Never forget, never again

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 12:00am

The unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust left the world with great responsibilities which can be summed up in the words of two sombre vows: Never forget, and never again.

Sixty years later, they have lost none of their relevance.

Today, the world commemorates the harrowing discovery by Soviet troops of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in southern Poland on January 27, 1945.

The camp, with its barbed wire and gas chambers, is a potent, enduring symbol of the Holocaust, the systematic state-sanctioned murder of six million Jewish people.

It was one of several engines of death designed to realise Adolf Hitler's depraved attempt to wipe the Jewish race from the face of Europe. The camp is a fitting memorial to the victims. But its haunting environs also provide a permanent reminder of mankind's capacity for hatred and inhumanity - and where that can lead. World leaders gathering there today should therefore have their minds clearly focused on the future as well as on the past.

The leaders of Germany, Russia, Poland, France and Israel will be present. This is, in itself, a sign of progress. It shows there is a greater willingness throughout Europe to face up to the grim realities of this darkest chapter in its history.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder struck the right note this week by pointing out that the atrocities should not be blamed on the 'demon Hitler' alone - they were carried out, and supported, by ordinary people. It is important that this unpalatable truth is recognised if similar atrocities are to be prevented.

The United Nations has also broken new ground. Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressly linked the Holocaust to the birth of the international organisation. This is undeniably true, but it needed to be said.

Lobbying by the former Soviet Union and also by Arab states has led the UN to take a soft line on the Holocaust in the past. Mr Annan is the first UN chief to publicly recognise that Jews were the prime victims. It should not have taken more than half a century for this to be acknowledged.

There are good reasons for the UN to be concerned.

Anti-semitism is on the rise again in Europe. Earlier this month, Russian nationalists called for Jewish groups to be banned. Jewish graves in Europe have been vandalised. And members of a German neo-Nazi party caused outrage last week when they staged a walkout at a minute's silence for Holocaust victims. These events carry unpleasant connotations of the Nazi era. Anti-semitism - indeed, all racism - must be strenuously resisted wherever it emerges.

There is also a need to increase awareness of the Nazi atrocities. Ignorance is difficult enough to excuse in Hong Kong, where insensitivity sometimes surfaces. But Prince Harry's recent donning of a Nazi uniform for a fancy-dress party is inexcusable - a disgrace. The strong public outcry which greeted it was, however, reassuring.

Then there is the need to combat other forms of hatred and persecution. Jews were the main targets and victims of the Holocaust. But gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, intellectuals, and prisoners of war were also slaughtered in huge numbers.

An international convention against genocide has been in place for many years. But the world failed to prevent this greatest of all crimes from being perpetrated in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and - perhaps - Sudan. The threat is always present.

The Holocaust is, as one Israeli minister pointed out, on the brink of passing from memory to history. The number of survivors is dwindling.

This makes today's ceremony all the more poignant. It is becoming increasingly important not to forget - and to ensure that the words 'never again' are given real meaning.