnic group for the actions of a few of its members, I know that there will always be people willing to put on a uniform and man a guard tower if they perceive the approval of their peers, and if they convince themselves they’re acting for the good of their own people. And I will not stand for it or tolerate it, not now, not ever. Because if you don’t speak up when it isn’t dangerous, you may not get a chance to do so later, and your silence when you could have spoken up is a form of consent.