Debate: should more be done to remember the Holocaust in Britain?

Orchestrated by anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust saw the systematic murder of more than six million Jews. Here, leading historians of the Holocaust debate whether more should more be done to remember the Holocaust in Britain.

This article was first published in February 2014

Jews waiting for the deportation to a concentration camp - Imagno/Getty Images

Bob Moore: “The Holocaust isn’t central to British history – so why do we need further commemoration?”

The cross-party Holocaust Commission proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be composed of many of the same people who are already at the forefront of Holocaust commemoration and education, so I am wondering what it is intended to achieve.

Its stated purpose is to consider remembrance and education, but this is already being done – we already have Holocaust Memorial Day and the Holocaust Educational Trust, for example. Do we need anything else?

Furthermore, if this is really meant to be an initiative that goes beyond the Holocaust to raise awareness of other genocides, why is it designated as a Holocaust Commission?

I of course have a vested interest, because I teach the Holocaust at university level, but the Holocaust intersects with British history in very few ways.

The greatest direct intersection comes with the deportation of the Jews from the occupied Channel Islands – perhaps exposing the fact that the authorities there were just as culpable in allowing this to happen as their counterparts in occupied continental Europe. While the Holocaust has become the post facto moral justification for the war against Nazi Germany, it should be borne in mind that the mass killings occurred after the war began.

The Holocaust is not central to British history or to the history of Britain, yet we choose to have a day of commemoration – the only other one with a historical basis being Armistice Day – which since World War II has been transformed into Remembrance Sunday.

And with the very honourable and important exception of the Wiener Library, Britain has no designated research facilities for the Holocaust Studies – although there are groups of specialists at a number of UK universities. But this commission is not about research; it seems merely to parallel what already exists.

So you have to ask - has this just been done for effect?

The Holocaust is also represented in the national curriculum already, which begs the question of what additional educational initiatives might achieve.

That’s not to say I don’t have concerns – I have observed, in the course of teaching final year university students, that their background knowledge about the Holocaust and specifically about the nature of Judaism and its place in European society is worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Introducing Judaism is now complicated by a lack of more general knowledge about religion among many contemporary undergraduates.

Of course, I would not seek to undermine the importance of the Holocaust to 20th-century history - not just European, but world history. It’s very difficult, for example, to understand the political standpoints of public and politicians in Israel without reference to the Holocaust.

And if this commission deals with the issue of myths surrounding the Holocaust – for example, that the majority Jews were sent on trains to concentration camps, when in fact most were killed in their local communities – then this could be a good thing.

Bob Moore is a professor of 20th-century European history at the University of Sheffield

 

Olaf Jensen: “We need a Holocaust research and teaching institution”

The forming of a Holocaust Commission to work on a permanent memorial to the Holocaust in Britain, as well as ensuring educational resources for future generations, is an initiative that is highly appreciated. However, my suggestion would be to focus on the creation of a research and teaching institution.

There are some institutions in Britain, such as the Wiener Library in London, which focus on archiving and studying documents on the Holocaust, and on disseminating knowledge. There are also research institutions at a number of Universities.

Yet, for more substantial research, students and interested individuals have to go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, to the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, or visit archives, exhibitions or memorials in Berlin.

Such a research institution in the UK could be inspired by the example of the Washington Memorial Museum with its focus on research and learning, on remembering the victims, and on confronting anti-Semitism and genocides in general.

A memorial on its own might not be enough, and – as the example of the creation of the Berlin memorial has shown – it is very difficult to create a single memorial that is able to represent the Holocaust in a meaningful way.

In any case, even research institutions in combination with a memorial such as the Washington Memorial Museum in the US, Yad Vashem in Israel, and, to some extent, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, have shown that memorials have the tendency to write or rewrite history from a national perspective, with a focus on creating a narrative that emphasises and supports a positive national identity.

Instead, a critical perspective is needed to reflect on the own (individual, collective, national) role in the context of the Holocaust and other genocides, to ensure an active examination and discussion.

To achieve this, I would suggest that distinguished Holocaust scholars be invited for consultation throughout the planning process of the Holocaust Commission.

Dr Olaf Jensen is director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester

 

Tom Lawson: “Why is the Holocaust deemed worse than other incidents of genocide?”

I have grave fears about the direction of Holocaust memorialisation in this country. It seems to me that it is becoming absorbed into the self-satisfied and comforting stories we like to tell ourselves about the past – and is obscuring British examination of more difficult aspects of the past, both in relation to the Holocaust and other atrocities.

The Holocaust Commission is predicated on a fundamental assumption that rather dooms it to failure. Its terms of reference state at the outset "The Holocaust is unique in man's inhumanity to man and it stands alone as the darkest hour of human history". Really? This is an absurd statement, and it immediately ignores or consigns to lesser importance all other incidents of genocide, some of which might be more challenging and more difficult to deal with in Britain.

In a British context, for example, it conveniently excuses the need for any real examination of the crimes of Empire (e.g. in North America or Australasia). Or, more urgently, it suggests that we don't need to be as concerned by genocide in Rwanda or Darfur, or even the explosive situation in the Central African Republic today, as we are about the Holocaust.

Why is the Holocaust unique in the eyes of the commission? They don't tell us – but there is a powerful whiff of western centrism about such an assertion.

Victims of genocide in other contexts might reasonably ask: what is worse about the experience of the Holocaust that makes it a greater moral issue than the crimes to which they have been subjected?

If one was being cynical, one might point out that many other incidents of atrocity or genocide might be rather more awkward for Britain to examine. The genocides unleashed in North America and Australia are a part of British history, and, especially in Australia, were carried out by British men espousing British values.

Even the more modern examples are more problematic for this country than the Holocaust – after all, Rwanda took place within the structures of our own world (one which is apparently vigilant to ensure such things never happen again). So it seems to me that the Holocaust is somehow ‘safe’ for Britain – something which does not have disrupt our stable national myths.

The degree to which this is happening can be seen in the recent activities for Holocaust Memorial Day. The House of Commons debate on the issue stated, for example, that the fact that there were no train tracks running from Britain to Auschwitz was a reminder of how great Britain was, and that “we always stood up for the oppressed”.

While not as explicit, you can see that narrative also embedded in the assumptions of the commission – which has, as part of its remit, to “play a clear focus on the role that Britain played through, for example, the Kindertransport, the liberation of Bergen Belsen and the experiences of survivors now living in Britain”. All of those things focus on Britain as a haven for the oppressed; as a liberator. They turn the Holocaust into a good news story for Britain.

But was it really? The Holocaust could force us to ask some very challenging questions about our own world. The Kindertransport is rather the exception than the rule. For example, the British government consistently during the 1930s and then into the war years largely sought to prevent Jewish immigration into Britain.

Outside of specific links to Britain, of course there is a clear moral imperative for remembering and memorialising the Holocaust. But does that have to be surrounded by suggestion that such a moral imperative is greater than for other acts of genocide?

As such, I don't think it is that Britain does not need greater Holocaust memorialisation and education – but it does not need them on these terms. It needs a critical memorialisation that acknowledges the difficult questions we need to ask.

Tom Lawson is a professor of history at Northumbria University.

To listen to our January 2008 podcast about the study of the Holocaust, click here.

To listen to our April 2013 podcast about dwarves in the Holocaust, click here.

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