Diminishing the Holocaust
Having turned the Nazi genocide into a platform for cheap moral posturing, the UK government can't be surprised that everyone else wants a piece of the action.
The organisers of Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), instituted by the New Labour government in 2001, must have got the idea for this year’s theme by flicking through one of those bland two-quid guides to life and love available on the counters of all good bookshops. ‘One person can make a difference’ is the slogan this year, as the people behind HMD argue that the lesson of the Holocaust for our ‘ever-changing world’ is that ‘individuals who make moral choices and act upon them can and do make a difference’ (1). I’m sure I read something similar in 50 Tips For Keeping Your Soul Alive in Tough Times, or was it in 100 Emotional Tips in 100 Days? Welcome to the Oprahisation of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
The bitter (and not funny) irony of Holocaust Memorial Day is that in trying to turn this historic atrocity into a moral absolute for our relativistic times – the one event we can all agree was truly horrendous and must never happen again – the government has also managed to render it unexceptional, even banal. By effectively using the Holocaust as a kind of moral anchor at a time when every other government initiative is greeted by a collective shrug of the shoulder, ministers have undermined its uniqueness and hollowed out the true horror of what happened. They have also given rise to a deeply unsavoury scrabble among individuals and groups who – taking the government’s lead – want to use the Holocaust for their own agenda and ends.
Consider this year’s theme. Holocaust Memorial Day will be hosted in Wales; the official commemoration date is Friday 27 January, but because Fridays have ‘implications for a number of faiths’, the big national event will take place today at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. It is all about celebrating the courage of those who rescued persecuted Jews in wartime Europe, either by hiding them or helping them to flee Nazi-occupied territory. It is no doubt worthy to remember and commemorate the actions of these heroic individuals, who often risked life, limb and liberty to help Jewish families. But in the utilitarian grip of the HMD organisers, even these individuals’ stories have been turned into a vacuous lesson in standing up to bullies or being nice to your nextdoor neighbours.
‘We hope that learning about the courage of the rescuers will enable every one of us, young and old, of whatever faith or no faith, to change our attitudes to our fellow man’, says the HMD website. It seems HMD is less about remembering the actions of those in the past than altering the actions of the rest of us today. This year’s theme ‘offers every single person in the country the opportunity to challenge their own current behaviour and moral choices’ apparently – and if you’re stumped for ideas about how to do that, then the HMD website has some tips: ‘Engage in some local multicultural activity…. Challenge racism and bullying…. Support asylum seekers in their community.’ (Here it literally starts to sound like one of those cheap guides to life.)
Under HMD, the Holocaust has been turned into a soapbox from which to proclaim the bland pieties of New Labour’s politics of behaviour: ‘Be good little boys and girls if you want to stop such a horror from occurring again!’ New Labourites effectively try to give some oomph and urgency to their dull political agenda by using the Holocaust as a backdrop, a symbol of what might happen if we don’t go along with multiculturalism or agree to wear a blue wristband against bullying.
This year’s theme also continues the HMD habit of taking the Holocaust out of its historical context, and thus obscuring a true understanding of what it was about. Indeed, the HMD website says that one reason why it focuses on the experiences of individual victims and survivors of the Holocaust is in order to ‘reduce the scale [of the event] to an understandable story’. Reading ‘About the 2006 Theme: One Person Can Make a Difference’, you get the impression that the Holocaust was all about individuals: nasty individuals who carried it out, against Jewish individuals who were its victims, some of whom were saved by heroic individuals who made the ‘right moral choices’.
This focus on individuals obscures the role of the German Nazi state in organising and executing the Holocaust. It also plays down the role of the British and American governments, which often turned away Jewish immigrants from Europe and were complicit in the politics of anti-Semitism that was widespread in the Western world at the time and which reached its horrifically logical conclusion under the Nazis. And some of those individuals who helped the Jews were often part of resistance networks, rather than simply being one man or woman taking a stand against Nazi ‘bullying’. Yet according to HMD, ‘The concept of one person changing the course of history is an essential lesson of the Holocaust’.
According to HMD’s reading, the Holocaust occurred less as a consequence of the specific historical circumstances of wartime Europe and of Nazi ideology, than as a result of a general bad attitude on the part of sections of humanity. It calls on everyone to be on the lookout for ‘racism and victimisation’ to ensure that something like the Holocaust is ‘neither forgotten nor repeated’. The HMD website discusses ‘prejudice, racism and other forms of bigotry’ as a kind of free-floating force which, when pushed to its extremes, can unleash a Holocaust. Thus the role of HMD becomes to keep our base instincts in check by educating the nation about the importance of ‘individual responsibility and the ways in which individuals can make a difference’. This not only fails to offer an historical understanding of the Holocaust; it also reveals a pretty degraded view of humanity, which is seen as being one prejudiced viewpoint away from committing another Nazi-style genocide.
New Labour has exploited the Holocaust for political purposes. At a time when our leaders find it increasingly difficult to create a consensus on any important issue – from the war in Iraq to drugs policy at home – the government rolls out the Holocaust on an annual basis as the one issue where all good, decent people agree that there remains a clear line between Good and Evil. But in the process it has diminished the Nazis’ industrialised slaughter of six million Jews, by talking about the Holocaust alongside bullying and other forms of victimisation.
Not surprisingly, other groups are trying to squeeze themselves on to this Holocaust platform. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella organisation of Muslim groups, has caused a stink by boycotting HMD for being too exclusive. They want it to be renamed ‘Genocide Day’ and to commemorate not only the Nazi Holocaust but also genocides against Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Darfur and against other peoples in Armenia, Rwanda and elsewhere. HMD should ‘expose all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism’, said MCB spokesman Inayat Bungawala (2).
Such ‘me too!’ pleading, where groups demand that their experience of victimisation also be recognised as part of Holocaust or genocide commemorations, is an offshoot of the authorities’ diminishment of the Holocaust. By reducing the Holocaust to a lesson of the day about prejudice, the government effectively gives a green light to everyone else who wants to bang their own victim drum. Also, government officials and media commentators have used the language of genocide and Holocaust to justify various military interventions over the past 10 to 15 years: the Serbs were described as the ‘new Nazis’ in the 1990s, and more recently Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler (3).
Consequently, virtually every grubby and bloody civil war is now discussed as a ‘genocide’. This creates a situation where the MCB can talk about the clashes in Chechnya in the same breath as the Nazi genocide, and where isolated expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment in contemporary Britain, which rarely involve assault, can be put on a par with the persecution, ghettoisation and vaporisation of six million Jews.
HMD this year celebrates those rescuers of Jews who dared to ‘disobey orders and ignore propaganda’. We would do well to ignore HMD’s propaganda, too.
Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.
spiked-issue: The Holocaust
Inside Jerusalem’s Holocaust History Museum, by Nathalie Rothschild
(1) See the Holocaust Memorial Day website
(2) UK Muslim group won’t attend Holocaust commemoration, CNS News, 26 January 2006
(3) See Exploiting genocide, Brendan O’Neill, Spectator, 21 January 2006
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