Battle in Print: Deshistoricising the Holocaust: remembrance and the abandonment of history

Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus, 19 October 2010

On January 27, 2001, Britain celebrated its first Holocaust Memorial Day. This country, where the Holocaust didn’t happen, joined a worldwide commemoration in an official day of mourning and memory. The decision to partake was made by Tony Blair following the 2000 international meeting in Stockholm on Holocaust education. Dozens of heads of state gathered and agreed on the need to teach younger generations the horror of European history.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, the appropriateness of this move appeared self-evident. It followed years of scandal over assets looted from the Holocaust. Britain, as a victorious power over national socialism and an occupying force in Germany, was considered a curator of many such post-Holocaust issues from 1945 onwards. It was accused, together with most West European countries, of acting leniently in the post-War restitution and compensation of Jewish survivors.

London felt politically obliged to join the international choir of self-blame. The British Government organised a noted conference in 1997 about the so-called ‘Nazi gold’. In the past, the gold looted by German occupation forces all over Europe was recuperated by the Allies. The ‘revelation’ that this was still in the Bank of England provoked a shock. It was as if the status of Britain in opposing a continent plagued by genocide had been shattered.

The globalisation of memory?

The official excitement about Holocaust education was seen as a kind of moral compensation. It was also a curious way of participating in an increasingly globalised memorialisation of the Holocaust. This is all the more peculiar in the UK, as public commitment to the topic has been delayed for years, even decades. The decision to create a Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) contributed to a specific sense of ‘Europeanising’ memory. Yet this wasn’t expressed explicitly, since no political leaders were keen to rejoice in a unified European endeavour. Ironically, the consequence was an immediate ‘Anglicisation’ of Holocaust memory.

Indeed, today Holocaust memory is supposed to be globalised: this ensures it renders the best service to humanity. But Holocaust memory is in fact only superficially globalised. Each country actually renationalises it. This also happens in the UK, where it even exemplifies specific regional differences: official Scottish Holocaust memory is not the same as the English one. This should come as no surprise, however. The New Labour government which initiated HMD had a strong belief in multiculturalism, which meant Holocaust memory was therefore to be a celebration of Britain’s tolerance. Consequently, many monuments established by local communities in 2001 don’t commemorate the Holocaust: they commemorate the first British Holocaust Memorial

Ceremonies on HMD must be multicultural. Representatives of different communities are supposed to attend this day which honours Jewish people. Muslim representatives tended to stay away at first, as they thought the commemorations could favour the cause of Israel. However, after the London bombings of 2005, they started to attend more systematically. They saw the new commemoration as carrying a much needed message of peaceful coexistence. In fact, as a renationalised memory, the Holocaust has to fit the specific ideology of multiculturalism. In this, Jews play the role of one community among many others, and all are afforded the same rights, the same attention.

This levelling of attention is understandable in the daily making of democratic life, but has a strange effect on Holocaust representations. The Holocaust has become a trauma that Jews are asked to share; but is it really possible to ‘share’ such a thing? The little film clips produced by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for the 2009 campaign are particularly telling. Under the title ‘Stand up to Hatred’, they show different contemporary situations, from a gay man being bullied in a street to the expulsion of a veiled Muslim woman from a school meeting. There is a chasm between this call for tolerance and the fate of European Jews between 1933 and 1945.

Dehistoricising the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial Day is to be ‘staged’, in little entertaining moments. Performances of young people, sometimes comedians, are organised. This fits a general mood of ‘cool Britannia’: songs, plays, movies, and emotion. Calling this ‘entertainment’ would probably be an exaggeration. But it’s tempting to see in this Holocaust kitsch the pre-eminence of popular culture in conveying Holocaust representations. In HMD commemorations, the music of Schindler’s List, a film often used to ‘teach’ the Holocaust, is played.

These commemorations could reflect a real deshistorisation of the Holocaust. They suggest the idea of a tsunami of violence suddenly breaking imagined, idealised communities. These communities are described as middle class, peaceful and prosperous and moderately religious. When evoked, pre-war European Jewries appear more like vacation camps than real communities ridden by tensions, migrations and rapid secularisation. Time has passed since a then famous German-Jewish immigrant came to England. Fred Uhlman could describe his flight from Nazi Germany as an opportunity for change. He could leave behind a dull middle class life as a provincial lawyer and become an artist.

Of course, many different circles in the UK do study the Holocaust thoroughly. They read recent scholarship and survivors’ memoirs and watch elaborate documentary movies on television. They make an effort to gain real understanding of the events. In Jewish-Christian groups, in some universities, even in some schools, Holocaust education is far away from contemporary Holocaust representations. Testimonies of survivors are analysed and not considered as sacred words conveying an intangible truth.

Not always a happy ending

Britain also ‘tamed’ Holocaust memory through the use of rescue stories. ‘Righteous among the Nations’ had been rising in public consciousness over the last twenty years but Britain made a specific use of Holocaust stories. In the late 1980s, survivors of the Kindertransport started to gather and organise meetings and create specific survivors’ groups. Their ‘offer’ of memory was taken on by officials. They were granted recognition through films, a memorial just outside Liverpool Street Station in London and a plaque in the House of Commons. This allowed the nation to rejuvenate the post-war myth of rescue, where Britain could show its good conscience towards the persecution of the Jews.

Time has passed also since the Sex Pistols sang their song ‘Belsen was a gas’. This attacked the central British myth of the Holocaust, and the idea the war was conducted to save the Jews of Bergen Belsen.

Indeed, the more complex story of the Kindertransport is not told. This involves the difficulties in adapting to British society, the fact parents were not accepted due to restrictive British refugee policy, the conversion of many children to Christianity in their foster families, the post-war emigration to the United States, Israel or Australia.

As told in twenty-first century Britain, the Holocaust is only a story of ‘unsung heroes’. The righteous are on one hand, the survivors on the other. It’s no more a story of Germans and Jews. Violence becomes an almost a natural phenomenon and victims are ‘dejudaised’, they are anonymous citizens of a global age. If the official British Holocaust memorial is somehow hidden in the middle of Hyde Park, a big monument – with a statue – for Raoul Wallenberg has been erected in Great Cumberland Square.

Nice images and stories with happy endings seem a necessity so the Holocaust can fit the national multicultural narrative. The Holocaust becomes a set of difficulties to overcome. All traumatic images or facts are avoided; the genocide itself is sanitised. When images of Bergen Belsen taken by British film crews are shown to students – the bulldozer pushing corpses in pits, the piles of emaciated bodies – they’re not recognised. Although students have been taught the Holocaust, often with dedication and filmed material (mostly fiction movies), they seem to discover for the first time the reality of the horrific past. Their teachers haven’t wanted to ‘shock’ them. They’re afraid of the parents’ reaction, and are asking for counselling on this question. PhD dissertations are written in psychology departments to help the school system deal with - or avoid - this emotion. Yet these parents themselves were shown those very images when smaller. This is what inspired the original Sex Pistols song.

Finally, the Holocaust is seen in a positive way. Six million victims now represent ‘the legacy of hope’, the name given to the 2010 campaign of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.


Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus, lecturer in Holocaust studies, University of Manchester; co-editor, Survivre: souvenirs d’une rescapée d’Auschwitz (1945).


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