Auschwitz is the location that acted as the switch which turned on a great resetting in the West after the Second World War.
Visiting Auschwitz was like watching a silent horror film. During our three-hour tour of the location, there was almost complete silence amongst those on the tour. The guests seemed stunned by the visuals. It was cathartic.
The whole trip was so overwhelming, that for almost two weeks, we were filled with the memory of it, with all the traces of images from Berlin submerged in it. My wife, who had no interest in history, bought a couple of books on Auschwitz survivors and finished it before I could get my hands on it. It appeared to have been transformative for her as well. I even Amazoned two books on the last days of The Reich, eager to know the German side of the story as the Red army marched towards Berlin.
In June 2016, we traveled to Auschwitz from Berlin where I was attending a conference My wife and my 4-year-old son were with me. When I planned the itinerary for Berlin, I was particular on visiting Auschwitz as well. To me, the history of Germany was ‘twinned’ with Auschwitz. No travel to Germany could be complete without a tour to Auschwitz.
Although I had heard of Auschwitz, I didn’t know its location. I thought it was somewhere in Germany. But when I checked, I saw that it was in Poland, near the city of Krakow, almost 600 km from Berlin. On the last day of the conference, we took a detour for a one day visit to Auschwitz. We took an afternoon flight to Krakow, stayed there overnight and traveled to Auschwitz the next morning. Auschwitz is 66 km from Krakow. In the evening, as we boarded the flight to Krakow, I posted on Facebook that I am traveling to a place that had made the West ‘modern’ as we see it now.
Auschwitz was like a silent horror movie. An elegant Ukrainian woman who spoke impeccable English curated the tour with breathtaking detail. She took us to a time that was unimaginable in the present. A kilometer away at the Birkenau camp, we saw an Israeli delegation placing wreaths on the railroad leading to the camp. The poignancy of the moment was palpable. Most of our co-travelers were retired Europeans, mainly from the Western European countries. My son was the youngest in our delegation. He just walked around, unknowing of the significance of this visit.
Below is a photo tour of our visit, and my reflection of Auschwitz’s real place in Western history.I have titled it, ‘The Great Western Resetting’.
THE GREAT RESETTING
If anyone has any doubt about World War II being the most defining event that created modernity as we see today, it certainly wouldn’t be me. Auschwitz is a strong documentation of the brutality of the war.
Genocides are not new in history. The Assyrians did it to Jews, Islamists did it to Assyrians, Central Asian hordes did it to the Hindus in the Hindu Kush, Ottoman Muslims did it to Armenians in Turkey, Brahminical revivalists did it to Buddhists in South India, Sinhala Buddhists did it to Tamils in Sri Lanka. But what made the Nazi Holocaust world-changing was that it was done with all eyes on them, in the full swing of the Modern Age, documented with German finesse. Brazen.
Germany and the western world changed for sure after the genocide. The United States and most of the Western allies shunned racism only after the catastrophe of World War II. Madison Grant, the American Eugenicist and an influential proponent of the Anglo-Saxon “master race” theory lost his appeal only after the depth and breadth of the Nazi holocaust became evident.
People attribute the modern ideas of liberal democracy to a period after the European Enlightenment. But as a universal idea, such a claim is far from the truth. I would say it made its roots only after WW II. Until then, liberal democracy was meant only for those in the West. For Madison Grant, the Whites were the blue blood of the Anglo-Saxon pedigree and a significant proportion of Americans and the British believed this – Until the Nazis took it to the next level.
The Nazis in twenty years what the British and American colonists took 300 years to accomplish. It was the British and American colonial story running on fast-forward mode.
Churchill seemed like a liberal democrat only when the Nazis outdid him with his racist beliefs. The Nazis wanted India for its imperial expansion ambitions. It considered Ukraine, Russia and other Slavic races ‘subhuman’ and considered it morally correct to mow them to provide living space for the German ‘superhumans.’
This was no different from the thoughts of British or American colonists or the Arabs slave traders who made a fortune in the African coasts.
Thus, although the ideas of liberal democracy was around from the 17th century, it was realized as a universal idea only after the Nazi Holocaust. Auschwitz serves as a great reminder to mark this point . It changed the world -for good. But at what price? One and a half million deaths at Auschwitz, 20 million Russian deaths in combat. A whole generation lost in misery.
I would term Auschwitz as the location that acted as the switch for a “great resetting” which happened in the West post the Second World War. I learned from the Auschwitz museum that significant funding for its upkeep comes from Germany itself. Also, I learned that the museum conducts classes for school teachers throughout European the Holocaust and its lessons for the future. I have no doubt that this is a monument that defines the modern sensibilities of the West. It is the event that ‘reset’ the West. Yes, Auschwitz made the west ‘modern’.