Content warning; discusses traumatic experiences people had during the holocaust and transitional justice.
While I was studying Women, Violence and Conflict at university, one of my friends remarked ‘you Brits are obsessed with WW2’. It was particularly interesting since she is Catalan, so her region was deeply effected by WW2, but as that was also when the Spanish Civil War was fought under Franco’s regime, that is much more a part of the public consciousness than the bigger war ongoing in the same period. And it makes complete sense, societies will concentrate on the most directly traumatic events that effect their own lives or more often, the lives of their recent ancestors more than the overarching events that less directly effect them. Across the world, after conflicts which cause trauma to an entire generation, research suggests that most societies respond in a similar manner. There is a period of purely pragmatic attempts at rebuilding of society and infrastructure, disarmament and peace treaties and then a period of what is formally know as transitional justice. In order to make people feel that their suffering is validated, find out ‘the truth’ and in an effort to understand how atrocities happen, governments form an official system of how to make an entire population feel that justice has been done against perpetrators of what we now call war crimes, or crimes against humanity. These systems have developed in many forms, one of the most widely known examples being the Nuremberg Trials targeting and punishing Nazis who were in high command.
However, alongside the transitional justice period, which is often a very long and drawn out process, there is also a kind of cultural amnesia about the horrors of the recent past. Most people, once the immediate danger to them is over, express a desire to move on with their lives, and want to forget the trauma. This causes a huge amount of tension between soldier/civilians/resistance fighters and the people most persecuted against within the conflict. Those who have suffered the most direct persecution want their stories to be heard and the perpetrators punished. The soldiers and often civilians who may feel guilty about what they felt they were forced to do when they were under a dictatorship or occupying force don’t want to face up to what they had done to survive. As a result, the very people who need the most support after the war is officially declared over, are actually shunned by the wider population. Often this leads to what can feel to be tokenistic prosecutions of the people in high command who lead atrocities, if they can be found, and the rest of the population left to struggle with the guilt, shame, anger and pain they feel over their own behaviour and what they suffered at the hands of others. Imagine (if you have no experience of this) seeing the person who assaulted, abused, tortured or turned their back on you walking freely on a daily basis after the war is supposed to be over. How could you feel safe? How could you feel that justice was done? Imagine seeing a person you hurt during that time because you convinced yourself you had no choice, knowing it was wrong but doing it anyway. How do you deal with the shame of it?
In the UK, we have a lot of literature and media about WW2 and the history of WW2 and the holocaust was taught in schools. However, like many things, it was oversimplified to the extent that we actually didn’t really learn much at all. Unsurprisingly, WW2 was framed in the terms that the Allies were all morally superior, the Nazis were evil, Britain was the scrappy underdog who saved the day, and Churchill is a hero. The story pretty much ends once the war is declared over, with little or no discussion of the painstaking process of rebuilding a society, and no mention of the effect of allying with Russia and the spread of the USSR. This is an example of the moral absolutism which actually stunts our understanding of how and why genocide happens, how people survive civil wars and occupying forces, and how an imperfect form of transitional justice can be achieved and built upon.
Transitional justice in the form of criminal trials like the Nuremberg Trials quickly comes up against both moral and pragmatic problems once the process begins. When you have a dictatorship which spreads across a large proportion of a continent, and a system created to commit genocide on such a vast scale across it, how do you decide how much responsibility each individual at each level should bear? There are some examples which appear to be easier than others to judge. The people in high command or who led specific forms of war crimes such as the creation of concentration camps or medical experiments, where the evidence is clear and at times, they are not even attempting to deny what they did, can be dealt with by a criminal justice system in a reasonably straightforward way. However, things get more complex the further down the heirachy you go. The reason for this, is that our understanding of how circumstances can restrict our free will is often not very nuanced. Often we as individuals like to think we know exactly what we would do in that situation, and that it is objectively the right thing. But once you are faced with the realities of what people had to deal with, it is much less clear.
Only relatively recently, as the people who actually lived through the trauma of the Holocaust are becoming elderly and dying, have we had more honest and nuanced accounts of what individuals went through. An example of this is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, released in 2018 by Lale Sokolov, who felt he was on his deathbed and wanted to speak his truth. It’s searingly, heartbreakingly honest about the moral compromises he felt he made in order to survive and to ensure the survival of the woman he loved. The people he speaks about are only in their teens when they are taken to Auschwitz and have to make literally life and death choices each day. Often the choices are around what they are willing to do to survive, and if they are willing to do something at the expense of another person like them to survive. Much of the distinction in the book over people who are cast as generally good and do bad things, or people who are bad, is to do with the intention behind their actions. Lale himself doesn’t want to tattoo other people, he doesn’t want to or enjoy harming them, but he does want to survive. He tries to helps others as best he can with his new privileges as a tattooist, but he prioritises the woman he has fallen in love with, her friends, the men in his former cabin and those who live beside him. He uses the friendship between his love Gita and Cilka, who is being systematically raped by a high commander, to escape the interrogation cells he is put in. Some of the camp guards are sadists, others seem to be attempting to do only what they are explicitly ordered to. Lale is beaten by another Jew in the interrogation cells as this is the ‘job’ he is given. He does it, but he attempts to minimise the harm he causes. Some Jewish prisoners are the ones who remove bodies from the gas chambers and burn them in furnaces. Much of the things people actually do are deeply disturbing, but their choices are generally to do as they or told, die or risk their loved ones lives as well as their own. Lale does seem to give a distinction, but intention is very difficult to prove in a criminal court. He has also appeared to be able to be forgiving of those he felt hurt him but had little choice. There is no way of knowing if he always felt this way, if his role as tattooist allowed him to empathise with others given ‘jobs’ or if it came with time.
I have to agree with my friend, we are obsessed with WW2 and the Holocaust, and put out a vast amount of literature and media about it, both factual and fictional. The reason is, I suspect, that as a society, we still haven’t managed to tell a nuanced and truthful narrative about WW2, the Holocaust and the reality of making and living with the choices our fellow human beings made to survive. It’s easier to create a simple good vs bad narrative, but it just doesn’t get rid of the creeping discomfort we feel when faced with the sheer scale of atrocities. As our political landscape looks like it is teetering on the edge of the same horrendous mistakes, misjudgments and in some cases, deluded attempt to keep a grip on power by those who have it, it’s even more unsettling. It’s also even more important that we actually tell the confusing, uncomfortable, difficult truths about the realities of war, tyranny and post-conflict trauma which still plague us if we have a hope of stopping it happening again.