This was always going to be the hardest episode to bear. I am not inexperienced when it comes to the story of the Nazi Party’s campaign to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth. I have watched other footage, little though I’ve wanted to. I have the books of Primo Levi, who appeared for a few seconds in this episode. He wrote of his experiences in Auschwitz in order to bear witness, to say that This Happened and to be an obstacle to the world forgetting and disbelieving as any normal person would want to. Though there is no ground upon which I can compare myself to him, I too bear witness, as must we all in these times when fascism and anti-semitism are once again on the rise, as if what happened never happened, and thus can be repeated.
There are ways to approach such a story. Something so monstrous might be thought to demand both passion and dispassion. The episode went for the latter. It explained, carefully, the progression from the formation of the S.S. under Heinrich Himmler, with its fantasies of racial purity and superiority, its underlying mysticism, to the ever-increasing scapegoating of the Jews, to the decision that they must all be exterminated. From the killings by hanging and shooting to the realisation that this was too slow, too piecemeal, too haphazard and therefore the need for an organised, planned, indeed industrial elimination, by gas in Concentration Camps.
Dispassion is perhaps the best approach. It can be overdone, to the point where it can sometimes be confused with lack of concern. The failure to rage can sometimes itself be seen as inhuman. But with plain statements and frequent use of silence to rub the point in in its own fashion, the episode avoided this risk. It decided that its audience was sane enough not to need lecturing on moral principles, that they would get it for themselves and it left them to do so. They knew what they were watching was wrong, was evil and insane and horrifying.
There were witnesses who spoke of what they had seen and undergone in a sober, sombre tone, leaving you wondering how they could have experienced what they did and not gone mad themselves. One former S.S. Lance Corporal in the camps spoke about his enthusiasm to see what the process entailed until you wondered long and hard about him, but the closing credits made the point of establishing that he had been cleared of all atrocities and had been commended for several times refusing orders to kill: an exceptional man.
As much time was given to a prisoner that survived, who made the clear and rational point that you cannot judge, that you don’t have the least right to comment unless you have been there, when only in its most extreme can you understand the will to live and what you will do for another minute of life. His was the last word, that every day he lives is pure profit, of how he could claim to be 27 years old, because in the camps he was dead.
The footage, in photographs and film, was raw and unsparing. What else could it be? Yet you had the sense that this was what had been deemed to be possible to show, that there were things we were spared from seeing because they would have been too much. Or is that morbid imagination? Either way, I was glad to see only what I saw, hear only the stories I heard. One was of a Rabbi, being marched to the Gas Chambers, calling upon God to show his powers, to answer this monstrous thing being done against God, and when nothing happened, pronouncing There is no God. He wasn’t the only one to see in this affront the non-existence of a God that, if he existed, would have intervened.
Perhaps, in its pathetic and shallow way, the low point came with Lord Avon, former Foreign Secretary, talking about what the Allied Governments knew. It was one thing to say, no doubt rightly, that the first reports were literally unbelievable, but when it came to doing something about the Concentration Camps, what followed was pathetic, bathetic and hideously complacent. The Allied Governments responded with a Statement, proclaimed simultaneously in all their capitols, stating that the perpetrators would be punished, after the War
It was, apparently, one of the greatest moments in Parliament ever. Lord Avon drew congratulations for his speech, including from David Lloyd George, who said he’d never seen anything like it. The entire House withdrew, possibly to go off to be sick en masse. That showed the Germans, eh, what? That was telling them. In the course of the War, there must have been nothing else they could have done. Yet the pride was sickening.
In the end, because the camps were in the East, it was the Russians who liberated Auschwitz and the rest. But that was all. The nightmare didn’t end there, though the episode could have made more of it. Here was where dispassion failed, where there should have been shouts and screams of rage, but there weren’t. The whole episode was a bubble. Perhaps it still is. Perhaps it’s still not quite possible to understand that we did this, us, human beings. Perhaps even bearing witness has limitations we can’t overcome.