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What Auschwitz means for the modern state

  • 03 February 2020


The death camps of the Second World War remain inimitable on some impossibly cruel level. They were designed to liquidate and vanish an entire race of people, part of a broader racial war waged by the Third Reich. Others were also designated for a state-enforced disappearance: the Romani, political dissidents, homosexuals.  But the language of Auschwitz-Birkenau, its desensitised approach to suffering, its rendering of suffering as inconsequential and bureaucratic, remains its most enduring and callous legacy.

The temptation with such an abomination is to see it as exceptional. The exceptional can be left there, in history, a reminder of barbarisms not to be repeated because they cannot be. Yet, even after the Second World War, the monstrous network of forced labour prisons within the Soviet system was still operating, one characterised by such places of sorrow as Siberia's Kolyma. China under Mao Zedong enacted policies in terms of collectivisation and repression that cost the deaths of millions.

The very idea of seeing Auschwitz as having any bearing on state cruelty and barbarism after 1945 has been seen as problematic, even disagreeable by those who defend its unique standing. Holocaust scholars such as Steven Katz insist that comparisons between the Nazi death camp and the Gulag are flawed. 'In their design, empirical facticity, intentionality, and teleology, they are radically alternative forms of manipulation, violence and death.' By all means, be aware of a certain 'primal ethical similarity' between them, but do so from the perspective of commencing the conversation rather than seeing it as a conclusion.

Katz's reasons are sound to a point. They can be seen as a response to the equivalency school or, even more disconcerting, a comparative school of reasoning that sought to minimise the savagely distinct efforts of the Third Reich in perpetrating the Holocaust relative to the totalitarian regimes of Communism.

In one extreme form, it assumed that Nazi brutality and its extermination program were direct responses to Bolshevik ideology, a point made most controversially by the late German historian Ernst Nolte in The European Civil War 1917-1945: National Socialism and Bolshevism (1987). The result was a famous, barbed conflict of historiography and ethics known as the Historikerstreit ('historians dispute').  

At the centre of this lies a paradox; to acknowledge the death camp as sui generis has the consequence of suggesting that it can never be repeated, even if commemorative ceremonies should still be held every year. We are to remember