The importance of remembering

By Vernon Bogdanor, March 27, 2014

The Prime Minister has established a Holocaust Commission to make recommendations for a memorial. This should encourage us to reflect on how the Holocaust should be remembered in a country that was not involved in it either as a perpetrator or a collaborator.

A natural reaction of many non-Jews in Britain might be, what has this to do with us? It may appear as a remote event that occurred in countries with quite different political traditions. The danger is that a memorial might become just another part of the architectural landscape and its meaning forgotten.

A memorial, therefore, should reflect a specifically British perspective, that of a country which took in refugees and, with France, was one of just two countries to declare war on Nazi Germany without itself being attacked. In addition, Britain in the 1920s and 1930s stood apart from the waves of antisemitism which disfigured the Continent. When Mosley sought to make it a political issue, he became a pariah. His British Union of Fascists, unlike the BNP, was too weak to contest a general election, and never won a local council seat.

A memorial in Britain to the Righteous among the Nations, similar to that in Israel, would be a powerful reminder, should such atrocities ever occur in the future, that one should not close one’s eyes to them, and that one will be remembered for taking a stand.

The aim of the Holocaust was to obliterate the Jewish presence in Europe. The great Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, before being shot in Latvia at the age of 81, enjoined others to frustrate this aim with the slogan, “Write and record”. Much work has, of course, already been done on those individuals and communities that were destroyed, primarily in Israel, but also in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and no doubt elsewhere. In addition, the Holocaust Trust and the Anne Frank Trust have done important work, as has Theo Richmond who has described the history of one small community in his moving book, Konin, and has succeeded in bringing it back to life.

But a project that sought to record, in detail, the lives of the vanished individuals and communities could bring them, too, back to life, and would be the clearest indication that the Holocaust had failed in his aims. That would be the best memorial.

The material produced could then form the basis of educational programmes, enabling students to identify with specific individuals and communities. It would show students that the communities destroyed comprised not alien or outlandish figures from another world, but people just like themselves.

But the Holocaust ought not to be taught, as it often is, as a discrete event. It is too often seen as the irrational irruption into European history of a criminal dictatorship under the control of a leader who was barely sane. In this perspective, the Holocaust seems to come from nowhere, and it becomes difficult to explain how and why it occurred.

The Nazi regime had deep roots in Continental culture, and considerable popular support. Without the active participation not only of many Germans but also of many in the occupied countries, who sympathised with — or at least did not oppose — antisemitism, the Holocaust would not have been possible.

The Holocaust was not an isolated event, but arose out of deep trends in Continental history. To remember the past accurately is the best guarantee against any recurrence in the future.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College, London. This article is based on evidence given to the Holocaust Commission

Last updated: 3:45pm, March 27 2014