Holocaust Memorial Day has become a central fixture of the ways many people learn about the Holocaust. Supported by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust who create a wide range of resources, it helps schools, universities and community groups draw attention to the suffering experienced by Jewish people, and many others, during the Nazi era. Though focused on the past, Holocaust Memorial Day also encourages us all to think more deeply about the present day.
Some may argue that the very idea of Holocaust Memorial Day is deeply problematic. By remembering the Holocaust, don’t we forget other examples of genocide, mass atrocity and death? Why do we ‘remember’ the Holocaust, yet not the Holodomor in the Soviet Union, or Mao’s Great Leap Forwards?
There are also limits to what can be communicated about the history of the Holocaust by HMD events. The Holocaust was a vast, complex series of developments that spread across Europe over a number of years. As someone who teaches this history, I find explaining the many dimensions of this story incredibly difficult on year-long degree module, and certainly all this cannot be covered on a single day.
Another issue here is the news stories generated by reactions to the event that ultimately distract from the deeper aims of Holocaust Memorial Day. For example, in 2017 Donald Trump’s formal Holocaust Memorial Day message, his first as President of the USA, somehow failed to mention Jewish people at all, leading to much criticism from groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. Trump’s defenders, such as Fred Brown of the Republican Jewish Coalition, also suggested that it was wrong for people to criticise Trump, and were using the issue to make partisan, anti-Trump points.
At the University of Northampton, we have marked Holocaust Memorial Day for many years. Each January we try to put on free talks and other activities for students, staff and the wider community that we hope will simply foster a better awareness of Nazi genocide as well as many wider issues. As an organiser, I always worry about setting the right tone, but we have always tried to strike a balance between thinking about the Nazi past, and engaging with some broader issues that this tragic episode in history highlights.
In past years, we have had talks from survivors, who have captivated audiences in ways no one else can. We have also hosted leading experts including Tom Lawson, who used the event to remind us of Britain’s colonial past, and its own genocides. Another expert to come to one of our events was Dan Stone, who talked about the need for historians and others to think into the minds of those who perpetrated the Holocaust, and saw genocide as desirable. Finally, we have also been very lucky to host the late David Cesarani, who talked about the ways the flow of the Second World War helped to create conditions that led to Nazi mass extermination programmes.
This year, we have a talk from another leading expert, Aristotle Kallis of Keele University, a leading voice on fascist ideologies and genocide. Again, his talk will not simply reflect on the history of the Nazi regime, but will consider much more recent acts of genocide, especially during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Here too, Europeans watched a situation where ideology promoting a ‘purified’ national community combined with war to produce systematic killing of civilians. In the past few months, one of the key figures in the genocide in Europe of the 1990s, Ratko Mladić, was convicted for his role in genocide, including the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. This history is still very much ongoing.
We will also have a presentation from one of our PhD students, Siobhan Hyland, talking about how alleged war criminals from the Second World War era were able to take up residence in the UK after 1945, and only belatedly, in the 1990s, did the British state attempt to put them on trial. The history of the Holocaust can point to some uncomfortable elements of British history too.
Finally, this year we also have a talk from Siobhan Tatum, who leads a Heritage Lottery Funded oral history project called Race Act 40. While this does not focus on genocide, such research helps us understand the ways intolerance has taken root in local communities in Britain. In an era of rising hate crimes, including anti-Semitic attacks, understanding how prejudice operates in modern Britain is of crucial importance.
However we remember the Nazi past as part of Holocaust Memorial Day, is important to use the event to sharpen our awareness, and develop a better, critical, understanding of the history of extremism and the deadly violence it can licence. We should try to resist simplistic point scoring, but also take the opportunity to use HMD events as a way to consider how hatred and intolerance of others has taken many forms, and is still with us. Holocaust Memorial Day should be a time to deepen understanding on how messages of hate, and situations of extreme suffering, happened in the past, and how they continue into the present day.
Why not come along and join us, on 24 January 2018 at Park Campus. It is free and open to the public.
Paul Jackson, Senior Lecture in History