Remembering the Holocaust is something I have been involved with at my university since I started working here over ten years ago. As a researcher who focuses on more recent forms of fascist and far right politics, recalling the horrors of fascist violence has in many ways never seemed more important.
In recent years, antisemitism has been on the rise in Britain, America and elsewhere, as have many other prejudices. Politicians now not merely oppose migrants but use and normalise dehumanising languages that used to be found only on the fringes of politics. Others are often comfortable when they chose to ‘remember’ Germany’s past crimes but are less happy to have a light shed on their own country’s complicity in atrocities.
This year’s focus for Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘ordinary people’, a very thought provoking theme. When we teach about the Holocaust, we need to centre those who made mass genocide happen. The Nazi leadership, and leaders of other countries who also sanctioned genocide such as Romania’s General Ion Antonescu or Croatia’s Ante Pavelić, certainly played crucial roles. However, as a mass set of events, genocide is not possible without many, far less powerful people involving themselves in carrying out such crimes, or simply turning a blind eye.
Of course, the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi led genocide were also ordinary, everyday people. Indeed, humanising their stories is crucial when remembering the Holocaust. The victims of Nazi led genocide were often Jewish, but many other ordinary people were also killed, including Roma communities, Black people, LGBTQ+ people, neurodiverse people and many others. As are all genocides, it was a crime against all humanity. How do we start to make sense of this?
The seminal historian of the Holocaust Raul Hilberg once famously said of his work: ‘I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers.’ This is a very powerful perspective.
As we reflect on the Holocaust and Nazi-led genocides against many communities, as well as other genocides before and after the Second World War, we ought to think more in this way. Top-down ‘big picture’ perspectives can offer explanations, but the past is messy. Reflecting on the lived experienced and personal journeys through horror is crucial to an empathetic understanding of the history of genocide.
Considering more fully the ordinary people of the past, who lived through an extraordinary time, might also help us think about how our actions and the actions of others feed into the normalising hatred and intolerance today. It can also help us consider that this really is something quite dangerous and needs to be challenged, and not just on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Professor Paul Jackson