From Dachau to Westminster to Calais and back again


Siobhan Tolland

I visited Dachau last month. It was a terrible, confusing, utterly depressing and distressing experience. As we wandered round in the blistering heat seeing the prisons and imagining where the land-mines and armed guards would be, the guide talked about a very interesting concept. If a society sees a group of people as less than human, you are are two-thirds of the way to believing they have no right to exist.

I couldn’t help thinking about Britain when he talked about this. Indeed, rapper and poet, Akala said the same not long ago, when answering the question, ‘is Britain racist to the core? The moment human beings become non-human that is a mandate for murder, he said. He was talking about the drowning of Lybian refugees and the reference to them as cockroaches.

UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave a similar attack on the UK for their dehumanisation. Against “decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion”, the Sun’s recent reference to immigrants as cockroaches is reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, he said. “Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches,” he reminded us. Dehumanisation of the foreign is becoming more common place in our culture now.

Dachau presented a very vile dehumanisation of humans. The whole camps categorised people into different levels of ‘less than human-ness’. What upset me the most about Dachau, though, was the gas chambers, but not for the reason you might imagine. Our connection to that terrible period of genocide seems to be met with a level of inhumanity that shocked me to the core.

When we arrived at the death camp, I slowly walked down to see a small building. These were the large scale ovens. The shock of that was difficult and as I returned my gaze I saw something truly horrible.

Someone was taking a selfie.

Someone was taking a selfie. At the ovens. Where bodies were burnt.

They were taking a selfie.

I felt disgusting. Not disgusted, disgusting. The moments where I feel we should just be wiped out as a species creeped up on me and I suddenly felt a wave of panic and nausea and horror. I saw the deeply personal, emotionally naked and fragile space being violated by a voyeurism so truly shocking, my brain stuttered in its inability to understand. Then I saw everyone running around clicking their cameras at the fake showers. It filled me with horror. We were violating that space, that memory and that past.

What kind of distance from human suffering do you have to have to think it is ok to take a selfie at the Nazi ovens, I wonder? As I left the death camp I sobbed at that lack of humanity. Something that reduced such horrific acts of genocide as another snap on Facebook, alongside your ugly face at the Marienplatz and the Bayern Munich stadium. Another holiday, another day, another photo snap.

Dachau though, made me think about countries coming to terms with a violent past: being both abuser and abused and somehow living with that as each new generation appears. Germany makes the Second World War a compulsory part of their school curriculum. Bavaria makes visiting Dachau compulsory. Seeing, experiencing and feeling their past becomes a country’s way of healing past wounds.

The Guide at Dachau explained to us that Nazi Germany rested on a three-tier structure: power, money and racial superiority. Christ, that’s just empire I thought. That is not to demean what happened in Germany 1930s & 1940s. Far from it. It made me so much more depressed because this wasn’t an aberration in our human experience. It was part of our empire experience. A vicious and extreme empire experience maybe, but empire nevertheless.

Great Britain’s dark Empire past goes mainly unacknowledged. The greatness of our very title is caught up in the fact that we invaded 90% of the globe (and yes 90% is correct). That this caused millions of deaths, ruthless dictatorships and more wars that we have probably lost count of is not something we have come to terms with. The very basis of our so called ‘greatness’ rested on power, money and racial superiority.

It was Britain who set up concentration camps in the early twentieth century killing thousands of women and children. And 15 million people alone died through famine in India under British colonial rule, as the East India Company exploited their land for riches. Even at the end of our empire days, we are responsible for 1 million deaths in Iraq as we we plundered their country for oil. These are just a few examples of how our Empire stamped all over the globe. I have always felt deep unease at the Union Jack flag and I wonder why others don’t see it drenched in blood as I do.

And against this empire, ‘racially superior’ past, we are witnessing a present that sees our dehumanisation and disconnection towards human suffering becoming more entrenched. Sorry, our disconnection with non-white human suffering is entrenched. This is evident in our attitude to the asylum seekers at Calais. That ‘swarm’ of ‘marauding’ immigrants that Cameron and Phillip Hammond seem to be so scared of. The fact that one quarter of these asylum seekers are children abused, terrorised and desperate seems to have escaped this government’s notice.

I watched David Cameron the other week explain that the Calais situation was not acceptable and that it was his government’s priority to deal with it in every way they can. Those with an ounce of humanity might have thought he may have meant the government’s priority would be to deal with the terrible human suffering that is occurring on our door-step. That wasn’t the case.

There were lorry drivers and holiday makers facing potential delays, he said.

More fences, more dogs, he exclaimed.

We need to do more to help lorry drivers and holiday makers, he assured us!

For all intent and purposes Cameron’s statement was the political equivalent of moving on a dying man because he is disturbing the appetite of those inside the restaurant. I felt a wave of panic, nausea and horror akin to what I felt at Dachau.

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