As a boy I remember being led around the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, outside Leningrad (now once more Saint Petersburg) where half a million civilian victims of the German siege of the city are buried.
I didn't really get it. If anything the memorial of loss of life that etched itself more lastingly on my consciousness was the collection of relics of the million-strong German army surrounded and annihilated when the siege was lifted, that is kept on display at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Brought up on comics like Victory and Battle for Boys, I still had little sense of the Soviet contribution to Hitler's demise.
It does not surprise me that younger generations than my own have trouble getting their heads around what the Krouts got up to during WWII. It was a little depressing to see the England football team on their pre-tournament excursion to Auschwitz last month, and to read some of the platitudinal remarks which inevitably emerged from it.
Rather unfortunately in my opinion, the Holocaust has become a branded atrocity; and like all brands you are either swayed by it or you aren't. It's a brand that has a worrying degree of deny-ability built into it, and I don't just mean for the shameless 'Holocaust deniers' that crop up periodically in contemporary political dialogue, but for those who would prefer to think of it as something that went on behind closed doors at the end of the war, perpetrated against one human minority by a mad clique of committed Nazis who hadn't really bothered to consult the German people before pressing ahead with it.
This week, reading Anthony Beevor's account of the German Rassenkrieg the sheer nastiness that followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht, became more apparent to me than perhaps ever before. Perhaps mass murder on an industrial scale using gas should be the crime of the century — of any century — but one should also not forget that the Germans came up with this 'final solution' in order to be more humane...to themselves. So how they carried on before this became necessary is therefore all the more shocking.
In 1941 they murdered 1.3m civilians behind Soviet lines, most of them Jews, and most of them meeting their end from bullet wounds. Meanwhile in the same year 2m captured Russian soldiers were left out to die. Separated out from brand Holocaust these are facts that are already harder to deny, aren't they?
Meanwhile the German army's own plan for Operation Barbarossa made very explicit the idea that it would attempt to live off the land in such a way that up to 30m Soviet citizens would duly perish from starvation.
Although it fitted in with the expansionist Nazi notion of Lebensraum — "living space" — which saw the land to the west of the Urals as the promised land for the German folk (then still a little bit overpopulated by subhuman slavs), this genocidal project was cooked up by the senior officers of the Wehrmacht and was not imposed on them at the last minute by Hitler and his cronies.
And when Army Group North approached and surrounded Leningrad the encirclement was undertaken again with the stated intention of starving the city's 2m inhabitants (including 400,000 children) to death. Even if the former Russian capital had surrendered, the Germans had no intention of feeding its inhabitants. They wanted them dead. After that they planned to demolish the beautiful city entirely and hand over the land it once stood on to Finland.
These are events that may have been long forgotten when future generations of listless footballers are being shown around museum-ised death camps.
As I can myself attest, even witnessing half a million well-organised graves can sometimes fail to communicate the message the cemetery was laid to communicate. Yet Beevor's account of the little Jewish girl who stood at the edge of a mass grave and pleaded for her life — "I'm only twelve, I deserve to live" — before being shot and tossed in with the others, really did the trick for me.