Without Nuremberg trials or public memorials to the millions who died in the gulags, post-communist countries cannot come to terms with their past. Anne Applebaum describes the moral and political squalor which results from allowing the criminals of the old regimes to go unpunishedby Anne Applebaum / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1944, Primo Levi arrived at Auschwitz; years later, he described the event in his memoir, If This Is A Man: “Then the lorry stopped, and we saw a large door, and above it a sign, brightly illuminated (its memory still strikes me in my dreams): Arbeit Macht Frei.” That was the image which Levi recorded. It is also the image that comes into the minds of millions of people when they hear the word Auschwitz: the gate, the sign, the slogan; sometimes train tracks too.
But had the Nazi guards had their way, that is not an image which would have remained, in Levi’s mind, or anyone else’s: the Nazi guards had not intended that there should be any survivors of Auschwitz; nor did they want to leave any evidence of what had happened there. After dismantling the Treblinka camp in 1943, the Germans sowed the fields with grain, planted pine trees and used the bricks from the crematorium to build a farmhouse. But because they left Auschwitz in a hurry, and because Auschwitz was so huge, several thousand people did survive. Some physical evidence, famously, remains to this day: rusting gates, watchtowers, heaps of clothes, suitcases.
Since then, the camp itself has become so familiar that we take its existence for granted: it is marked on maps, mentioned in guidebooks, visited on day trips from Krak?w. Along with dozens of similar sites, it serves as a physical reminder-to Germans, and to the rest of the world-of what happened. But what if it were not there? What if the buildings of Auschwitz, the monument to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the photographs taken at Belsen-had disappeared?
Worse, what if the absence of physical monuments were combined with an absence of history? What if Germans had never read about the Holocaust? What if German bureaucrats objected to the construction of Holocaust museums and memorials? What if there were no guilt about the Holocaust in Germany at all?
To imagine what such a world would be like-in other words, to imagine what Germany would be like if there had never been a Nuremberg trial-it is necessary only to attempt to ponder the millions who died in Stalin’s gulags. Try to do it, and no images come to mind-because there aren’t any.