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We ought never to forget Auschwitz, but what exactly do we all remember?

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Auschwitz's survivor Lea Novera lights a candle while attending a ceremony during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the AMIA Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires .

Auschwitz's survivor Lea Novera lights a candle while attending a ceremony during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the AMIA Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires .

REUTERS

Auschwitz's survivor Lea Novera lights a candle while attending a ceremony during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the AMIA Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires .

As a boy of six or seven I read British comics like 'The Hornet', 'The Victor' and 'Commando'. Many of the strips were based on World War II, which had ended less that 20 years before. It's strange now to think that the war was then as recent as 9/11 is to the present.

The stories told of the battle against 'Krauts' and 'Nips' and the valiant efforts of 'Tommy' to free the world from some unspecified darkness. Germans were ugly, faces twisted with hatred and shouting things like "Gotten Himmel" as Tommy let 'em have it. Though the context was opaque, the young reader would be left in no doubt that 'Jerry' had to be dispatched with alacrity for the good of the world.

There was no mention of the Holocaust. If you'd asked me then what World War II had been about, I'd probably have had a vague sense of a crusade to stop the Germans throwing their weight about - little more. Later, I would find it disorienting when 'Jerry' and 'Tommy' met in the 1966 World Cup Final, as though nothing had happened, West Germany having already won the competition in 1954, less than a decade after Auschwitz.

These thoughts visited me the other night watching a documentary to mark the liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years ago. 'Night Will Fall' showed parts of the long suppressed movie collaboration by British media mogul Sydney Bernstein and the director Alfred Hitchcock - withdrawn in late 1945 because by then the allies had decided that rubbing the Germans' noses in the Holocaust might damage the post-war reconstruction. The movie shows the piled-up bodies of people executed by the Nazis just before the arrival of allied forces at Bergen-Belsen, as well as warehouses filled with human hair, toys, spectacles and false teeth.

Someone convicted of a single murder serves a decade or three in jail and comes out to a dotage spent in ignominy, whereas a nation responsible for the deaths of perhaps 80 million people - including six million exterminated Jews - is rehabilitated within months, and a short lifetime later is ordering everyone around as if Nazism had never happened.

Although the Holocaust leaves an open wound in the collective consciousness of our world, the question of responsibility is more opaque. Part of the proffered rationale for the suppression of the Bernstein/Hitchcock movie was that the Holocaust ought to be seen as a crime of humanity rather than of Germany per se. This specious analysis urgently requires to be revisited in the crucible of European intellectual life.

The imperative of "peace-making" imposed another kind of wound: an injured memory enabling zero clarity as to how the greatest crime in history came about. Today, we despatch Hitler as a demon, entertaining some vague sense that he somehow hypnotised a whole nation to fall in or turn blind eyes. The world, including Germany, has filed Nazism away as an aberration of human history. Germany dominates the EU, and nobody is impolite enough to mention the war.

In 'Eichmann in Jerusalem', her report of the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt profiled the archetypal functionary of the Nazi era. Eichmann, she argued, was "evil" in a new way: his evil-doing derived from his "normality". She noted his "denseness", his failure to utter one sentence that wasn't a cliché, his inability to think or to engage in a dialogue with himself. He spoke only words given to him by others and had no sense of any absolute other than a requirement to obey his superiors. This implied something even more terrifying than gas chambers: that evil might comprise what the world had thought of as "good" - obedience, passivity, ordinariness.

Arendt resisted all attempts to "generalise" the Holocaust and let Germany off the hook. In an interview with the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, she rejected the suggestion that the Nazi death camps represented just one holocaust among others and challenged the risible notion that the destruction of six million Jews was the collective responsibility of all humanity. This, she insisted, not only perverted the meaning of the Jewish nightmare, but absolved the actual perpetrators.

There's a context we need to remember. The Nazi ideology-of-choice was a perverted version of Darwin's "survival of the fittest", which operated with extraordinary efficiency in Germany's advanced post-Enlightenment culture of de facto atheism. 'History' was the only God or master, and its servants could become only either victims or executioners. In this unprecedented cauldron, terror and ideology operated in concert to seize and hold the hearts and minds of millions.

It would be absurd to suggest that Nazism was a consequence of the decline of religious practice in German society. Rather, it emerged from the growing scepticism and hubris of "modern" man in a hermetically-sealed, de-absolutised culture in which the explanations for everything were assumed to be imminent. If God did not exist, there was no reason to be good, so evil and "freedom" became the same thing. We should never tire of reminding ourselves and others that this is what Nazism meant. Politeness is bad for the memory, and deadly for the soul.

Irish Independent