Why is it so important that we remember the Holocaust and how can we make sure future generations never forget?
It is commonly asserted that we must remember the Holocaust to ensure that it never happens again, and of course the importance of this is unquestionable. I feel, however, that the Holocaust can also teach us many lessons in a more day-to-day sense. It can lead us to question various issues in more depth, and serves as an example of the worst case result of problems such as prejudice. We must work not only to avoid a repeat of such atrocities, but to tackle the issues that led to even the possibility of something so horrific.
The Holocaust was so unfathomably awful that it inevitably brings many things into question. It challenges ideas about human nature, in terms of the limits of cruelty and of people’s willingness to cooperate with it. It calls into question the ethics of war – with British conscientious objectors from the First World War changing their stances when faced with this greater evil, while German soldiers, following orders, fought to prop up a regime which was attempting genocide. Hitler’s success in creating a society in which he could implement the Final Solution demonstrates the potential weaknesses in democracy, leading us to consider how we can safeguard against such things in the future.
I feel, however, that the biggest lesson to be learnt from the Holocaust is that of the dangers of prejudice and inequality. When we look at mountains of shoes, representing countless tales of human suffering and countless stolen lives, it is important not to dismiss this tragedy as simply the doings of one evil man, or even a group of them. The Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazis, yes, but it was enabled, amongst other factors, by the widespread anti-Semitism of the people of Europe. Many civilians in Germany and occupied counties were keen to see the Jews brought low and humiliated, with Rabbi Shimon Huberband recalling how ‘the assembled Poles laughed uproariously with pleasure at the sight’ of forcibly shaven Jews being made to kiss Jewish women without their consent in the street. Prejudice is still a big issue today, and has a huge effect on the lives of many. It can be encouraged and grown upon by religious institutions, social norms and outdated laws. Unchecked, prejudice can lead to extreme unnecessary pain for people who have caused no harm, and it can also be very easily exploited and manipulated. The Holocaust should serve to everyone as an extreme yet real example of where prejudice can lead. Many young people in Britain see the Holocaust as a terrible yet freak, isolated event, powered purely by unimaginable evil. Not a lot of thought is given to the prejudice, credulity and manipulability of ordinary people, and the huge role this played in allowing the Holocaust to happen. An example of anti-Semitic collaboration that stuck out to me was when a group of SS officers gathered some Jewish men into a square, and called for scissors to be thrown down from surrounding windows so that they could cut off the men’s beards and sideburns. Scissors rained down from the flats around the square. I hate to think how many people today, including those living in Western democracies, would jump at the chance to witness or aid in the humiliation of groups such as Muslims, homosexuals, or especially trans people.
The Holocaust makes it clear to us just how dangerous it is to allow the marginalisation and ‘otherisation’, even to a small degree, of sections of society. It also highlights the importance of thinking about the deeper implications of segregative or discriminatory laws, rather than focussing solely on their immediate and direct effects. The Nazis introducing segregation in terms of facilities such as park benches may seem largely immaterial and unimportant, but what it did was mark the Jews out as different, other, helping the Nazis dehumanise them in the eyes of the population and spread the idea of them being ‘the enemy within.’ This struggle to make understood the dangers of inequality still goes on today, for example with many influential people saying that they didn’t see why it was important to grant same-sex couples marriage equality in the debates around the law passed last year; why could they not just stick with civil partnerships? It matters because by not allowing same-sex couples the same rights and recognition granted to straight couples, we were marking LGBT people out as ‘other’, and helping perpetuate prejudice.
The Holocaust and the laws passed in the lead up to it make it very clear why legislation such as Putin’s ‘anti gay propaganda’ law is so dangerous. This law attempts to cut off their voices, and any of support, thus removing their right to protest against their mistreatment. Putin has fed off and built on an existing Russian prejudice towards gay people, to make them unsafe and vulnerable within Russian society, and that the terrible and often sickeningly violent crimes committed against homosexuals recently in Russia are going unpunished is evidence of this. There is little difference here from the early stages of the persecution of the Jews, and our knowledge of the actions of the Nazis should serve as a warning.
We must think critically about our own prejudices, and the use of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and its effect illustrates how this must involve us being highly critical of information or ideas we receive from any source, be it the government, religious institutions or corporations. We must take care to be critical and thoughtful in our approach to forming opinions, especially when they are likely the affect the lives of others.
A school trip to the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London had a significant effect on me, and greatly helped me to better understand the events, causes and effects of the Holocaust. I feel that schools should be encouraged where possible to visit exhibitions like it, but I recognise that this is likely not viable for all schools.
I strongly feel that every schoolchild in Britain should be taught about the Holocaust, but, by the time students have reached a suitable age for the topic to be explored in detail with them, they can already have chosen to opt out of History. Perhaps it would be possible to introduce a short compulsory course – even only three or four lessons – on the Holocaust, separate from the GCSE History curriculum.
I feel that this education should include not only a basic overview of the persecution of the Jews and other social groups at the hands of the Nazis, but also an examination of personal accounts of both victims and perpetrators. It seems crucial to me that both of these groups are humanised, but perhaps for different reasons. The Nazis tried to remove the humanity of their victims: removing their citizenship, changing their names, and eventually assigning them only a number, and working, killing and burying them en masse. This dehumanisation must have been key to how the people involved in the slaughter were able to live with themselves. Restoring the humanity of Holocaust victims therefore is vital, and education should cover personal stories showing the complexity and individuality of the people affected, as well as the scale and breadth of the murder. The reason why the Nazi war criminals must also be humanised is that people need to understand that this was not an anomaly occurring at the hands of a few abnormal people, but the product of a combination of harmful factors. SS officers went home to their families at the end of the day; their lives outside of work were largely unextraordinary. We need to think about what factors led to them being capable of aiding in the murder of Jewish children, while loving their own. Their actions were sickening, but to dismiss them as ‘bad people’ is to avoid the real questions that the Holocaust begs.
We must remember the Holocaust to ensure it never happens again, yes, but we must go further than this. We need to think self-critically as a society in order to identify and work to eliminate baseless and harmful prejudices, trying to avoid even an echo of the climate which allowed the Holocaust to happen. We should educate every student passing through our schools about the Holocaust, its effects, and especially its causes, attempting to convey some of the complexity of real people involved. We need to recognise that we are all responsible for checking our own prejudice when we are swayed in our opinions of someone by harmless and irrelevant factors such as race, sex or sexuality, and for contradicting those around us when they voice their baseless and harmful prejudices. We must thinking critically about how we view other people, and about how we deal with information we receive, considering everything and everyone compassionately, rationally, and critically, to build a fairer, safer society.
Last year I gained a place in a Youth Forum at Downing Street run by the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission, discussing how best to preserve the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, especially when the remaining survivors are no longer with us. I was really encouraged by how constructive the discussion was (and was honoured to meet Larry the cat!) This essay was my entry for the competition through which I gained my place. It’s a little out of date, although perhaps even more relevant today given the recent increase in the UK of racist and xenophobic hate crimes.