There’s an episode of Fawlty Towers where this phrase, “don’t mention the war”, gets repeated several times. A group of Germans are staying at the hotel and therefore Basil Fawlty, the hotel owner, who at the time is suffering from a head injury, instructs his staff to, no matter what happens, not mention World War II. I have been thinking about that phrase lately. “Don’t mention the war.” I actually think we should. We should mention the war, World War II. We should mention it a lot. Because we seem to be forgetting it. We seem to be forgetting that all of that happened right here on European soil, that this is where it started, that it was people just like us who were involved, who started it. It happened right here and it wasn’t that long ago, in a time not that different from now. We seem to be forgetting all the atrocities that took place. All the unfathomable acts of human cruelty that were conducted by regular people right here, people just like you and me.
World War II has become a symbol of evil, something we swore we would never repeat. It was a wake up call that lead us to form the United Nations and the European Union. We wanted to manifest our commitment to make sure that something like this could never happen again on European soil. Whether we have been able to completely keep that promise or not is a debatable issue, but at least we have never had a war on that scale since. So we must have learned something. But the question is what.
We seem to have stopped invading our neighbors, unless they happen to be located further south and have large quantities of oil, and we have taken on diplomacy rather than war drums as our preferred means of communication, but beyond that, what have we learned? Have we fully accepted the fact that no one, not even Hitler, could have done it all alone? Hitler was indeed a bad man, but if he had been alone the Third Reich would never have been more than a figment of a failed artists twisted imagination. And yes, I know I am not the first one to point this out, but lately there seems to be an ever-increasing, desperate need to repeat the fact that all the horrible things that happened were very much a group effort. And that it wasn’t just Germans. It was more than that. Nor was it the fist or the last time that people lost their minds to prejudice and fear. It keeps on happening. No one can instigate a genocide alone. No one. It is a group effort.
What happened during WWII is fairly well documented. After this we can’t claim we don’t know what evils the human mind is capable of. We know about the concentration camps, the forced labour, the genocide, the bombings, the executions and everything else. But somehow we seems to not want to understand that it wasn’t just a few bad people who did it. It was a collective thing. And the only reason it was ever possible was because people let themselves be convinced it was acceptable. They truly believed that jews, roma, homosexuals and disabled people should be exterminated. That they were of less value. And that wasn’t just in Nazi Germany, that belief was embraced by others too. People tried to escape but were refused entry in other countries. A genocide was happening and but the audience stayed silent. Some even applauded.
And then it was over. Hitler was dead and the Third Reich fell. The camps were opened and the world could no longer pretend they didn’t see. Trials were held, sentences for crimes against humanity were passed out. We were never going to let this happen ever again. We swore.
But still we didn’t allow homosexuals to show their love freely, we didn’t let the roma get basic civic rights, we subjected disabled people to forced sterilization and antisemitism kept rearing its ugly face. The camps were closed, but we never got rid of the ones in our minds. All those solemn promises we made, what were they really worth? Do we even remember them? In a time when voices are being raised for registration and travel restrictions for specific ethnic groups and when opinions about certain religions not being part of the “European life-style” are openly aired I think that’s a very relevant question. We say we have learned, but all we’ve really done was pass the blame to someone else. It was the Nazis, not us. Yes, it was the Nazis that built the camps, but no one would have ended up there if there wasn’t support in the general public. And it actually did happen again. On a smaller scale, but it did happen. In the 90s we had a civil war on European soil. And in that war several of the atrocities from World War II were repeated with camps and ethnic cleansing included. How could we let that happen? Even today people are being put in camps. In Europe. The southern parts of Fortress Europe are full of them. Camps where the people escaping from poverty, prosecution and misery in their home countries are held captive. Their only crime the desire to survive. How can we let that happen? How can we let the new extreme right invade our parliaments? How can we let that happen when we actually know what it can lead to? What it did lead to. How is that possible? Didn’t we learn anything?
We talk about human rights, we claim it to be a fundamental guiding principle, that it’s part of the core European values. So why doesn’t that include gay people or roma? Or women? Why do we never fucking learn? We keep saying that it could never happen again, but who are we really trying to convince? It used to be the jews, now it’s the muslims, or the immigrants or the roma. The others. The ones that are not like us. That’s exactly how it started. Scapegoat. Someone to blame. So please, let’s do mention the war. Let’s keep talking about it. Let’s keep reminding ourselves how it started. And let’s remember that it’s a group effort. And let’s never shut up about it.