BBC2’s Documentary yesterday evening on how The Holocaust began was a chilling watch. Historian James Bulgin, who created the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum, investigated a story left unexplored for over 80 years. During the Second World War, before the creation of the death camps and gas chambers, millions of men, women and children were shot and buried by the Nazis in thousands of trenches and ditches, dug in fields and forests across eastern Europe. This was often unrecorded and uncounted, and the victims lost to history.
The documentary reveals the scale of these terrible killings, which took place in states belonging to the former Soviet Union using historic air photos – the Nazis created evidence of their crimes – and new exploration technology. There is credible evidence that The Holocaust started in the days following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 in what is Lithuania and Latvia and spread across the rest of Nazi occupied eastern Europe. But this killing was by bullet – not until the Nazis started experimenting on the most ‘efficient’ form of killing in Poland did the idea of the gas chamber and crematorium dominate in what would become places like Auschwitz.
But the chilling bit was not the well-documented Nazi involvement in The Holocaust. It was that the Nazis were only successful at mass scale extermination of Jews because of collaboration by local populations. In some parts of eastern Europe including Lithuania and Ukraine, the Nazis were welcome as liberators from communist Russia and it was these locals who stood by, or actively helped, or ghoulishly watched the extermination of the Jews. There weren’t actually enough Nazis and German soldiers to kill on the scale that initially happened in 1941. They had help.
Think about it for a moment and it’s chilling that people who were once neighbours in the same street or town become your killer or killer’s accomplice. Imagine going to your death because your neighbours went to the local church rather than your synagogue, or because your neighbours worked the land and by luck or hard work you, as a Jew, run a successful local business. Was part of this driven by jealousy?
You can see why, given what the Nazis unleashed themselves, and through their collaborators, people in the Baltic States and Ukraine are so keen to resist Vladimir Putin and his fascist tendencies. I suspect as and when the Ukraine war ends stories will emerge of horrific atrocities in eastern Ukraine as well as stories of collaboration.
Fortunately, here in The West we don’t exterminate people any more, but there is plenty of hatred to be found towards minority groups, or people who are just different. Hate crimes abound towards Muslims, refugees, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community amongst others. You could add to my brief list. However, can we be confident that in situation where a western democracy had been overrun by a fascist threat they wouldn’t today find collaborators to help harm or kill people and minorities who were not liked? Those far right (and indeed far left) groups exist under the surface and sometimes they breach the surface.
I half-jokingly think in the UK the worst collaborator would be an otherwise outwardly polite man or woman in their seventies, a neighbourhood busy-body with a clipboard ticking off the ‘degenerate’ as they boarded their train to the death camp. But the collaborators do exist and help push dangerous anti-democratic ideas, or stir up hatred towards different groups. They are certain newspaper editors and columnists or anchors in TV newsrooms. They are, currently, some politicians on the fringes, but where mainstream politicians also fear that they have to do or say things that indulge the worst tendencies in society for fear of electoral defeat. They are social media barons with massive control over what is seen by billions of users. They are probably also the unwary, or the manipulated who share dubious social media content. They are people within law enforcement organisations who have criminal or misogynist tendencies or views that are unfriendly to be people who are different to them. If the police can brutally injure or kill an unarmed person in a democracy during an arrest, they can do worse if that democracy becomes a fascist state. They are the people who whilst doing nothing outwardly or actively hostile to another person, keep their own nasty views to themselves, or do nothing to challenge bad behaviours and sit on the side-lines. “Not my problem, mate!”
In the right circumstances where a dominant fascist ideology and leader was in control somewhere in The West, I don’t think we could rule out another Holocaust level event happening again, because they would find the people to help carry one out easily. The mechanisms that might drive collaboration are not hard to discern and arguably are more powerful than they were in 1941.
That is why The Holocaust should be remembered, taught in schools, and born witness to.