This’ll be my first post in a while, but, as ever with this blog, I feel I’ve got something to say, and I don’t want it just to reach my Facebook friends (who are probably inundated with posts from me anyway), but I also need more than Twitter’s 140 characters. Still, I’ll try and keep in short and sharp.
Today, 27th Jan, as you might see in the media, is Holocaust Memorial Day. A day when we stop and reflect on the massacre of 11 million Jews, Roma, disabled, Slavs, POWs, LGBT+, and anyone else deemed undesirable by the state of Nazi Germany.
As a historian, I would say today is vital. The primary role of history is arguably to learn from the mistakes, developments, and lessons of the past, and that requires us to grit our teeth and face all the awful things humanity has done.
Yet at the same time, today is not enough. I said the same about International Women’s Day last year – why is it that we devote just one day to institutionally thinking about the historical struggles of women? Why, too, do we deem only one day a year enough to stop and remember the lessons from one of mankind’s darkest hours?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying there should be two Holocaust Memorial Days per year, or that it’s pointless to have one. In and of itself, today serves an effective purpose – as does International Women’s Day, etc.
What I’m saying is that to spend one day a year reflecting on those mistakes and then the rest of the year filing them away in the backs of our minds is ludicrous.
You may think that’s an extreme thing to say, but for me it’s simple: we don’t practise the rest of the year what we preach today. This isn’t just about the Holocaust; it’s about all of history. Today, we use rose-tinted textbooks to glorify what should be condemned. More than 4 in 10 Britons think the British empire was a force for good – forgetting that the modern world’s first instances of concentration camps were created by the British colonists in South Africa. And you have political forces like UKIP arguing that we should spend less time teaching about Western slavery of Africans and more time teaching about Arabs taking Brits from the southern coasts. (Huh?!) In the USA, they have rightly begun to start protesting against Columbus day, which covers up the fact that Columbus enslaved and wiped out peoples with the fact that he discovered the Americas. The Japanese government has finally agreed to reparations with South Korea over the ‘comfort women’ issue (one of the many Japanese atrocities in WWII, and South Korea was not the only nation to suffer) – and all the while, its state-funded Meiji Shrine contains a memorial to 1905 – ‘the glorious unification of the two nations’ of Korea and Japan, glossing over what that unification meant for Korea.
Today, politicians across the Western world are pulling this curious magic trick, where with one hand they stuff platitudes about their own opinions of Holocaust Memorial Day down our throats, while with the other, they dehumanize refugees, ignore them, or lock them up – ignoring the fact that both are part of the same process. Right now, David Cameron is being (thankfully) lambasted for speaking about Holocaust Memorial Day and referring to those stuck at Calais as “a bunch of migrants” in sentences within a few minutes of each other. But for the most part, we let it slide! You have the Daily Mail comparing immigrants to rats, Donald Trump basing a campaign on the idea that Mexicans and Muslims should be physically kept out of the United States, and Denmark making it legal to confiscate refugees’ possessions.
And here’s the thing; no big process in humanity has ever been sudden. Horrors like the Holocaust are the culmination of long trends wherein the Overton window – what is acceptable in public discourse and what is not – gradually shifts. The rise of the Nazis is perhaps the shortest, sharpest historical example of this, but today, it’s evident everywhere. The Jews of 1930s Germany are now American Muslims, Syrian refugees, and so many others – still including, in fact, Jewish people in places like Hungary.
Which is why it really irks me to see neo-fascists refute the idea that they’re Nazis. How could they be, especially if they’re from a nation who suffered under the Nazis? Well, no, you’re not Nazis, per se, but you’re just in an earlier stage of exactly the same process, trudging along the same inevitable road that so many humans in history have walked before.
This issue is especially problematic for the USA, UK, and Russia, who have the distinction of having defeated the Nazis. That allows us to say, in our nationalism-twisted memories, that “we’re not Nazis – we beat the Nazis.” Well, yes, we did, but that doesn’t mean we’re not liable to commit exactly the same atrocities – in the same way as, conversely, the nation of Germany has made its way from the Nazis regime to being a global leader in human rights. Again, we hold the legacy of having defeated fascism in one hand, ignoring the all-too-familiar trends and acts we commit with the other.
Somehow, paradoxically, commemoration of the Holocaust has made us blind to when we repeat the same processes. We’re all human, at the end of the day, we’re all the same – and none of us is above committing atrocities; from U.S. internment of Japanese Americans to even the actions of the state of Israel against Palestinians in the West Bank.
Amazingly, through all of this, you know who stands out? Germany. When I visited Berlin last year, I was astounded and inspired by the memorials over the city. This is a country that has made it a goal to face up to the horrors of its past, no matter how difficult the process, and by and large, they’ve succeeded. Every country has its problems, and Germany is not perfect, but it is the country that has taken the lead in the refugee crisis – for which Angela Merkel was awarded Time’s Person of the Year. Historians and sociologists may pick finer points to argue with me over, but for the most part, Germany stands out to me as an example of facing up to, and learning from, all of its history.
Denying history is unacceptable. Setting aside one day for political obfuscation, and then going back to repeating the same mistakes we condemn, is barely a step removed from that.
So yes, niemals vergessen. We should never, ever forget the Holocaust – not for a single day.