This is a Jewish memorial site near Kazimierz Dolny, in Poland. It is a small town that at its height, a few hundred years ago, was an important trading hub on the banks of the river Vistula. The town used to have a significant Jewish population, but this all changed during World War II when the Nazis occupied Poland and committed atrocities both against poles resisting the occupation, differently-abled people, and ethnic or religious groups like the Jews, among others.
Jews and polish antifascists or “undesirable” civilians would often be rounded up and sent to either labor and concentration camps, or pretty much shot on the spot and buried in mass graves. The site on the picture, outside of Kazimierz Dolny, was an old Jewish cemetery at the time of the war, and was used by the Nazis for precisely such executions. But the Nazis didn’t stop at committing genocide – they also wanted to humiliate their victims. In Kazimierz Dolny this took the form of pillaging the Jewish cemetery and using the tombstones to build an access road and yard for a Gestapo office set up in a nearby monastery. Decimated, sent off to camps, and humiliated, the Jewish community in Kazimierz Dolny was pretty quickly all but a memory.
How do you recover from something like that? You don’t. The dead stay dead, and the living never came back to Kazimierz Dolny. There are no Jews living in the area today.
This is only one of an almost endless row of stories about those repressed and exterminated by the Nazis. To put it in a larger context, Poland used to have a population of over 3 million Jews before World War II. Around 3 million perished in concentration camps or on the spot executions – at the time this constituted 90% of the overall Jewish population in Poland. Most of the rest escaped never to return. Today, the Jewish population of Poland is around 10 000.
The monument on the picture features recovered pieces of the tombstones used for paving roads by the Nazis, and is inspired by the wailing wall of Jerusalem. It is an attempt to at least document what happened and honor the victims of one of the most devastating genocides in history. The story of Kazimierz Dolny is far from unique. Most cities and areas of Poland and beyond had similar experiences.
Some are commemorated with monuments or museums, for others, only the trees, earth, rocks and the sky tell their stories. These are stories of great sadness and disgrace, but also of equally great bravery and courage. They are also stories about the fascist ideology in practice, and how all attempts of organizing around fascism are inextricably tied to a history of genocide, persecution, rape, torture and immense, unimaginable human suffering.
What can we learn from all of this? How do we stop it from happening again?
There are no easy answers here, but the least we can do is to attempt to take small steps in the right direction, bit by bit.
I think that we can’t treat these ideologies as some sort of general ‘evil’ that can be corrected by persuasion or by simply contrasting it with some more or less general ‘good’. Things like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are impossible to understand, and to defeat fascism, we need to understand these movements. They arise out of specific conditions, which we have to analyze to be able to undermine and attack fascism at it’s root.
We also need to understand that fascism starts small. All the atrocities recounted above started with parties that were tens or hundreds strong when their leaders to-be joined them. Even though the specific conditions today are somewhat different, the core ideology and impetus of these movements remain the same, within the small groups or larger movements we see today. Thus every such group carries the seeds of human disaster and genocide within it, and we have to treat them as such – to me, this means trying to undermine them at their base by any means necessary, and that there is no such thing as “too early” or “too harsh” when it comes to rooting out fascism from our communities.
Some of the means to do so might involve direct confrontations and self-defense where and when needed, like defending rallies, spaces, and other gatherings where groups usually targeted by fascists are present, or preventing fascists from effectively organizing or recruiting. But it is even more important to undermine the very foundations of fascism’s social and political appeal. This can only be done, in my opinion, by building locally rooted networks and grass roots communities where people feel empowered and in control of their lives – in other words, by self-organization that not only promises but also delivers real difference and meaning to people’s lives.
It is also important to realize that the same groups that are targeted by Nazis have often been persecuted by the police and other state institutions, meaning these authoritarian institutions are among the least likely to help fighting fascism. They are also among the least effective in doing so, as their authoritarian logic tends to reproduce oppression rather than move us towards a more free society. A really effective anti-fascism also can’t be anxious about what the public/majority or mainstream media think is appropriate at any certain point, because marginalized groups have rarely if ever been able to count on most of that part of society when trying to defend themselves from fascism.
Instead of this anxious least-common-denominator approach to anti-fascism that tries to please even the most moderate and conservative of social forces that aren’t straight out fascist, effective anti-fascism has to be based on the immediate needs and threats against marginalized communities, and only aim to build mass support or mass movements from such effective anti-fascist practice.
So what we really need is an anti-fascist group in every neighborhood, not only doing the direct and necessary work of counter-acting fascist threats, but also interlinking with a more generalized form of community self-defense with solidarity networks and networks of mutual aid taking care of problems with (for instance) landlords, radical unions in our workplaces, community gardens, social centers and all kinds of other structures of social care which we use to meet our every day needs and immediately improve our conditions, with the long term aim of transforming all the productive, financial and social wealth that today is mostly privatized by rich people or monopolized by states, and turn it into a commons in which we all share based on our needs and desires.
Who the hell would want or care to be a fascist in such a world? Let’s start here and now. Let’s smash fascism and create a whole new world while we’re at it. Because, in the end, I think it is the only way to really defeat it.