01/27/2015 09:30 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Lessons From Auschwitz, 70 Years Later

Seventy years after Soldiers from the Red Army discovered the sights of horror and the seven thousand survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the imagination still boggles at trying to understand. At times it seems as if there were a hole in time: a place where the rules and laws of humanity were sucked into a non-place that is totally unspeakable, and beyond understanding.

Soon no more Holocaust survivors will be alive, and our duty of remembering and understanding increases. This means, among other things, that we must face the uncomfortable truths about human nature that Auschwitz symbolizes. Auschwitz was not a hole in time: It was a historical event perpetuated by human beings, who were not essentially different from all of us.

Social psychology has investigated the mechanisms by which we humans can slide into perpetuating horrors we think we are not capable of. Let us start with the phenomenon called bystander apathy, the human tendency to look on to horrors and feel that we have not responsibility to intervene.

Remembering Auschwitz we all say "never again," and we mean it. And we self-righteously accuse the allied forces for not having done enough to try stopping Auschwitz. In doing so we conveniently repress that Auschwitz and the Holocaust are by no means the only genocides of the twentieth century. We all witnessed genocides of horrible proportions in our lifetimes, among them the killing of millions in Cambodia by the Pol Pot regime and the butchering of up to one million Tutsis in Rwanda within one hundred days in 1994. The Rwandan genocide occurred in the era of global communication networks.

We all knew about it in real time, and saw pictures of it on CNN and BBC, and we all did nothing but wring our hands. This means that all of us have been passive bystanders to genocide, and we need to ask what this says about us. True: most of us as individuals could do very little to stop either the slaughter of the Pol Pot regime or the Rwandan genocide. But how much pressure did we exert on our governments to do something? And to what extent did we feel that it just wasn't our responsibility to do something?

Social psychology, even more chillingly, has shown that completely ordinary people can quite easily made to do the unspeakable. In the 1960s Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram performed an experiment in which perfectly ordinary people were asked to participate in a study about learning processes and to administer ever-increasing levels of electric shock to another participant of the study, gradually crossing thresholds that were marked as "very painful" and finally "life-threatening". More than two thirds of the participants went all the way and administered shocks they believed to be potentially lethal -- because they were told that doing so was important for the progress of science: they did what they were told to do (not knowing that they didn't really administer shocks).

Many might think it comforting to think that genocide belongs to the past in Europe, or to other continents like Asia or Africa. It is therefore important to fully realize that Milgram conducted his experiment in New Haven, Connecticut. Milgram performed the experiment after the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, to find out whether ordinary human beings could be pushed to do horrible things just out of obedience. And the horrifying answer is: yes, most of us are capable of doing things far more terrible than we can imagine.

In the light of the findings of social psychology, and in the light of genocides after Auschwitz, what is our duty of memory and understanding? We must realize that while Auschwitz belongs to the past, genocide has and can happen again, and the perpetrators can be human beings much more similar to all of us than we would like to believe. It can also happen, because the last generations (this means all of us) have proven, that we are all capable of knowing about genocide without feeling impelled to ask what we can do to stop it.

This leads me to a final point. Human beings have the propensity to deny facts that do not fit their worldview, and the Holocaust, unfortunately, has been and is being denied by hundreds of millions. Research in the last years has uncovered profoundly unsettling proportions of Holocaust denial worldwide. Polls reported in The Atlantic show that the belief that historical reports of the Holocaust are exaggerated is, quite surprisingly, highest among Hindus, where a staggering 65 percent believe Holocaust figures to be overblown, followed by Muslims, where the proportion is 53 percent for those under the age of 65.

The interpretation of these data and their connection to anti-Semitism and attitudes against Israel is complex and there is no simple answer how to fight Holocaust denial. But I think that one clear conclusion can be drawn: any political use of the Holocaust is illegitimate and ethically reprehensible.

This is most blatant in the case of Holocaust denial used to attack Israel's legitimacy, and such denials are all too common: Mahmoud Abbas doctoral dissertation argued that the Zionists collaborated with the Third Reich in order to force Jews to come to Palestine, and that that the number Jews killed was far smaller than claimed. Such politically motivated and irresponsible "research" is despicable -- as are the so-called "scientific" conferences of Holocaust-deniers former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted in Tehran.

But we should also not forget that Abbas has since recanted and publicly said that the Holocaust is one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed, and that Iran's current president Hassan Rouhani has acknowledged the Holocaust's reality and horror -- and has been heavily criticized in Iran for doing so. Unfortunately this does not reflect a change of heart in the majority of Muslims worldwide, but shows that with smart and judicious dissemination of information about the Holocaust, its denial can be fought.

Jewish organizations worldwide and Israel of course carry a special duty to keep memory of the Holocaust and Auschwitz alive. In many ways Israel has fulfilled this duty admirably: the prime example is of course Yad Vashem, the subdued and yet deeply moving and unsettling memorial of the Holocaust and its victims. Israel has also brought forth worldwide authorities like historians Yehuda Bauer and Shaul Friedlander who have written compelling works on the Holocaust. World Jewry is doing the sacred work of tackling all forms of Holocaust denial admirably as well, supported by and in collaboration with the governments of many countries, led by Germany and the U.S.

Unfortunately some of our politicians, led by Netanyahu, are politicizing the Holocaust, often making irresponsible comparisons between the Nazi period and the present. Not only do they not serve Israel's interest in doing so, but they are also abusing the Holocaust and the memory of its victims. The Holocaust must be remembered for its own sake, and for the sake of humanity as a whole: we need to remember what humans are capable of, and do anything we can to prevent genocide to recur, anywhere.

We can only rise to our duty to remember the Holocaust through profound respect to the facts and by maintaining the highest standards of argumentation. Any politicization of the Holocaust plays into the hands both of the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people, and of the many others who want to forget Auschwitz and its warnings for humanity.