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What Auschwitz means for the modern state



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.

A member of a delegation of survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp and their families breaks into tears at the execution wall at the former Auschwitz I site on 27 January 2020. International leaders and approximately 200 survivors and their families gathered at Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)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 the appalling nature of the event, draw lessons, and then go about our business in the knowledge that our societies are decent, our leaders generally palatable.

To suggest, however, that its dastardly spirit can be animated in modern states, even those purporting to be democratic in some way, suggests a cheapening and even dangerous trivialisation of it. The logic that follows is this: Modern states might be cruel but not that cruel. In a sense, Auschwitz's legacy risks an odd sort of mummification, to be gazed upon from time to time as haunting reminder and didactic instruction. 


"Such a state of affairs enables the Australian state to maintain an oppressive, prison style system that anonymises and, at least in a legal and symbolic way, 'vanishes' refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru."


The truly tragic nature of Auschwitz lies in the deeper reasons of a common tradition that links civilisation to its destructive impulses, one characterised by insensitive bureaucracies, filing, trains and timetabling. Civilisational triumph is often genocidal.

The effort to understand Auschwitz and the Holocaust more generally as constructions, less of unique evil than of the common mineral of a vicious totalitarianism, came from Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). But Katz cannot accept this, seeing the effort 'to portray Stalinism and Nazism as two forms of a common reality called "Totalitarianism"' as 'seriously flawed'.

Governments of various countries dedicate much time to the idea of Auschwitz the unique, the singular, the outrageously sui generis. There are envoys specifically tasked with commemorative duties. Whole budgets are set aside for the task. Remembrance alliances keep busy. The 75th anniversary was one such occasion. This is a fine thing to do, but it enables those same governments to ignore other mandated cruelties that arise from their workings. 

Australia can be proud to observe the testimony of survivors of the Holocaust. Individuals such as Eddie Jaku, almost a centurion, featured in coverage by SBS. 'Auschwitz is a death camp. I'm very lucky. I think I'm a miracle because I survived.'

The nature of such occasions also serves another purpose: to forget what remotely comparable features of an oppressive state might look like, be it in terms of ethnic cleansing (Myanmar) or the treatment meted out to refugees. Auschwitz remains a memory and, perversely enough, less relevant for that.  

Such a state of affairs enables the Australian state to maintain an oppressive, prison style system that anonymises and, at least in a legal and symbolic way, 'vanishes' refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru. Its bureaucratic mechanisms justify holding individuals in indefinite administrative detention. This is cosmically far from saying that these are equivalent matters to the death camps of the Holocaust. But if we are to be serious about acknowledging the depravity of Auschwitz, its origins, its civilisational horrors, we can at least take the lead from Katz on starting the conversation on why such events take place and do remain chillingly relevant.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: A member of a delegation of survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp and their families breaks into tears at the execution wall at the former Auschwitz I site on 27 January 2020. International leaders and approximately 200 survivors and their families gathered at Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Auschwitz



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Existing comments

A tempered and well argued piece. All too sadly the world has forgotten the cry post WW2 "never again". Now, we see even countries like Israel mete out injustice and cruelty to Palestinians (yes, I know, no death camps!) so very reminiscent of Nazi Germany. And then there is Myanmar, what happened in Rwanda, etc. etc. As for Australia, the blight on us, collectively, is how our refugees are treated and regarded. Disgraceful is the only word which immediately comes to mind.

Jeff Loewenstein | 03 February 2020  

I'm reading an essay by Colm Toibin titled "The Memory of War". It was written in 1990. He travelled to Oswiecim and Birkenau in Poland and visited the camps. Toibin booked a room at a hotel at Oswiecim but was unable to stay the night and this sentence haunts: "I stood in the room for a while with my eyes closed, not sure whether I was trying to get what I saw out of my mind or preserve it there." Maybe our present dilemma.

Pam | 03 February 2020  

Fr Andrew Bullen SJ's meditation, "Kreis, Kreis", on Auschwitz and its significance in his remarkable collection of poems "Etiquette for Angels" (Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing, 20i8) comes to mind as I read Dr Kampmark's sobering reflection here.

John RD | 03 February 2020  

The evil at Auschwitz can’t be unique. It was a pogrom and ‘pogrom’ isn’t a German word. And Manus/Nauru aren’t pogroms because nobody there is officially scheduled for death. ‘Administrative detention’ is a superficial resemblance, not a connection in substance, between these locations. After all, the coronavirus arrangements at Christmas Island are ‘administrative detention’.

roy chen yee | 03 February 2020  

It is still almost beyond belief that Auschwitz, and Doctor Josef Mengele, could exist in modern Europe. But then some 62 million were killed in the Soviet Union, and 76 million killed by Chinese communists because of such lofty-sounding goals as “a workers’ paradise”. Raymond Aron wrote that erudite people were “ready to tolerate the worst crimes so long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines.” The Reverend Hewlett Johnson proclaimed, “Stalin is the embodiment of good-humour and common sense”, and when “Murder of a Gentle Land” exposed Khmer Rouge atrocities, Norm Chomsky condemned the exposure as a “third rate propaganda tract.” Today, anti-Semitism is increasing world-wide, and some UK universities are “no go zones” for Jewish students. When English actor Laurence Fox stated that race and gender are biological attributes that every individual is born with, he was dissenting from “proper doctrines” of “woke” orthodoxy, thus earning himself instant vilification and potentially denial of the right to earn a living. The path to totalitarianism starts with the segregation of those who think differently. “Barbarism is never finally defeated” wrote Evelyn Waugh, “given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity.”

Ross Howard | 03 February 2020  

The medical profession in Australia had the perspective that the Nuremberg Code was an over reaction to the notorious Nazi crimes .... including the medical crimes ... and fifteen years later introduced into our great nation medical atrocities against non pregnant girls, young pregnant girls and young boys to find a cure for infertility. They ignored the Declaration of Geneva .. to obtain consent .... they committed brutal sexual crimes ... irrefutable evidence on those mentioned .... obstetric crimes ..... stolen newborn babies to appease infertile couples until they found a cure for infertility .... all exposed during the Commonwealth Senate Report 29.2.2012, Victorian Parliamentary apologies October 2012 National Parliamentary apologies 21.2.2013 and National Parliamentary apologies 22.10.2018. Medical brutal sexual crimes exposed during royal commission into institutional response into child sexual abuse and part of National Redress scheme yet there is a publication ban on articles in relation to medical brutality and atrocities ... crimes against humanity .... they used young babies and young children for medical experimentations .... Draft Confidential report 1997 still being concealed by Victorian Government ....yet government funding millions and millions of dollars continue to be allocated to conceal these medical crimes .... and BBC did documentary in Victoria late 1970's on IVF and stated it was no different to the notorious Nazi medical criminals ... yet a publication ban appears to exist WHY????? WMA has condemned Australian medical profession's atrocities ..... yet the Nation protects them ..... medical are being trained along with allied health workers under government funding .... these atrocities never happened ... isnt that the same as what they tried to hide what the Nazi's were doing?

Brenda Coughlan | 04 February 2020  

Indeed, John RD, Fr Bullen's book "Etiquette with Angels" is remarkable and it's good to meet you.

Pam | 04 February 2020  

Thanks, Pam - yes, it's a collection that deserves a wide audience. I find it spiritually and aesthetically inspiring. Perhaps Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, who spoke at its launch, could publish his response to it in ES?

John RD | 04 February 2020  

An excellent, thorough and balanced article. There were ancient, distortedly 'Christian' sources for anti-Semitism, with some particularly German applications as with the Rhineland massacres of 1096. This sort of thinking was also evident in medieval England, with the story of St Hugh of Lincoln and the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. So there are skeletons in our own closets here. Interestingly, this sort of thinking and behaviour did not seem endemic in the Byzantine Empire. Imperial Germany had 'form' in the Massacres in Namibia in 1904. German officers were also present at some of the massacres during the Armenian Genocide under the Ottomans. The chilling thing to me is that the Holocaust was the culmination of Western anti-Semitism carried out with horrific efficiency. Modern Germany has acknowledged the Holocaust, apologised and tried to make reparation, inadequate as this may sometimes seem. At least the Germans aren't trying to rewrite History, as the Turks are with the current attempt to 'minimalize' the Armenian Genocide. You are correct, Binoy, whilst the Holocaust was a unique event, there are some similarities today with the Rohingya and other groups.

Edward Fido | 04 February 2020  

Thank you for this sentence: " Others were also designated for a state-enforced disappearance: the Romani, political dissidents, homosexuals. " .... It is largely forgotten that, while the largest target by far, Jewish people were not the only targets. We forget this aspect at our peril.

MargaretMC | 05 February 2020  

The advent of a 'new knowledge' society, in which 'old knowledge' is the redundancy terminology applied to much historical information, has ominously wiped-out a memory of the Holocaust. Quite recently I was invited to give a lecture on Ethics and Morality as it might apply to a supposedly neutral and technical field of discipline, such as nursing studies or music education. When I asked a theatre-full of undergraduates how many of them were aware of or had some knowledge of the Holocaust or of Apartheid, only three hands were raised amidst an assembly of 200 persons. Many of these students were from overseas and regarded English literacy as the acquisition of technical knowledge skills relating to the language rather than anything historical, political or socially-critical. The technocratic nature of skills-based learning, with its occlusion of the ethical and moral, doesn't augur well for the future health and wellbeing of our society.

Michael Furtado | 06 February 2020  

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