The importance of Holocaust Memorial Day in 2019 for ‘Brexit Britain’

A rendering of an aerial view of the upcoming Holocaust Memorial in Westminster, London
The Holocaust Memorial will be within in touching distance of the House of Parliament CREDIT: ADJAYE ASSOCIATES

Britain’s largest Holocaust memorial is to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Palace of Westminster. Scheduled to arrive in 2021, the winning design will consist of a learning centre as well as 23 bronze fin structures with spaces for people to move in between – reminiscent of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Whilst providing space to reflect on the attempted genocide of European Jewry, the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation have argued: it will ‘stand as a permanent reminder of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy to be vigilant and responsive whenever and wherever those values are threatened’.

Co-Chair of the Foundation, Eric Pickles, has similarly argued that the memorial and learning centre are commitments to ‘learn from this darkest chapter in our history, to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to explore the universal lessons of the Holocaust as a reminder of where hatred, intolerance and prejudice can lead if left unchecked’. It is clear therefore that Holocaust commemoration in the UK cannot separate itself from the current political climate within both the UK and abroad which has seen the rise of xenophobic political movements as well as radical right-wing and authoritarian leaders across the globe. Whilst it would be hyperbolic to claim that the politics of the 1930s which led to the Holocaust has returned, echoes of the discrimination, stigmatisation and hatred – which contributed to it – can certainly be felt.

Focussing on the UK, Professor Tom Lawson has astutely argued that there is a ‘tension between Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the growing centrality of  Holocaust commemoration in British national life’. The Holocaust has been described as a ‘founding event’ of European unity; a tragic and essential rationale for the states of Europe to integrate and work together. Britain’s decision to adopt Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001, according to Lawson, was one of the most ‘self-consciously European acts’ Britain has undertaken since joining the Common Market in 1973.

Therefore, what lessons does the Holocaust offer for Britain in 2019 in the age of Brexit? I would argue it is as – if not more – necessary than ever during times political polarisation, rising political violence and growing hate crime. Worryingly, there appears to be a growth in anti-Semitism, demonstrating the necessity of Holocaust memorialisation and commemoration. Beyond the much-publicised issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party which has stained Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership since 2015, anti-Semitism can clearly not be reduced to a party-political issue as a number of studies have shown.

The Community Security Trust reported that there were just under 730 anti-Semitic incidents reported by victims in the first half of 2018. This is the second highest total for the same period the Trust has ever seen, with the highest coming in the previous year. The figure is in reality likely to be much higher given that not all attacks will have been reported. Furthermore, another study by the Trust found that there was at least 170,000 anti-Semitic Google searches made every year in the UK alone. Many of them involved ‘jokes’ about Jews, the most common surrounding negative stereotypes about Jews being ‘racist’ and ‘evil’. Even more worryingly, 10% of anti-Semitic searches involved violent phrases such as ‘Jews must die’ or ‘kill Jews’. Rather than being limited to the online space, anti-Semitism can often be seen in public arenas too. The CST’s 2017 Antisemitic Incidents Report recorded 33 incidents related to football, marking nearly a 20% increase from the previous year.

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have also been making a comeback in a climate which appears worryingly susceptible to conspiratorial thinking. George Soros, the Jewish businessman and supporter of liberal causes has become the biggest target and bogeyman for the radical right. Previously attacked by mostly extremists, Soros has become the symbol of a mythical ‘globalised, wealthy cosmopolitan elitist’ – a well-known anti-Semitic trope – who is seeking to undermine the will of ‘honest, pure, ordinary people’. The untrained eye might not even recognise this as anti-Semitism as it seeks to be subtle and masked. It underlines the increasing mainstreaming of radical ideas which have the crudeness taken from them.

Yet such ideas need to be in the right environment to thrive. Britain currently appears to be ideal as elite politicians wrangle over Brexit, seemingly incapable of delivering the 2016 referendum vote. A YouGov poll conducted in 2018 found that 60% of the British public believe in at least one conspiracy theory regarding how the country is run and just under half doubted the truth of the information they receive from the government. This appears to afflict Leave voters more than Remain. 47% of those who voted to leave the EU believe that the government has deliberately manipulated the truth of the UKs immigrant population against 14% of Remainers, whereas 31% of Leave voters believed that there was and remains a plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain – a popular theory known as the ‘great replacement’ amongst the radical and extreme right.

Holocaust Memorial Day should always be a time to reflect on the attempted extermination of European Jewry during Nazi-rule and the Second World War. Yet Holocaust memorialisation should also rally vigilance against racism, xenophobia and stigmatisation today. In the words of Kindertransport survivor, Harry Bibring: ‘As far as the 21st century goes, we seem to not only have not learnt the lesson but are on track to copy it.’ Finding ways to avoid this must be part of Holocaust remembrance in 2019 and in the future.

27 January marks the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and International Holocaust Memorial Day 2019.

Dr Paul Stocker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Teacher of History at Chelsea Independent College. See his profile here.

©Paul Stocker. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).