Mark Levene: The Political Misuse of Holocaust Memorial Day

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark Levene, in the London Independent (1-25-05):

[The writer is Reader in Comparative History at Southampton University. The first two volumes of his Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State' (I B Tauris) is published this summer.]

There has always been something rather odd about Holocaust Memorial Day. Its main purpose, so runs the mantra, is to increase public awareness of "the ideals of peace, justice and community for all", and in the words of David Blunkett, the Education Secretary at the time of its inception four years ago, "to ensure that our children understand the value of diversity and tolerance".

All good universal stuff, and who could possibly demur? Yet using the Holocaust as a tool for the achievement of this goal seems to cut in a rather different direction. In a century which arguably saw scores of genocides, the attempt to exterminate an entire community across a whole continent, relentlessly pursued over four years, was exceptional. One can make connections between the Jewish genocide and others and, in the case of what was also done by the Nazis to the Roma people - gypsies - very close parallels indeed. But this might also lead one to wonder why the latter rarely seem to be embraced within that "sense of belonging" to which Blunkett in his original encomium claimed to aspire.

The discrepancy here, however, is not just a matter of what the government says and what it does with regard to its multi-ethnic citizenship. It also is at the core of the Memorial Day itself. As the American historian, Peter Novick, has pointed out, if you genuinely want to teach lessons to young people on how properly to engage with one another across religious and ethnic divides, you don't go about it by throwing at them the most extreme example of man's inhumanity to man imaginable.

Could it be then, that what the government says Holocaust Day is about is actually a smokescreen for a rather different agenda? Let's just review its history for a moment. Or rather its absence. The British Jewish community spent several decades attempting to get official commemoration of their communal catastrophe. To no avail. This also happened to be the period of the Cold War in which the British government, as a leading light in the Western alliance, sought to focus public attention on the evil Soviet empire,.

In the 1990s all this suddenly began to change. The nasty Russian enemy had been defeated. With the United States as the primary engine, Holocaust awareness began to take on a public role far beyond the reaches of the Jewish community. But interestingly, as it became more official, and more de rigueur for other countries to follow, its representation also began to change. Not only did it begin to be shorn of its more problematic elements - not least the 1941-45 Allies' record of failure to recognise its very exceptionality, or provide safe havens for those fleeing it - at the same time it became so ritualised that any challenge to its incantation began to look like a case of serious bad taste.

This ritualised narrative is, arguably composed of the following key characteristics: The Holocaust was an extraordinary life-changing event in the history of mankind; nothing like it has happened before or since. The event itself was one of unspeakable and monstrous evil - those who perpetrated it were "evil". Britain and America, however, were not tarnished but strove to defeat the evil - they were the "liberators". Jews - victims and survivors - are identifiable with the liberators, and hence with "ourselves". "Never again" must an atrocity of this sort be allowed to take place. The guarantee of our freedom against tyranny and atrocity lies with Western states whose value-system is built upon this fundamental principle.

The West had found its "right" atrocity for the contemporary age. One which, on the one hand, was safe because it was contained within a concretised and politically defused past. And, on the other hand, could be selectively wheeled out every time the government - when taking on a Saddam, for instance - wanted to have its actions on the world stage given a legitimating imprimatur.

The Day, far from being a tool of remembering and commemorating, is actually all about forgetting and avoiding: forgetting Britain's own potential for mass violence inherent in its nuclear weapons programme; avoiding too close a scrutiny not just of its many failures to halt genocide in recent times, but much worse, of its actual military, technological, and financial support for genocidaires, most strikingly, Saddam at the height of his 1988 exterminatory campaign against the Kurds....

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