A chilling fact about the Holocaust is that it could never have taken place without the willing participation of many millions of ‘ordinary people’.
In Germany, many individuals who were not ardent Nazis nonetheless participated in varying degrees in the persecution and murder of Jews, the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals and political prisoners.
There is no better example than the ordinary men of the Reserve Police Battalion 101. Five hundred policemen, most from Hamburg, most in their 30s and 40s – too old for conscription into the army.
Men who, before the war, had been professional policemen, as well as businessmen, dockworkers, truck drivers, construction workers, machine operators, waiters, pharmacists, and teachers. Only a minority were members of the Nazi Party and only a few belonged to the SS.
During their stay in Poland, these ordinary men participated in the shootings, or the transport to the Treblinka gas chambers, of at least 83,000 Jews.
Ordinary people were witnesses; many cheered on the active participants in persecution and violence.
Sadly, most, ordinary people remained silent.
Responsibility for the Holocaust does not rest with the Nazi leadership alone.
Responsibility for later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur does not rest solely on the leaders who incited hatred and violence.
Ordinary people bear responsibility too. For some, that has meant responsibility for the most appalling crimes. For others, the responsibility of failing to act.
Thankfully, there have also been ordinary men and women willing to stand against hatred.
Ordinary men and women who often showed extraordinary bravery to save Jews.
Their selfless acts demonstrate the best of us.
The Holocaust and subsequent genocides show that ordinary people have choices. It is up to all of us to ensure that the choices we make today and tomorrow ensure a world without genocide.
The Rt Hon Lord Eric Pickles, United Kingdom Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues, and Co-Chair, UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation