On this day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, much of the world will mark once again the United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day (UNIHRD), focused this year on the theme of ‘Resistance’. This is the seventeenth instance of this commemoration, since the United Nations took the fittingly exceptional step to recognise the memory of the Holocaust as a universal warning from history, to be safeguarded against distortion and denial and to be taught as a turning point in modern human history.
There is little doubt that the occasion retains its poignancy and relevance, especially for Jewish communities who trace to the Holocaust an indelible loss and who still find themselves targeted in myriad ways, including violent attacks. The urgency of remembering the Holocaust may indeed have intensified in recent years, as survivors disappear and as misinformation surges, poor awareness of Holocaust history persists, and new crimes against humanity are committed.
Yet the gravitas of the day should not prevent an open reflection on the fact that, more than fifteen years after the inaugural United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are yet to ensure that institutionally-sanctioned memory has a significant, lasting and positive impact. Given all the alarming trends that still justify its existence, we must question UNIHRD’s efficacy, or rather our efficacy in using this powerful focal point to raise awareness and effect change.
How do we ensure that the public performance of remembrance is not a hollow, rhetorical exercise but rather translates into the historical knowledge, understanding, empathy, and behaviours that are necessary to prevent and combat genocide, persecution, discrimination, and public indifference towards these?
Commitment is in no short supply. Unfortunately, in the overwhelming absence of concrete action, neither is hypocrisy. There is no better illustration of this than the expression ‘Never Again’, which we routinely hear used in a wide spectrum of forms, from the unbearably moving to the inexcusably shallow. A cursory look at British Parliamentary records provides a snapshot: during the 2020 parliamentary debate that marked UNIHRD, the expression ‘never again’ was used no fewer than twenty times across eighteen speeches spanning just over two hours12.19pm … 12.28pm … 12.31pm … like a catalogue of Blackadder’s insubordinations. While some were perfunctory and others—such as Labour MP’s Charlotte Nichol’s—beautifully heartfelt interventions, there was nothing wrong with these bipartisan expressions of concerns, yet we must reflect on the bitter irony that many sounded a warning about the fact that ‘never again’ has become a platitude, while using the expression in tightly-packaged two-minute speeches that offered little more than such a warning.
We have collectively allowed ‘never again’ to mean something so broad and heterogeneous that it is effectively a meaningless slogan.
This is not a new concern. It is more than twenty years since the American historian Peter Novick eloquently and bravely challenged American politics’ embrace of the Holocaust as a collective memory. His trenchant conclusion was that ‘[never again] is not an expectation, not even an aspiration; rather, a ritualized reminder of expectations and aspirations now tacitly abandoned.’
Novick quoted vocal Jewish advocates for American intervention in Bosnia, who argued that a solemn commitment to avoiding the repetition of ‘the Nazi killing of Jews in Europe in the 1940s’—that is of a unique historical event—was equivalent to saying ‘never again the slaughter of the Albigensians,’ the thirteenth-century heretics massacred in the Crusades. ‘Let us have the decency,’ journalist Leonard Fein concluded, ‘to refrain from ever saying ‘Never again.’’
A similar sentiment was expressed by UN Assembly President Jan Eliasson in 2005, illustrating the act in the very act of announcing the establishment of UNIHRD: ‘We cannot continue to repeat saying ‘Never again’—after Cambodia, Rwanda and Srebrenica.’
Writing amid those failed interventions, Novick filed a staggering list of ‘causes’ that, since the 1970s, had sought legitimacy and public resonance in comparisons with the Holocaust: from anti-abortionists to pro-choice activists; from campaigners against the death penalty to the National Rifle Association, which once claimed the right to bear arms may have prevented the Holocaust.
Twenty years later, despite extensive work in Holocaust education and the UN’s imprimatur on Holocaust memory, Novick’s list would likely be much expanded, more international, and at least as outlandish—bolstered by social media, the mainstreaming of fake news and conspiracy theories, and the collapse of some ethical boundaries around Holocaust discourse. In recent years, for instance, Holocaust references have been used to condemn American immigration laws and the Affordable Care Act, taxation and hate speech legislation. Anti-Nazi Pastor Martin Niemöller’s oft-cited quote—which has its own interesting history of adaptability—has now generated memes to warn us against the persecution of everyone, from ‘the wealthy’ to ‘youtubers’. New Zealand readers might remember politician David Seymour tweeting ‘First they came for our holidays…‘ in 2018, following the government’s announcement of an amendment to the Holidays Act.
In this ungainly scramble for a smorgasbord of historical appropriation, false equivalences and ignorance, health policies remain a firm favourite. Comparisons to Nazi genocidal policies are regularly played out across the world in debates on assisted dying, in a way that not only indulges in anachronism but also perpetuates the criminal Nazi deception that hid racist mass murder under the euphemism of ‘euthanasia’.
We should not be surprised, then, to find the same tactics in the fierce arguments over vaccination mandates, vaccine passes and other responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The alarmingly widespread phenomenon has recently been tracked in US politics by the American Jewish Committee’s Kenneth Bandler, but across the world we have seen demonstrators voice the false equivalence that such public health measures were akin to Nazi persecution. Protesters have incorrectly drawn links to the 1949 Nuremberg Code, which set rules around medical experimentation, and have even worn yellow stars or replica concentration camp uniforms. It is not needless to say that, even when they are not malicious, such comparisons are untrue and offensive, resting not only on false equivalence, but also on inaccuracy, absurd leaps of logic, and anachronism.
This is a complex and still-developing space of course, populated not only by tastelessness, misinformation and fear, but also by paradox and ambiguity. It is a space, as George Monbiot has noted in The Guardian, where traditionally left-wing constituencies find themselves mobilising alongside neo-fascists. In that ideological twilight zone, we may find those nostalgic of fascist totalitarian statism rail against government intervention, or people who spread antisemitic conspiracy theories while comparing themselves to persecuted Jews.
In the political abuse of the Holocaust, murdered Jews are exploited for both attack and defence. When outrage followed an anti-vaccine pass march in striped pyjamas, in the Northern Italian town of Novara, organiser Giusy Pace fought back: ‘… it is a misunderstanding. We did not mean to compare ourselves to Jews but more generally to deportees,’ before adding that the Nazi concentration camp they had in mind was not Auschwitz but Dachau.
This dubious defence was telling of a twofold problem. The first is historical, and reflects the hegemony of Auschwitz in public discourse around the Holocaust. When authorities equate Auschwitz with the Holocaust, as the UN inevitably did by its choice of date for Holocaust Remembrance Day, they marginalise the experiences of ghettos, of the myriad other camps in the Nazi concentration camp network, and of over a million Jews killed by the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units across Eastern Europe. In legitimately foregrounding Auschwitz-Birkenau and Jewish victimhood, the UN made an editorial decision that defines public discourse: if—for instance—it had chosen 16 October (the day of the Jewish rebellion at the Sobibor extermination camp), or 19 April (the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising), UNIHRD would carry a different meaning. In thinking that it would be acceptable to compare the vaccine pass to Dachau but not to Auschwitz, Pace showed she had internalised that lesson.
The second problem is more firmly political. In her defence, Pace unwittingly revealed a lesson well-learnt from a host of politicians who seek in a public commitment to Holocaust memory a fig-leaf to deflect accusations of racism or antisemitism. As it seeks mainstream support, the far-right tries to smuggle through the customs of the post-WWII antifascist consensus the ethnic-nationalist ideals that made the Holocaust possible in the first place. They do so by means of statements on the evil of the Holocaust, of symbolic pilgrimages to Auschwitz, or of statements of support for Israel. To cite just one example, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega, in 2018 followed the proposed registration of Roma and Sinti people with a much-awaited state visit to Israel, during which he received Bibi Netanuahu’s warm embrace and left these eternal words in Yad Vashem’s visitors’ book: ‘As a father, as a man, and only then as a Minister, [I pledge] my commitment, my heart, my life to prevent this from ever happening again and to ensure that children, all children, smile.’ Surely the words ‘never again’ constitute something much worse that than a platitude in the words of politicians who tacitly accept, harbour or even actively court the support of fascists and antisemites, as Salvini’s Lega has repeatedly been accused of doing.
At the cost of marring the gravely significant and hard-won consensus around Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can no longer ignore such hypocrisies, because to ignore them is to sanction them.
Untangling the inevitable and complex relationship between politics, history and public memory is anything but simple. If we stress the universal relevance of the Holocaust, mobilise it as a warning from history, or deploy it as a symbol of evil, we lose focus and precision, and may invite the kind of trite comparison and generalisation we regularly witness. However, if we stress the historicity of the Holocaust (that is, its roots in a specific time and place, with specific victims and responsibilities) we may miss the opportunity to make a difference, to raise our vigilance, and to inspire the values that the history of the Holocaust teaches us make a difference against racism, discrimination, and the abuse of human rights.
A core paradox of the memorialisation of the Holocaust is that its universal significance also makes it susceptible to being exploited for political ends. The political debates and considerations that have surrounded UNIHRD since its inception reflect a long history of political ‘framing’ of the Holocaust, that began even before the gates of the camps were sprung open. Ever since, public remembering has been fraught territory in any country that has attempted it.
We cannot uncritically accept that all public remembrance is good, but neither is its abuse a reason to withdraw into the consolatory intimacy of private memory or in the reassuring finality of historical inquiry alone. We cannot afford to abdicate the spaces of public commemoration. Indeed, Holocaust history itself compels us not to, by reminding those who study it that conformism or ignorance are no longer a defence for indifference or inaction. Antisemitism is on the rise globally: its messages have evolved for the digital age and found new avenues to recycle old tropes into the public discourse, most notably under the guise of the critique of Israeli politics. It is inconceivable to abandon that arena of public discourse unfought, because such abdication would compound already disturbing levels of ignorance.
If to engage is to compromise, and to withdraw is to admit defeat, how do we safeguard the history and memory of the Holocaust from cliches, superficiality and—above all—exploitation? It is easy to be dispirited but the solution is not beyond us. Like all ‘international days’, UNIHRD cannot be effective unless it becomes an annual landmark in a year of action against antisemitism, racism, discrimination, ethnic nationalism: a day of progress reports to be held to account by, rather than one of sympathy and announcements. Commemoration can always be made fertile by linking it to learning opportunities. Historical precision, applied to both the history being commemorated and the lessons one can draw from it, may just rescue official remembrance from cliches and commitments fit for little more than a tweet.
So to all those hosting, speaking, supporting, attending, bowing their heads for a moment’s silence this 27 January I ask: ensure and demand that tributes be not only respectful but also precise, specific, concrete, and above all that any ‘lessons of the Holocaust’ be drawn from and not drawn to the Holocaust. ‘Never again’ what, exactly?