We sometimes are so immersed in our national woes that global events fall into the backdrop. It occurred to me with frightening potency when I visited Auschwitz, Poland, a week ago. It was a concentration camp during Hitler’s tyrannous hour, especially between 1941 and 1945. Over 1.7 million tourists go there annually as pilgrims to a place of death, where human cunning dyed itself in evil.
After three and a half hours on foot through that cavern of human savagery, it occurred to me that the conditions that gave birth to those years of butchery have returned to us now. As a student of history, the question of the rise of tyranny and how it works its way into proprietary legitimacy has never failed to amaze me. Each time it comes, the people seem to welcome it as a new elixir of freedom. A sort of messianic glow beams out of the protagonist. He assumes a mythic status, a god in human flesh. He turns hate into an anthem of visceral joy. I felt it first-hand a few weeks ago in the United States among Donald Trump’s diehards.
It was Hitler once. Today, we can see his reincarnates. We have seen millions embrace the brutal bonhomie of Donald Trump. In the Philippines, Duterte is making insult not only the province of diplomacy; he has bloodied the streets of Manilla with his own brand of moral cleansing. In North Korea, a rotund maniac is snorting with nuclear braggadocio. In Syria, a ramrod villain in Assad is propagating a straitjacketed bigotry that shows no mercies for women and children in a rage of bombings. In Turkey, Recep Erdogan has woven popular following from the paradox of a coup in the guise of democracy. At the top of it all is the glassy-eyed, starry-eyed man of the Kremlin who is increasingly frustrated that the West has not yet given him the war he wants.
As a tour guide took me through Auschwitz, I saw this age of right-wing populism in that time of rabble-rousers who mesmerised whole people, earned their trusts and permitted them into mass bloodlust. The territory was a whole town. Auschwitz with its adjoining town Birkenau received in its spiky arms millions of Jews, Gypsies, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses and small-time criminals for years. Over 90 per cent of them were Jews. We moved from hostel to hostel, saw the urn containing recovered remains of cremated victims, heaps of hair shaved from them to make beds and other textile absurdities, the gas chambers, the cremation area, the rail tracks where they arrived, where they worked, the bleak wall where they were executed, the starvation room, the roll call spot, the electrified fortresses of fences, the room where “errants” were forced to stand to death, grisly travesty of toilets and bathrooms, etc. They worked all day, ate rarely but the same ration, only the lucky survived six months, they were permitted to ease themselves only in the morning or night when they returned from “work,” were flogged routinely. Doctors, especially the infamous Josef Megele, used them for savage experiments, they were skinny and fragile, some fellow Jews became even crueller than the masters because they were given authority, etc.
It was eerie to imagine that, sometime in the past, where we walked was a dungeon of dread and death, where the worst of human nature bloomed. And those who did it gloated and rejoiced. They killed and butchered women and children. Yet they had wives and children. It reminded me of what Charles de Gaulle described as “patriarchs of families who are warriors.” I saw the posh mansion of the camp commandant, Rudolf Hoss, just a few metres away from the chambers of death. When poet William Wordsworth wrote that, “it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man,” he did not contemplate this magnitude of bestial descent. Wordsworth still thought of man as a certainty. But one of the survivors, the lucid Primo Levi, wondered in his recall “if this is a man,” which incidentally is the title of his book.
That is why we should worry about today’s world. We are retreating to the 1930’s where the foul seed of Auschwitz began to grow. Many have traced it to the failure of a good deal in the Versailles Treaty of 1919. But nothing is inevitable in history. Because the world went to sleep and believed no one would bring it again into the bloodbath of the First World War, a wave of what my History teacher at Ife, Professor Tunji Oloruntimehin, described as “the rise of illiberal regimes,” seized the optics of the day.
Brexit has consumed Britain today. It is a testament of hate. Yet England was a fighter against similar sentiment in the 1930’s when Hitler launched his cunning. He conned Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, who signed a meaningless pact with Hitler and waved it mawkishly, saying: “I have brought peace in our lifetime.” Meanwhile, Hitler boasted that “our enemies are tiny little worms.” Churchill was ignored when he warned of a mad man in Europe. Hitler’s shadow was not a lone omen. Franco of Spain, Mussolini, the sawdust Caesar, were cohorts in the murderous grins of hyenas.
Today, Angela Merkel of Germany’s party is under threat from the same kind of parties that descend from Hitler, who hate outsiders. Last week I witnessed outside Berlin’s biggest shopping centre, The Mall of Berlin, a picture of Hitler projected on the wall overlooking one of its major sections, Potsdamer Platz, Hitler is speaking, and smiling, and silhouettes of Nazis marching in furious triumph is shown. Complaints have gone unheeded. Hitler died not far from that spot. Last week, not far from the Mall of Berlin, I visited a museum called the Topography of Terror. It documents how Hitler rose to power and held his people in his charm and the world in its madness. I spent two hours in a chill of enlightenment. In Italy, France, and even Britain, right-wing bigots are riding a wave of popular support.
It is in this context that we must look at the actions of the Russian dictator. Unhappy at the fall of the Soviet Union, he wants back the pride of the Cold War era. He has moved into Ukraine and Crimea, and he is aligning with Assad and bombing Aleppo in Syria. He has positioned nuclear warheads close to Poland. The Aleppo bombing is like the bombing of Guernica, a Basques territory, by the Nazi.
Obama knows what Putin wants. So do Britain, France and Germany. But Putin is restless. He wants to ratchet up tensions and foist on the world an inevitable global showdown. Food ration scenarios are being enacted in parts of Moscow. Russia’s economy is weak, but Putin is piling up arms. Like his fellow despots, he is also popular at home.
Britain is on the alert for a Russian nuclear warship expected to pass through its sovereign waters within two weeks on its way to Syria. French President forced him to put off a visit to France. A few weeks ago, I watched a U.S. television programme, 60 Minutes, do a story on U.S. – Russian tension, and show how America is responding with ominous flights of its nuclear-propped warplanes that can unleash a warhead right into the heart of Russia.
I hope this trend can be contained without a global conflagration. It is so-called innocuous moments like this that can birth tragedies, such as Auschwitz. When I left the place I was haunted by the words of one of its survivors, Esra Pollack: “Man has created horrors but cannot find the words to describe them.”