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Hard lessons from history

April 2013

It is 80 years since Dachau, the first concentration camp, was set up by the Nazis. But, as that particular horror fades from the living memory of those who survived and those who liberated, there is evidence of a gradual, chilling resurgence of Nazi-type ideology in Europe.

March this year marked two occasions: the 75th anniversary of the annexation of Austria and the 80th anniversary of the opening of Dachau. The ramifications of both events were enormous, especially for those who did not fit into Hitler’s plans for the Aryanisation of Europe.
     The Anschluss with Austria on 15 March 1938 — welcomed by many Austrians— opened the floodgates for a wave of anti-semitism spilling over from Germany into German-speaking lands.
    According to US news agency NBC, records indicate there were 195,000 Jews living in Austria just before the Germans paraded through Vienna. Just 2000 were left behind after the Final Solution with its concentration and death camps. Today, in 2013, there are just 15,000 Jews in Austria.


A former World War One munitions factory, Dachau, near Munich, was the first of more than 300 concentration camps set up across Europe in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power.
    Throughout its history, Dachau was primarily a camp for Communists, Social Democrats, trade union leaders, religious dissidents, common criminals, Gypsy men, homosexuals, spies, resistance fighters and others who were considered ‘enemies of the state’.
    One of its most famous prisoners was Martin Niemöller, one of the founders of the Confessional Church among the Lutherans. Initially tolerant of Nazi ideology, he then realised the truth, repented and spoke out.
    While there were Jewish prisoners at Dachau, it was not set up primarily as a death camp like Auschwitz or Treblinka in Poland, although it recorded 31,951 deaths in its 12-year history.
    The fact that the world allowed it to be set up in the first place, despite the weakness of the Nazi regime at the time, is something that has tortured historians. Last year, the Atrocities Prevention Board was set up by the US government, to ensure there will never be another concentration camp opened anywhere in the world.
    Its remit is also to explore whether earlier intervention could have prevented the genocide of 11 million people in Hitler’s concentration camps, and whether it is possible to intervene now in places such as Syria, to prevent similar mass atrocities.


The Nazi regime has left an enduring legacy of horror and guilt. And the warnings that similar atrocities could rise again, from whatever quarter, need to be heeded.
    According to the Daily Telegraph in March, the Nazi’s total death toll could have been as high as 20 million. It is unbearable to imagine what genocides that could be achieved in our own days, as a result of such high-tech advances as military drones capable of erasing entire villages in seconds
    Some might argue that knowledge and education will prevent another Holocaust, but those are not enough. Austria, Germany and the UK have high levels of education. Yet, in 2012, according to Austria’s Jewish Organisation IKG, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents there doubled to 135.
    In Germany, neo-Nazi ideology has influenced football games with chants of ‘Juden’ as a curse word against players who are off their game. In the UK, in 2012, a report in the Telegraph revealed that racism against the many Jewish Tottenham Hotspur fans had reached a climax.
    They had been subjected to hissing, in reference to the gas chambers, and cries of ‘Adolf Hitler is coming for you’.
    Norway has a high standard of living. But that was not enough to stop neo-Nazi Anders Breivik killing 77 people, in retaliation for what he claimed was a tolerant society allowing the spread of Islam.


Across the world, all too often, a minority of governments permit or encourage the demonisation of particular groups. They enslave and marginalise, remove human rights, imprison, exile and execute.
    A report by Ecclesiastical Insurance found human rights abuses in 157 countries — nearly two-thirds of all countries, including some Commonwealth nations.
    Such behaviour begins with hatred of others. Adolph Hitler’s hatred of the Jews provides a classic example, but it is by no means the only example.
    And hate-thinking is beginning to spread in the UK too. Who has not heard people opine (even in our churches?) that the authorities should round up and repatriate certain ethnic groups; or crack down hard on immigrants, as though all the UK’s evils have been imported from other lands?
    Britain has tragically wickedness enough of its own, and an abominable record of sustained human rights abuse during the earlier slave trade centuries. While our country was in the end a prime mover for Abolition, it behoves us to remain very sensitive to such sins.
    Today, slavery, people trafficking and xenophobia are growing across Europe. And God does not condone racism, hatred or abuse, whatever political or religious gloss they are given — Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
    Christians should pray that all Europe’s leaders will remain alert to the hard lessons of Nazi concentration camps.

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