Playing politics with the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for all sorts of groups and institutions to dress up as morally virtuous.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Politics

The UK theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, on 27 January, was Untold Stories. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) explained that ‘there are endless stories we can tell. They are not fiction. The accounts of those who perished and those who survived can and should have an impact on our behaviour today… it is vital to learn the lessons of the past.’

If we are just prepared to listen and to learn from these stories, we can apparently come to ‘understand the need to live in a society which values differences and does not discriminate against anyone based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability or gender. These stories can assist us in celebrating the society we live in today.’

In other words, HMDT sends the message that we need to live in a non-discriminatory society and must remain ever vigilant against those who do not value and celebrate differences, or else another Holocaust will be imminent.

One such celebration of difference was Liverpool Remembers, an event that combined reflections on ‘human rights tragedies’ with Merseyside Police leading ‘a discussion on tackling hate crime in the region’. The organiser, Councillor Louise Baldock, said: ‘Racism, homophobia and other forms of hate crime still exist today, and if unchecked, lead to world tragedies like the Holocaust.’ Elsewhere, the Exploring Islam Foundation launched the Missing Pages initiative. It used examples of Muslims who saved Jews in the Second World War to ‘show how Islam promotes diversity and co-existence and has no tolerance of anti-Semitism’.

In events like these, the Holocaust is deployed as a powerful, moral historical allegory, and the stories and memories of victims become hijacked in order to impart lessons about how we should behave today. All kinds of politicians, community cohesion officers and special constables get in on the game every year, looking to boost their authority with some ritualised pronouncements of moral virtues. That would be distasteful enough if it were not for the fact that, in the incessant retelling of these stories, the Holocaust is turned into a mere symbol of the historical reality: it becomes divorced from the past. It becomes a moral lesson so simplified it can be communicated in soundbites and stark opposites: Hate is bad, respect is good.

What’s more, memory doesn’t even work in the way the Untold Stories theme suggests. Yes, the value of remembering our past is that it then becomes something we can reflect on, and maybe learn from. However, this is only true of memories of experiences that we have actually had ourselves. It doesn’t work with second-hand memories. Such impersonal memory is, as Eva Hoffman argues in After Such Knowledge, ‘malleable in the extreme, and highly susceptible to deliberate shaping or exploitation – to propaganda and censorship, to tendentious selectivity and wilful emphasis. It is, in other words, an instrument not so much of subjective reflection or understanding as of cultural agendas, or ideological purposes.’

Today, the Holocaust has become such an instrument. It is exploited as a universal symbol of human suffering, shaped and moulded for the purpose of spinning morality tales that are often not only mawkish and tawdry, but also highly politicised. All this risks creating a lot of cynicism towards the facts of the past.

As Hoffman explains, we are compelled to submit to a kind of double-think when considering the Holocaust. ‘In our strategy of avowal, we declare that we remember, identify with, defend, and idealise something extremely disturbing that we have not experienced. We avow, or vow ourselves to be faithful to a terribilitas that we simultaneously declare to be unimaginable.’

One of the dangers of politicising memory in this way – using the threat of another Holocaust in the support of valuing differences – is that it actually makes the differences that are meant to be so meaningless terribly important. We must respect other peoples’ differences, but at the same time ensure that we don’t treat each other differently on the basis of those differences. But this means we have first to notice those differences, to make ourselves aware of them, only in order to make sure that we don’t notice them…

It’s this strange non-think that explains the paradox behind the fact that we are told to celebrate our society as an example of tolerance, equality and fairness and, in the same breath, we are told that discrimination, racism and hatred are still rife. The message is we must be vigilant against each other and the differences that we must value as immaterial become essentialised, become constitutive of our identities.

Not only is it politically naive to think that you can build community or social cohesion through being so acutely over-aware of difference, but it is an attitude that perpetuates difference, as opposed to rendering differences meaningless. To make difference irrelevant would require something like fighting together, something like solidarity. What we get now is the opposite: mere passive being together.

This is the kind of behaviour – passive schizophrenia – that is being advocated by the morality plays of Holocaust Memorial Day. We should seriously consider at this point whether or not to get off the bandwagon of Holocaust remembrance. The politicisation of Holocaust memory in the service of hate-crime reduction, for example – whatever its good intentions – is in fact a direct assault on freedom of speech. Restricting people’s opportunity to say what they think, to challenge others’ opinions, and to voice potentially divisive ideas will not help foster an open and free society. Instead, it encourages a culture of see-but-don’t-say, a culture of observers and moral bystanders. This is sadly ironic, because if we are ever faced with discrimination in society of the order of the Nuremberg laws, we will need as much freedom of speech as possible, as many fearlessly outspoken and argumentative people as possible.

It might even be that these relentless ritual avowals of anti-racism and non-discrimination are actually creating a society with disturbing parallels to that past that we so want to avoid repeating. The extent of our vigilance now encompasses 10,000 primary school children who in 2008 to 2009 were reported by their teachers for racist and homophobic ‘hate crimes’ – or ‘name-calling’, to use the language of the real world.

Maybe we should stop telling Holocaust stories. Maybe those survivors who are still alive should be afforded some privacy and some dignity. Maybe we’d be better off trying to understand the history and let it remain in the past, instead of making it part of our present or future.

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

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Topics Politics


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