Memorialising the Holocaust: the challenge of history?

Sunday 31 October, 3.45pm until 5.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

The UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust believes the ‘Holocaust must have a permanent place in our nation’s collective memory’ in order to teach people today the consequences of hatred and discrimination. It advocates listening ‘to the voices from the Holocaust and Nazi persecution, so as to realise its lessons of hope for a safer, inclusive and tolerant society’. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes itself as providing ‘a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values’. It has a ‘unique power and authenticity’ to cultivate ‘a sense of moral responsibility among our citizens’. The Holocaust is argued to have an ongoing relevance - it ‘could happen again anywhere and at any time’ - that demands our vigilance. In fact, for some, it has happened again in places like Cambodia and Rwanda, or it will happen again, if we do not check xenophobia, racism and bigotry.

Great store is put in the ability of memories and representations of the Holocaust - as maybe the only contemporary moral absolute everyone can agree on - to have a transformative effect on the young, and to create active and engaged citizens. This emphasis on remembrance, the charged ideological and political backdrop, poses a real difficulty, however, for treating the Holocaust as a normative field of historical study, that is for attempts to try and understand it. Understanding the history of the Holocaust, necessarily, means recognising that it happened in the past, in a very different set of circumstances than obtain now. In collective memory, however, it is the continuing presence of the Holocaust that is emphasised.

Is it possible to hope to understand the Holocaust in all its scope and complexity through the individual accounts of its victims? Is there a danger that as we try desperately to remember and never forget, that this is precisely what ends up happening? That a film like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or the Anne Frank Trust’s attempts to tackle bullying in schools through drama and performance poetry, may leave the complexities and ambiguities of the past behind in favour of a simple moral made relevant to the present? Why do we not trust history and historians to maintain the record? If the aim in keeping the Holocaust alive in memory is to teach the young to be good citizens, to transcend barriers of race, sexuality and religion, then why bombard them with the clearest example of man’s inhumanity to man? Might this not be an easier lesson to teach if we drew instead on the best that humanity has to offer us, rather than the worst? Is it unthinkable that the Holocaust be left to history rather than to memory?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus
reader in history and Holocaust studies, University of Manchester

Robert Eaglestone
professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London; author, The Holocaust and the Postmodern

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Gillian Walnes
executive director, The Anne Frank Trust UK

Dr James Gledhill
fellow in political theory, LSE; co-convenor, IoI Postgraduate Forum

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
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