For the last ten years, I have been regularly involved in either contributing to, or running, events for Holocaust Memorial Day. As well as more formal talks and activities, every year ‘Q & A’ discussion at such events have tended to relate the horrific events of the Nazi regime and its genocide to more contemporary issues and developments. Atrocities in Darfur, Syria and Gaza, for example, are regularly brought up in these more open discussion spaces, sometimes in ways that are unsettling and lead to challenging debate.
Whatever else these discussions have been, they have always suggested to me that talking about the Holocaust in such forums at least allows people to consider more critically the world around them, and perhaps even think in more complex ways about how issues of racism and prejudice still loom large in contemporary society.
However, in 2019, a few developments have made me wonder if I have been too optimistic about the impact of marking Holocaust Memorial Day. As I reflect on this for next year, developments in the past few days suggest to me at least that I might need to do more to rethink and redouble my efforts to make this history both clearly relevant and more inclusive. People may agree or disagree with these reflections, but what follows are a few personal thoughts, offered in the spirit of thinking about how to make Holocaust Memorial Day events surpass the boundaries and time and talk to the present moment more effectively.
One challenge that presented itself this year came when, for the first time at any such event I have attended, one audience member noted, quite correctly, the predominant ‘whiteness’ of those who attended. This observation in particular made me think once more about some problems that have been clearly highlighted within the History profession recently.
Perhaps most notably here, in late 2018 the Royal Historical Society (RHS) reported that, as an academic subject, History has a major problem with a range of issues linked to BME inclusivity. Its report made for important reading and it highlighted, for example, that currently just over 96 per cent of History staff at UK universities are white. The RHS also notes that there are significant issues of gender inequality in History as well, and only around 40 per cent of History staff are women, often in less senior positions.
Like many in Britain, I was also deeply concerned by the survey commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, released on 27 January 2019, suggesting that around 1 in 20 members of the public in Britain believe the Holocaust did not happen, and around 8 per cent of the population think its history has been exaggerated. A recent poll by CNN reports that similar surveys have been carried out in other parts of Europe, pointing to a wider pattern of public misunderstanding about the scale and nature of the Holocaust.
As both an educator who teaches an undergraduate course module on the history of the Holocaust, and as a researcher who works on more recent forms of fascism and extreme right politics, I certainly feel the ‘story’ of the Holocaust is an important one to re-tell. Holocaust Memorial Day events are vital because they offer a unique way of telling this ‘story’, and create a welcome opportunity for historians among others to talk about some of the latest academic debates in this area to a wider section of society.
However, I would suggest to historians, and many others who put on such events, that we might also want to think about new ways about how we make this history relevant to as broad a section of society as possible. While Holocaust Memorial Day events are often good at reaching out to ‘easier’ audiences, such as schoolchildren, university students, academics and a wider public already concerned with the Holocaust, I wonder how they could do more to communicate with those less readily placed to engage in these events.
The memory of the Holocaust, and its wider relevance to society, is always and inevitably changing. My biggest worry in this regard is that this history is now under renewed attack from the far right, whose activists are developing new forms of Holocaust denial literature among other messages, while many others can also feel this ‘story’ does not relate to them, so perhaps think it is not so relevant to their lives. I do not have easy answers, and my aim in writing this blog is really to pose questions. But I do feel the way historians in particular communicate this important history needs to be developed further, not only to students but the wider public too.
Those who promote Holocaust Memorial Day need to think in new ways about how to reach out and engage with a much broader range of people in the future. This need has been highlighted in particular not only by personal experience but also by the important work of the Royal Historical Society. I also suggest a need to become ever more reflective on the way we are living in a time where the validity of the past, and interpretations of it by experts, will not necessarily be easily accepted by potential audiences. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s survey points to this fact.
Readers of this blog may have their own thoughts and experiences on these issues, and ideas on how to build on areas of inclusivity and engagement in future years. As someone who thinks Holocaust Memorial Day events are important and relevant, I am not trying to be critical of others, merely wonder if my concerns are more widely felt. There is a demand for us all to do more, as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s survey also notes just over 75 per cent of people think there needs to be more education about the Holocaust, and over 80 per cent of people think the Holocaust offers lessons for us all today.
Dr Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR and is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton and specializes in the history of fascism and the extreme right. See his profile here:
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