How has public memory of the Holocaust changed over the years?

Holocaust Memorial Day falls on 27 January. Here, Jeremy Black looks at how the public memory of this central episode in history has changed dramatically over the years.

This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

Holocaust memorial at Buchenwald. © Dennis Dolkens | Dreamstime.com

Nazi policy has become the definition of depravity. Seen today as a central episode in 20th-century history, the Holocaust, however, was not always presented as such. Indeed, its position in public memory has changed considerably over the decades.

Wartime reports of the mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazi regime were revealed as true following its fall, and the “mass murder” of Jews was an aspect of Count Four of the indictments at Nuremberg. Yet, after the trials of those directly responsible, especially the commandants of concentration camps, the Holocaust then receded from attention, as efforts were made to forget the war. The Cold War and the desire to revive West Germany as a pro-west democracy ensured instead that other issues were stressed. A self-serving presentation by Germans of themselves as victims of the war contributed to this shunning of responsibility. Indeed, opinion polls indicated that many Germans misleadingly thought the Jews partly responsible for what had happened to them.

Communist regimes played down or ignored the extent to which Jews were the victims of Nazism, while in West Germany willing ignorance, if not cover-up, was the order of the day. In West Germany in the 1960s, however, general social and cultural changes combined with more specific political shifts. A generation that did not feel responsibility for Nazism had less deference towards its predecessors, while the political and cultural agenda was no longer shaped by the pressures of post-war reconstruction. There was also a growing awareness of Nazi atrocities.

Germany was not alone, for the Holocaust also became a more central issue elsewhere in the 1970s, notably in France and the United States, particularly in the 1990s. Developments within individual countries encouraged pressure for action elsewhere as well, while a general atmosphere of scrutiny led institutions such as the Red Cross, Swiss banks and churches to open archives in response to criticism. The greater weight of the Holocaust in the collective western consciousness combined with a less deferential attitude towards the past in France, with a more critical response to those who had played a role under Vichy, such as Maurice Papon, who was tried in 1997–8 for his role in the deportation of Bordeaux’s Jews to the concentration camps.

By then, governments were coming to grips with wartime collaboration and post-war moral cowardice, not to say complicity. Thus, Mitterand’s shameful covering up of Vichy’s role was replaced by a willingness to accept responsibility under Chirac. By the 1990s, the Holocaust was also a key episode in American historical consciousness, whereas it had been downplayed until the 1970s.

In eastern Europe the fall of communist regimes was followed by a rethinking of wartime roles. In some states such as Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia there were attempts to rehabilitate collaborationist regimes, but these attempts were met with considerable criticism. Instead, international pressure contributed, as in Romania, to a greater willingness to consider wartime collaboration in the Holocaust. In eastern Europe, however, this remained an intensely politicised issue, not least in Lithuania, with efforts to assert a comparability between Nazi and communist brutality.

Changing attitudes were seen in official commemoration, as in Britain and Denmark, the criminalisation and prosecution of Holocaust denial and the stronger emphasis
on the individuality of victimhood. Holocaust awareness in Britain in recent years was underlined by active engagement by the BBC, with major television series, especially The Nazis: A Warning from History (1997), which was subsequently sold to over 30 countries, and Auschwitz: The Nazis and the “Final Solution” (2005), which was transmitted in over a dozen countries.

Holocaust remembrance has, however, to counter a downplaying by national comparison which saw many episodes presented as equivalent, ranging from the Atlantic slave trade, to Stalin’s crimes, the 19th-century treatment of the Maori to the policies of Japan in 1937 or Israel and the USA recently. At the same time, these comparisons indicate the centrality of the Holocaust.

Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of The Holocaust, published by the Social Affairs Unit.

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