This coming Thursday, the world will remember once again the horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz. It is the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of the infamous concentration camp.
Whether we like it or not, we need to recall the events of Auschwitz and the other camps.
We each need to remind ourselves how vulnerable we are to the same fear, intolerance and blame which drove human beings to become part of a massive exercise in wickedness.
Sadly, recent studies have shown that as many as 45 percent of Britons do not know what Auschwitz represents, or why it is significant in Europe's history. One can only guess at the numbers of people across Europe as a whole, or even the world, that may not be aware of this Polish region's bloody past.
It is important that we hold these events in remembrance because they remind us of the depths to which human beings can sink if their worst inclinations are not held in check.
Auschwitz and its fellow camps represent the greatest crime against humanity in all of human history.
As a result of the Auschwitz tragedy, the word 'genocide' found its way into everyday language. It refers to the systematic destruction of a people solely because of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual preference. The Holocaust was genocide on a scale unmatched in history.
The Holocaust story is about a progression from one level of inhumanity to another. It started with blame and xenophobia, which led to vilification and persecution.
Finally, an insane lust for revenge against imagined social crimes brought forth exile and mass murder.
It is the fact that the story unfolded progressively that should give us most pause for thought. It didn't start with the Zyklon-B gas chambers, but with prison camps for holding mainly Polish prisoners.
In the early days of the Nazi occupation of Poland, Auschwitz was identified as an area well suited to prison camps that could house slave labour. Large German corporations drew up elaborate plans for factories where prisoners from the nearby camp would provide free labour.
This idea soon fell out of favour, but the drive to kill prisoners who were unable to work picked up speed.
This led to experiments on how best to wipe out large numbers of prisoners. At first, they were simply lined up and shot. This practice was stopped, however, when military officers complained about the negative psychological effect it was having on their soldiers. Nobody cared about the victims.
Nazi camp leaders conducted crude experiments with various gases, such as carbon monoxide. Even explosives were used, with hideously bloodthirsty results.
An observant German officer noted that a chemical used to kill pests in Germany's public buildings might well be used on human beings. At that point, killings went to a whole new level.
In all, the Nazis annihilated around six million Jews, which represented two thirds of the Jewish population in Euro pre-World War II. Among their victims were 4,500,000 Jews from Russia, Poland and the Baltic region; 750,000 from Hungary and Romania; 290,000 from Germany and Austria; 105,000 from The Netherlands; 90,000 from France; 54,000 from Greece.
Along with the Jews, they systematically slaughtered another nine to ten million people, including Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, and the disabled.
It wasn't just Nazi officers and soldiers who were party to the crime, but shopkeepers, train drivers, delivery-men, people from all walks of life.
There were, of course, many unsung heroes within the German population, people who did make a stand against Nazi tyranny.
Yet so many people were prepared to sweep the suspicions they felt and the stories they heard under the carpet. They allowed themselves to be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who played to their feelings of victimization.
Excusing their own feelings of hatred and refusing to be accountable for their emotions, they cited spurious personal or historical grievances as an excuse for acts of pure malice.
They blamed others for the problems they faced instead of accepting personal responsibility and control.
As William Styron once pointed out, the question is not 'Where was God at Auschwitz?' but 'Where was man at Auschwitz?'
© Mal Fletcher 2005