Shock greeted the news that German tanks had rolled into Poland on September 1, 1939. But the slaughter of the continents Jews that was to follow had long been signalled
On 1 September 1939, as the massed German divisions began the invasion of Poland, one of the places that would be quickly overrun was a small and unprepossessing town on a railroad junction close to the Vistula river.
Named Owicim, within 10 months it would host the beginnings of the camp the world would know by its infamous German rechristening: Auschwitz.
Today, on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, it still prompts one of the most shaming questions of the war: why allied leaders, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt most prominent among them, failed to prevent the mass slaughter of Europes Jews?
A pivotal moment in the development of international law and humanitarianism as a principle of diplomacy, the Holocaust, and the allies lacklustre response to it, resonates today not simply for the facts of the worst war crime of the last century, but because of the lessons apparently unlearned, the questions unanswered.
Why, from Pol Pots killing fields to Srebrenica, Rwanda, Syria and the current persecution of Chinas Uighars, has the international community struggled repeatedly to construct a timely and effective response?
If this inaction is difficult to contemplate today, its because even during the years preceding the war, the Nazi persecution of Germanys Jews was both heavily prefigured and remarked on by British and US leaders, not least Roosevelt himself. Hitlers attitude towards the Jews had been explicit in Mein Kampf, a threat whose urgency was confirmed by the Nuremberg laws of 1935, excluding German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibiting them from marriage or sexual relations with persons of German or related blood.