It's not enough to remember; we need to learn


On the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation, why haven't politicians learned from history?

Article Image

Image by Image credit: Israeli Government Press Office

By Eleanor Longman-Rood

If we were to hold a moment of silence for every victim of the Holocaust, we would be silent for 11 and a half years.” Despite having heard this quote numerous times, for me it hasn’t had a tautological effect. Instead, it never fails to send chilling realisations down my spine of just how wrong humanity can go.

This year, 27 January marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Three quarters of a century ago, Soviet troops walked the grounds to witness the horror of the largest mass murder site in history. When I think about the frankly unhuman and archaic behaviour that was conducted in these camps, 75 years feels like an increasingly minuscule amount of time to have passed.

In the 40s, Mount Rushmore was completed, the first digital computer was built and the ball point pen went on sale. Yet, in South East Poland, it was seen as perfectly logical and justifiable by the Nazis to fatally gas hundreds of thousands based on their religion.

It is hard to comprehend how the same decade became home to such development and destruction simultaneously. Fast forward to the present day and sadly, instead of learning from the past, egoism is getting in the way. In a recent speech at Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, Vladimir Putin distorted history in his remarks. The president used the world stage to “rewrite” history by disputing the Soviet’s role in the Second World War, rather than honouring victims with his words. In anticipation of Putin’s message, President Duda of Poland decided to decline the invitation to attend the memorial ceremony, explaining how he could not sit silently once again while watching the Russian narrative dominate. For Duda, here pride ranked higher than remembrance.

Perhaps, if he were to sit silently for 11 and a half years, rather than the length of Putin’s speech, his sentiments may vary. To use this time to quarrel over who played what role is a tremendous affront to the survivors who remember their strife at this time. 75 years may have passed, yet it is evident that we still have a lot to learn.

In China, history appears to scarily be repeating itself. Across the far eastern province of Uighurs, leaked documents and a select few satellite photos show how the nation has been systemically brainwashing, torturing and detaining Muslims in a network of high security prison camps. The BBC’s famous investigative Panorama programme found that inmates at these concentration camps were “locked up” and “indoctrinated” with one Uighur ‘prisoner’ explaining how he received a blow from an electric baton directly to the back of his head.

If one were to replace the word ‘muslim’ with ‘jew’, the case is starting to sound eerily familiar. What really turns my stomach and sickens me to my core, however, is when the mistakes of the past are being made closer to home. Last week, the prime minister’s press chief, Lee Cain, informed journalists that only a select few of the nation's press were welcome at the government’s Brexit briefing, announcing that the likes of The Daily Mirror, The Huffington Post and The Independent were not welcome. When you shut the door on the press, you close out one of the most vital parts of democracy. Leaders cannot, and should not, determine which news sources are able to publish politicians' actions depending on political affiliations. The past has only shown us that encroaching on free press is the first step that takes countries down a dangerous path to despair.

When I consider just how arduously my great grandfather fought to publish the truth during his time as a journalist in Nazi Germany before he and his family fled to come to this country, I am filled with a bitter sadness at our current state of affairs. He was battling to act as an instrument of the truth, and some - how it seems that war may not yet be over. Perhaps the picture isn't entirely bleak and hopeless, however, when considering BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg and her ITV equivalent Robert Peston, along with a host of other journalists, walked out of the press briefing in solidarity with their excluded industry opponents.

In the face of attempting to restrict selected voices in journalism it was, quite possibly, the perfect response from the rest of the pack. We spend vast amounts of time memorialising history, and for good reason as there are some crimes against humanity that should never be forgotten. Why then is it we never seem to translate this profound sense of remembrance into any sort of meaningful progress or changes to the way society operates? George Santayana wrote the immortal words that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, it has become abundantly clear that a modernised version of the quote now includes that those who fail to learn from history are fated to repeat this same cycle and all of the same devastating mistakes of the past.