Thursday, January 27, 2005

Holocaust Memorial Day

Yesterday Charles Clarke announced plans to introduce house arrest to Britain. What did the Independent put on its front page? Auschwitz.

Remembering the Holocaust ought to give us a sharper nose for tyranny, but it seems to be having the opposite effect. Nick Cohen, in a thoughtful article published in 2000, quotes the historian Peter Novick as saying:
The principal lesson of the Holocaust, it is frequently said, [is that] it sensitises us to oppression and atrocity. In principle it might, and I don't doubt that sometimes it does. But making it the benchmark of oppression and atrocity works in precisely the opposite direction, trivialising crimes of lesser magnitude.
And Cohen gives an example of how it can work in this paradoxical way:
A few months ago, I shared a platform with Sion Simon, a new Labour cheerleader. I had a go at the government's assault on trial by jury, and his instant response was: "Nick Cohen thinks Blair's Hitler." I pointed out that I thought nothing of the sort, and asked if all criticism of new Labour's record would be illegitimate until the day the Cabinet dressed in black leather and invaded Poland.
For many years Nazi Germany gave the British a clear sense of what we were not like. I was not born until 1960, but central to my opposition to compulsory identity cards is a sense that they are simply not British coupled with a vague feeling that not having to carry a card was part of our reward for having won the Second World War.

Later, overlapping with this period, the Soviet Union served a similar purpose, aided by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, served a similar function. Both tyrannies provided us with models of what we did not British society to become, and there was a tendency to judge new government proposals by the extent to which they represented steps down the slippery slope towards them.

But the Berlin Wall has come down and Big Brother means something very different to a later generation, so our sense of what tyranny feels like is less vivid than it used to be. Meanwhile, we have lost our confidence in Britishness as something stable or even desirable.

The result is a void that our leaders have not been slow in filling. The memory of the Holocaust ought to increase our scepticism about politicians: instead we have to suffer Tony Blair on the evening news employing his hammiest just-choking-back-the-tears voice to point the moral lessons he wants us to learn.

By all means observe Holocaust Memorial Day if you wish, though personally I have always found Blair's eagerness to behave like a headmaster choosing the theme for morning assembly one of his less appealing characteristics. But do not let it blind you to the failings of our present day leaders, trivial though their crimes are in comparison.

Nor should you overlook the fact that the occasion itself is not without its shabby compromises. Cohen, in another article, asks:
If we had to have a Holocaust Day, why 27 January, when Auschwitz was liberated by a Red Army that went on to subjugate half of Europe? What was wrong with 15 April when the British Army reached 40,000 inmates in Belsen - a moment which, whenever it is recalled, can make even my unpatriotic eyes prick?
And, in the first article I quoted, he reminds us that in the first Holocaust Memorial Day:
BBC executives and the government ... banned references to the Turkish slaughter of 1,500,000 Armenians in 1915, the first 20th-century genocide, and one that has many impolitic resonances. Turkey does not like to be reminded of the parallels between its treatment of the Armenians 85 years ago and of the Kurds today; earlier this year, it threatened to deny the Americans use of air bases on her territory if Bill Clinton formally accepted the massacres were genocide.
We should certainly remember the Holocaust, but we should be wary of allowing our modern-day leaders to tell us the lessons we should learn from it.

Later. The only freely available version of one of the Cohen articles referred to here is to be found on David Irving's website. The link is not an endorsement of anything else to be found there.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"We should certainly remember the Holocaust, but..."

You sound like a closet anti-semite. Sick.

helen kaye, (living 15kms from bergen-belsen with the britsih army in germany), said...

i agree about the fact that if there is to be a day to remember the holocaust, it should be the day the british army liberated bergen-belsen. of course they should always be in our thoughts no matter what day of the year.