It’s Holocaust Memorial Day. A day where all across the world people come together to mark the atrocities that took place at the hands of the Nazi’s and their allies. An organised and systemic attempt to remove certain groups from the face of the planet. Jews, Roma, and Disabled people – amongst others – became demonised to such an extent that it allowed those with power to orchestrate their plans to identify and subsequently kill millions.
As someone involved in work to reduce hate and promote equality in our society I’ve been to a lot of places and events to commemorate those who lost their lives because of hatred. I’ve been to Auschwitz, and visited Holocaust memorial centres/exhibitions in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, France, Austria and Belgium. Every visit touched me deeply. You’ve probably seen the photo above, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the impact of actually standing in front of the room full of shoes removed from those who only moments later would be herded into the gas chamber, killed and turned to ash by the thousand. It was the industrialised efficiency that left me speechless. All of the great achievements of the industrial revolution; trains, production line processes, advanced chemistry, all being used for mass extermination.
It’s hard to get your head around. It’s such an extreme manifestation of evil that the two words used as the main message in each of these places and events – never again – provided me with a strange sense of comfort. We have learnt the lesson. This could never happen again. We’re better now.
But we’re not.
Because it keeps happening. I’ve spent time in Sarajevo and stayed with a family who experienced the genocide of Muslim Bosniacs first hand. I’ve worked alongside people who lost their entire family in the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi people. I’ve also witnessed people marching through the centre of Newcastle who openly support the ideology of the far right, and the return to the Final Solution.
So never again has stopped providing the level of comfort and it once did. And that’s partly because I’ve spent some time looking into the psychology of how the Holocaust happened. Gordon Allport published his book “The Nature of Prejudice” in 1954. He produced a model of how hate escalates that looks a bit like a hill, with contour lines that delineate 5 layers of increasing hate and hostility. He drew it this way to demonstrate that only a relative few people are involved in extermination (at the top), but that they relied on ever increasing numbers of people to play a part in physical attack, discrimination, avoidance and anti-locution (bad mouthing) as you move down the scale. He was quite clear that without a large number of people taking part in language and thinking that talks about the “other” as less than human, then extermination could not occur. Have a look at the diagram.
Now think about it. If we are truly sincere in our commitment to ensure that the systemic destruction of groups of people stops being a repeated pattern of human behaviour then our focus needs to shift from the top of the hill….to where it all starts at the bottom. And once you start seeing the world through that lens it becomes an increasingly worrying time to be a citizen.
Whether we’re building walls, talking about asylum, or looking at ways to respond to inequality of wealth or health in the U.K. – the commentary is full of language that encourages us to see the other as less than human. We talk of people as floods, diseases, and monsters. We think in terms of those that deserve or don’t deserve help. And all this provides a firm foundation for the legitimisation of actions that separate, discriminate and exterminate those “not like us”. Because hate feeds on fear, mistrust, and separation. But it withers and dies when confronted with empathy and compassion.
So, on this Holocaust Memorial Day, I’m not letting myself off the hook so easily. Never Again cannot just mean I am committed to preventing another genocide. That’s easy. What’s not so easy is to use today as a pledge that in 2017, I will try being more alert to the very beginnings of dehumanisation when I hear and see it in my own community, and attempt to find ways to build my empathy and understanding with those “not like me”.
Neil Denton – A community mediator and member of NCRN