The Holocaust: it could happen to YOU

Holocaust Memorial Day rips the slaughter of millions out of its historical context to teach us that we are all capable of evil.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Politics

On 27 January 1945, the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet soldiers. Tomorrow, 65 years on, the UK will mark the annual Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). The theme chosen for this year by the Holocaust Memorial Trust is ‘The Legacy of Hope’, making the case that the Holocaust not only remains relevant to everyone in the UK, but that it actually ‘presents an opportunity to listen to the voices from the Holocaust and Nazi persecution so as to realise its lessons of hope for a safer, inclusive and tolerant society’.

HMD was set up in 2000 by UK prime minister Tony Blair. The education secretary at the time, David Blunkett, said that the annual memorial day was designed ‘to ensure that our children understand the value of diversity and tolerance’. The stated mission of HMD is to ‘raise awareness and understanding of the events of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides as a continuing issue for all humanity, based on a recognition that it could happen again anywhere and at any time, unless we ensure that our society opposes discrimination, persecution and racism’.

The message to schoolchildren is thus: never again through never forgetting. Great store is put in the ability of memories and representations of the Holocaust to have a transformative effect on the young and to create active and engaged citizens. The danger is clear and so is the moral: the Holocaust not only can happen again, it has happened again – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur – and it will keep on happening unless we remain eternally vigilant in our duty of remembrance.

Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as the best known symbol of the Holocaust and the widespread outrage and shock at the recent theft of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign from over the gate of the Auschwitz camp was understandable. It is striking, though, that Avner Shalev, the president of Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel, said: ‘This is an attack on the remembrance of the Holocaust.’ In other words, not a real theft of a physical sign so much as a theft of collective memory by ‘certain elements’, an opening of a gate back to those ‘dark days’ that it guards against.

Speculation raged about who the perpetrators might be, with many suggesting neo-Nazis as the most likely culprits – until some common criminals were arrested with the sign cut into three pieces. What was not remarked upon was the fact that the museum authorities had erected a replica of the sign immediately after its theft, the one used when the original was being repaired a few years ago. Arbeit Macht Frei is such a symbol of Auschwitz, and more broadly for the Holocaust, that its talismanic power must always be in place – even it is not real. A copy will serve as well.

There is a similar willingness to forego an encounter with the real in the Holocaust education materials promoted by the HMD and HET. Dance, song and poetry are all recommended: forms of remembrance more appropriate perhaps to a religious service or to a magical ceremony to ward off evil. But pride of place in their material goes to individual narratives and stories of the victims. The HET says: ‘One of the issues within Holocaust education is how young people connect with the estimated six million victims of the Holocaust. To do this it is imperative that students are encouraged to focus on the testimonies of individuals or the names of individual victims.’

However, we cannot hope to understand the Holocaust in all its scope and complexity through the individual accounts of its victims. And yet the bigger picture seems to have little interest for the HET. In its guidelines, teachers are explictly warned off using images of mounds of corpses as ‘such images depersonalise and dehumanise the victims of the Holocaust’; poetry and witness statements are regarded as preferable. Yet depersonalisation and dehumanisation were key elements of the Nazi concentration-camp system, from the shaving of hair to tattooed numbers, a point apparently lost on the HET.

Sometimes the impulse to force the young to connect with the memory of evil goes too far, such as French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s morbid initiative in 2008 to entrust every 10-year-old schoolchild in France ‘with the memory of a French child victim of the Holocaust’. Education minister Xavier Darcos was unashamed to say that the aim of the plan was to ‘create an identification between a child of today and one of the same age who was deported and gassed’. This provoked a predictable backlash with one children’s rights group arguing that, ‘No educational project should be constructed on death’. But the difference between this tacky initiative and the educational urgings of the HET are really only matters of degree.

The tendency to focus on those particular lessons of the Holocaust with the power to inspire the young is very striking. The Holocaust is pressed into service as the only contemporary moral absolute available, the only unequivocal wrong we can find to ensure our children know the difference between good and evil. In the process, the event itself is increasingly recounted in such a way as to make the moral even clearer: the most striking presentation is in terms of innocent children on one side and Nazi monsters on the other, a way of viewing what happened that is well illustrated by the film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (see Turning the Holocaust into a fable, by Nathalie Rothschild).

It is by no means clear, however, that the impact of Holocaust education on the young is straightforward. Children aren’t just passive vessels; they are not only influenced by ideas but bring their own interpretations to them, too. The HET and HMD emphasise that the aim is to teach the young to be active citizens, to transcend barriers of race, sexuality and religion – to overcome difference. Why then, as Peter Novick points out in his excellent book The Holocaust and Collective Memory, bombard them with the clearest example of man’s inhumanity to man? Would it not be easier to teach lessons about citizenship through more positive examples?

The Holocaust is also understood as the failure of modernity, of the Enlightenment, of progress, of man himself. These interpretations, whatever you may think of them, are neither unique to the Holocaust nor fully explained by it. One can make a good case, after all, that the Holocaust owed much more to an excess of irrationality rather than to too much rationality. The real point is that these are lessons that people want to promote for their own contemporary reasons. Such commentators apparently feel no compunction at using the deaths of six million people to bolster their argument.

The Holocaust is a major historical event which children should undoubtedly be taught about. The personal experiences of those involved are one important aspect of understanding it. Millions have rightly been moved by the story of Anne Frank. The danger is that as we try desperately to remember and never forget, that is precisely what ends up happening: we remember selectively to make the process and the moral easier.

For example, Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem First They Came… is frequently misquoted. The original lists the Nazis as coming first for the Communists, then the Social Democrats, then the trade unionists, then the Jews, then for ‘me’. This is routinely changed to have the Nazis come for the Jews first or, as in the case of the US Holocaust Museum, getting the order right, but leaving out the Communists (1).

Instead of selectively remembering and moralising, we need the young to look at the facts critically, to interpret them and create their own meanings and understanding of what happened. They may or may not derive lessons from such an encounter with the past in all its complexity, uncertainty and distance, but they are more likely to find some truth that way than through being spoonfed only those aspects of the past picked for their relevance to today. Projects like HMD and the HET end up both patronising the young (you can’t face the truth, so learn these stories parrot-fashion) and viewing children as potential problems (you will be racist and intolerant unless you are scared off by the possible consequences).

What is really striking is that those who promote the Holocaust as an educational tool have little faith in the durability of the open, liberal society we live in and the decency of ordinary people, expressing instead a willingness to believe that, unless controlled, we are all capable of such evil. It is this attitude, not the possibility of a re-run of events 65 years ago, which is a real and present threat to liberty and tolerance.

We should reject Holocaust Memorial Day and its dubious lessons. We would do better to remember these words from Anne Frank: ‘It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.’

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

After a visit to Dachau, Guy Rundle thought it was time to let the death camps die. Nathalie Rothschild found the New Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem emotionally draining, but intellectually vacuous. Brendan O’Neill stated that the New Labour government has helped diminish the Holocaust, and Mick Hume looked at how a discussion about combating Islamic extremism turned into an infantile game of Holocaust oneupmanship. Or read more at spiked issue the Holocaust.

(1) See Peter Novick, The Holocaust and Collective Memory, Bloomsbury 2001, p221

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Topics Politics


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