I see a great deal in the media and on Facebook about Auschwitz, not just today, but all year round. School parties and groups visit and are suitably impressed and their comments reveal that they have been shocked to learn what went on and they say things such as, “It must never happen, or be allowed to happen again”. This is all good. But I never see anything to convey any other impression than that it all happened at Auschwitz. The necessary information that Auschwitz and camps like it were only a few of the camps where such things happened, and that the total number of concentration camps runs into many thousands seldom appears. Nor that the whole process did not just happen in the Second World War but started when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933.
I have never seen any mention, for example, of the programme to eliminate what the Party considered to be defective children which continued despite protests by German citizens and promises to stop by their Government.
It was all much bigger and more extensive, more comprehensive, than is usually mentioned. History does not so much get rewritten, parts of it just quietly drop off the agenda until some brave soul writes a book, or makes a film about it, whereupon it is hailed as a great “discovery” and there are implications that it has all been kept secret for some nefarious reason.
Some years ago, my wife and I visited eastern Germany, almost on the Czech border to see the remains of the camp at Flossenberg. This is where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in April 1945 for his complicity in the plot to kill Hitler. He was not the only one, but he is the one best known because of his books which are still valued today. The town is in an area where granite is to be found and a granite quarry was part of the reason for ita existence. Having acquired your occupants, Flossenberg had many who were alleged to be homosexuals, but their was a mixture of other prisoners there too. One such was Payne Best who became known because of the Venlo Incident of November 1939, and the idea was to make use of them while you could, so they were worked in the quarry, which was hard physical work, whilst being fed on rations suitable for a sedentary occupation at best. Thus they died without actually needing to be executed a such, but they were cremated as elsewhere and there remains (or did at the time of our visit) a great mound of ashes covered in turf and grassed over. I visited the crematorium and listened to a guide explaining to a group how the gold was extracted from the teeth of the corpses and along with any other gold possessions all collected up, melted down, and then sent across the border to Switzerland to be sold in the world’s gold markets. Which makes you realise that we are all drawn into complicity by our liking for gold for our wedding rings and other articles.
In the museum there were some of the plans drawn up for the builders and others in the consrtuction of the camp which showed the neat rows of wooden huts, lablled on the plans as “Stables”. They also showed us that the camp was originally much bigger than that which is left and we could see that already nice new houses were being built on that part, and I wondered whether their new occupants knew about the history of their plots and their gardens. The main office block of the camp was still standing, a solid stone construction exctly like that we we constantly see repeated of the entrance to Auschwitz and I found it both upsetting and unnerving.
The place where Bonhoeffer and the others were hung was preserved and there was an inscription bearing all their names. I hope it is still there.
I mention all this in an attempt to show that this one, comparatively small camp, was just one of the many built and what a great deal of economic effort was expended by Germany in those years from 1933 onwards in the pursuit of an improved Aryan race.
(I now see that the preservation of the camp as a memory and history has gone ahead a great deal since we were there in the late 1990s – they now have their own website here.)