'WE did not know about the concentration camps." That was a refrain I heard many times in Germany from the older generation who had lived through the war. And I never believed them, knowing as I did that children used to say to each other at play, "If you do that, you'll go up the chimney."

But I believe them now. I believe them since the Ryan report came out. Those Germans really did not know, because they did not want to know. Because they were afraid to find out. Exactly as we did not want to know what went on in our industrial schools and our Magdalene asylums, even though all the signs were there.

Since the report came out, I have heard people asking if we, as a nation, are somehow worse than others for having condoned the perpetration of such wickedness. We certainly are not the least bit better than others, however long we deluded ourselves with our saints-and-scholars and hundred-thousand-welcomes myths.

But neither are we worse. Every nation has its shadow side, and it only takes a set of unusual circumstances for it to be revealed. Examples are the US's Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; Britain's colonial record; Spain's Inquisition; the French torture in Algeria; Italy's brutality in Abyssinia; China's Tiananmen Square; Japan's massacre in Nanking; the savagery of some of our own UVF and IRA in Northern Ireland.

There are depraved people lurking in every society who emerge only when circumstances give them their opportunity. Then they are delighted to find an SS to join, that will empower them to do what has always been in them. Or to find an inquisition that will give them absolute power over life and death. Or to find a church, society and religious congregation that looks the other way, leaving them free to destroy the lives of little boys or girls.

There are also ordinary decent people who can gradually become warped and twisted by two things, frustration and power. Men at war can do terrible things they would never have dreamt of in civil life, simply from the frustration of their fraught situation combined with the power of their weapon.

It was not all that different in the industrial schools. We know that absolute power can corrupt absolutely. Now throw in the frustration of a celibate life that is utterly unsuitable to the person, and the frustration and absolute power can combine with the devastating results that we are now being made aware of. At least the SS were allowed to marry.

The key lesson for us is that this is not something that occurred in our murky past. It is happening today. The awfulness has simply moved elsewhere, for the shadow side will always be with us. We still turn a blind eye to what is happening in our nursing homes; we refuse to get involved when travellers are victimised; we are not too keen to know what happens in police interrogation rooms in Donegal, nor do we care what happens in our prisons; we shrug off tales of bullying in the military; we wring our hands momentarily at the child suicides from peer pressure in our schools; we shrug when we read of parents unjustly deprived of their children by social workers, yet we stay mum when we know of real child abuse in families around us. Turning a blind eye is tantamount to condoning. We are no better than our fathers.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 'Who will guard the guards themselves?' Vigilance, that eternal vigilance that is the price of democracy, is the only way we can now make up for our past. It means being nosy. It means not minding our own business, for abuse, bullying and injustice are everyone's business. It means having the courage to blow the whistle. In the end it comes down to caring, which is what Christianity was always about.

Final thought: throughout our history, Britain did us at least one favour – it kept the Inquisition out of Ireland. Had it not done so, our shadow side would be even longer and darker than it is.

David Rice directs the Killaloe Hedge-School of Writing (www.killaloe.ie/khs), which runs weekend beginner workshops in fiction, non-fiction and memoir. His seven books include the number one best-seller, Shattered Vows