70 Years on from Auschwitz

A lot has happened in the world since 1945. We, as humankind, have achieved some incredible things. We have sent man to the Moon; discovered and developed treatments for diseases such as cancer; created the Internet and amazing new technologies in the fields of communication and artificial intelligence. In the last 70 years, the Berlin Wall was both built and knocked down, the Soviet Union collapsed, Martin Luther King Jr 'had a dream' that helped to end the discrimination of black people in America and the Commonwealth of former British colonies was formed.

Since 1945, however, there have also been many grievances in the world. The atomic bomb caused indescribable devastation in Japan at the end of the war, whilst genocides have swept across countries like Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. We all remember where we were on 11th September 2001, and, for those of us in the U.K., 7th July 2005. Wars have been raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are still feeling the effects of these in 2015. At the present time, there are still instances of discrimination, prejudice, terrorism and murder happening worldwide. Russia continues its homophobic campaigns and its illegal occupation of Crimea; Islamic State forces are still causing destruction and suffering in the Middle East; Israel and Palestine continue their long-standing opposition towards one another, and there have been some incredibly violent clashes in the Central African Republic.

On this date, 27th January, 70 years ago, the outside world was forgotten by a group of Soviet soldiers. As they pressed westwards towards Germany, Soviet forces swept through Poland, and discovered what was left of the world's largest - and now most infamous - concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz. Upon arrival, they found piles of dead bodies, emaciated, sick prisoners and the remains of gas chambers and crematoria. Perhaps they had heard the rumours about such places, but they could now see for themselves that the stories of the murder of the Jews and Hitler's other opponents were true. Whilst other camps had already been liberated in 1944, none could match the sheer scale and industrial operation that took place at Auschwitz. Approximately 1.1 million people were murdered at the camp, mainly Jews but also Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, criminals and others.

The gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau at the time of the Soviet liberation

During the following months, the world became aware of the horrendous crimes that the Nazis had committed during the Second World War. Newspapers and magazines were filled with pictures of the dead and dying, whilst politicians and Prime Ministers condemned the genocide. When Auschwitz was established as a museum and memorial some years later, these same people shook their heads and said, "Never again." If only that were the case.
The simple fact is, we are not going to change the human condition. As Yehuda Bauer, Professor at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, puts it: humans are instinctive and primitive. When one group comes across another, we may try to absorb them, enslave them, or kill them. Whilst we have not seen the likes of the gas chambers at Auschwitz in the last 70 years, we have been witness to other cases of genocide, exclusion and discrimination. I do not believe that there will ever be a definitive end to such horrors, but the power of education and reconciliation should not be underestimated. We all have a responsibility to warn future generations about where negative attitudes towards other groups of people can lead if they are left unchecked. With the rise of the media, the Internet and global communication, none of us have the excuse to become bystanders to atrocities, even if this simply means highlighting issues in other countries to those in our hometown.

Survivors of Auschwitz embrace during the commemorations at the former camp this morning

Today, survivors of Auschwitz are gathering at the former concentration camp as well as in London, Paris, Washington D.C. and other places, to commemorate their loved ones, who did not survive, and to reflect on how and why they did. At the 80th anniversary commemorations, there will be even fewer eyewitnesses of the Holocaust among us. Therefore, we must all pledge to remember the Holocaust; remember their stories; remember and pay respect to those who were murdered; and, whilst we perhaps should not say, "Never again," we can certainly promise to "Never forget."