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History Lessons

The Holocaust is a part of our past, but it has never been more important to understand how we talk about it today, say Paul Salmons and Philippe Sands.

Words Kate Hilpern Photograph Alun Callender


Seventy years on, the horrors of the Holocaust still feel fresh. And, say two of the UK’s leading experts on the Holocaust from different ends of the spectrum, now, more than ever, we need to make sure the right lessons have been learned.

“World events today resonate with the past,” says Paul Salmons, Programme Director at the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education. “But, regrettably, people reach for the Holocaust far too easily in making their moral and political points.”

What are the parallels with what is happening now? Clearly, neither Brexit nor Trump can sensibly be compared to the Holocaust, yet both seem to have invigorated the far right in Britain (and the rest of Europe) as well as the United States.

Today, the Holocaust is the only historical event that is compulsory for students to study. It’s ever-present in popular culture, from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to Schindler’s List.

We have a day to remember it – 27 January – and a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre is to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens in London – “in the shadow of Parliament, in the heart of our democracy”, reads its website.

But it has also been used as a rhetorical device in speeches and campaigns on vegetarianism, abortion and gun control.

“It just goes to show that we frame human atrocities in a way that suits us,” says Philippe Sands, Professor of Law and Director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at UCL, and author of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (which won the 2016 Baillie Gifford, formerly the Samuel Johnson, Prize).

We focus on what we are comfortable with, suggests Salmons. With Britain and the Holocaust, we concentrate on the salvation narrative: plucky Brits fighting tirelessly against the evils of the war.

“It’s a consoling narrative that allows us to avoid dealing with more troubling aspects, including Britain’s refusal to make saving Jews a war aim,” he says.

“If we simply use the Holocaust to declare the values we already hold, then we risk avoiding other questions and challenges that arise from trying to understand what happened.

“We don’t need the Holocaust to show that racism is bad and people should be tolerant. The public auctions of the possessions of people deported from their homes, for instance, reveal other terrible truths: that you do not need to hate anyone to become complicit in genocide.”

Xenophobia, nationalism and racism, after all, are hardly things of the past, says Sands. These attitudes are out there, now, and becoming bold: from swastikas on the streets of Charlottesville in the US to the antisemitic memes that choke Twitter. So something is going on and resonating with the past. Indeed, if you go back to the Auschwitz memoir, If This is a Man, Primo Levi says it all began with drawing distinctions between ‘us and them’.”

Both men agree that in our current post-truth climate, we must be mindful of exactly which stories we’re choosing to tell. “Germany was forced to confront the reality of the Holocaust: defeat meant it had no choice. Perhaps we and other nations should do the same,” says Salmons, arguing that “no country comes out well”.

Currently, he says, there is a focus on general lessons of the past, a homogenising of all victim groups, and a reluctance to look at specifics. The Centre’s recent study of 11- to 18-year-olds found that only 37 per cent knew what antisemitism meant, even after studying the Holocaust, while 90 per cent could define the term racism and 89 per cent homophobia. “Does our society want the Holocaust without the Jews?” asks Salmons.

The places where we tell these stories have changed too: social media now provides a fertile breeding ground for the “patently untrue”, says Sands. “Untruths gain traction in a way they wouldn’t have in the past.”

Does our increased connectivity bring any benefits? “When wrong information comes out, it is revealed to be wrong far quicker than was the case in the 1930s,” continues Sands. “If there had been mobile phones in the 1930s, would people have reacted to things on the street?” Yet being able to click on thousands of horrific images has, after all, done nothing to stop Christians in the Middle East being obliterated, he says, or to halt the horrors of Syria, or the ongoing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And before the internet, people who held extreme racist or xenophobic views were often rather socially isolated, points out Salmons. Now, they find their online communities and are emboldened and empowered. As their claims gain more exposure, there is an urgent need to teach criticality and genuinely independent thinking.

“For me, it’s about understanding how it was possible – not long ago, and not far away – that so many people became complicit in the murder of their neighbours, and that the outside world did so little to prevent it.”

Paul Salmons (left) is Programme Director at the Centre for Holocaust Education, and Philippe Sands QC is Professor of Law.

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Portico Issue 4. 2017/18