Despite the unique challenges Holocaust remembrance events face this year, it is also clear that the collective effort to remember the past remains crucial, as echoes of the Nazi era continue to haunt our lives today.
Remembering the Holocaust in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic poses many problems and issues. For regular event organisers like myself, there are a series of practical challenges: talks are more difficult to put on, ceremonies are more restricted, if possible at all, and also people are simply more likely to find it difficult to spend the time reflecting on the extremes of fascist violence due to the additional pressures of getting through at the moment. Thankfully, a wide range of online events are still being developed, and in many ways these have the potential to connect to new audiences in exciting ways. Eventbrite, for example, lists a wide range of events that are free to access and that will help foster deeper understanding of the Nazi genocide.
Moreover, despite the unique challenges Holocaust remembrance events face this year, it is also clear that the collective effort to remember the past remains crucial. Echoes of the Nazi era continue to haunt our lives today.
For example, on 6 January 2021, a violent mob stormed the Capitol building in America, one wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan ‘Camp Auschwitz’, effectively idolising a facility that killed over 1.1 million people, mostly Jews. His top also included the phrase ‘work makes you free’ a translation of the notorious Arbeit Mach Frei slogan above the gateway entrance to Auschwitz. In some ways, this image is so incongruous it appears absurd, but it is actually incredibly concerning.
The amorphous, conspiracy theory driven culture of (increasingly violent) opposition that manifested itself that notorious day has been energised in recent months through its hostility to state responses to Covid-19, and fuelled by new conspiracy theory themes linked to the virus. Others linked to the rioting included a range of antisemitic figures, some of whom prefer to deny the Holocaust rather than seemingly celebrate it. While these sectors of society have always existed, what is becoming worrisome to many is the ways their minority voice is being amplified in recent years. Online networks span across borders as well, and it would be naïve to think of these crass, tasteless activists as a purely American phenomenon.
Closer to home in Britain, we can see that Covid-19 and ongoing cultures of antisemitism are again related. The Community Security Trust (CST) reports on anti-Semitic incidents each year, and in its most recent analysis covering the period from January to June 2020 it reported 789 incidents. This is a dramatic increase on the figure for 2015, which saw 501 incidents for the same period. In 2019, the CST depressingly reported 911 incidents from January to June, but despite a slight dip in numbers for 2020 warned against complacency. The fall in the reporting of antisemitic incidents correlated with the imposition of a lockdown in Britain. Incredibly perhaps, this means that despite these major restrictions on people’s lives, there were still 288 more reported anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2020, in the period from January to June, than there were in the same period in 2015.
Clearly, antisemitic prejudices of the type that led to the Holocaust are still with us, impacting on people’s lives. Moreover, in many ways the amorphous types of oppositional, extremist and conspiratorial milieus that promote these ideas – neo-Nazis, white supremacists, racists, and so forth – are finding new energies in the current, unprecedented time of crisis around the world. We should be concerned about what may come from this set of subcultures in the coming months and years.
At the same time, there is hope that new and more critically aware cultures could also emerge in the post-Covid world. During 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement also acted as a touchstone for contemporary societies around the globe, and their attitudes towards racism. As a university lecturer, I was deeply heartened to see many of our students at my university engage critically with prejudicial attitudes. Rightly, it also called on us all to question our views, positions and practices. This can be threatening to some, and so rather than leading to reflection and reappraisal, responses have also been to criticise the entire Black Lives Matter phenomenon as a far left movement with threatening political aims. I found it incredible that, recently, one politician in Britain even defended football fans who booed their players taking the knee. Leading figures in Britain – as elsewhere – have often sought to defend rather than question the status quo, and seem to misunderstand why we study history in the first place.
What is really needed in response to the prejudices all around us – against Jewish people, people of colour, Roma and LGBTQ communities, all of whom were targeted by the Nazi genocide – is clear leadership. Anyone can empower themselves to do this. We need more people to show moral awareness of these issues, calling out prejudice, and fostering a society that is critically aware of the risks they pose. As the world recalibrates to a new post-Covid reality, we need to ensure that it is one that seeks to challenge prejudices where once they were ignored or tolerated.
Dr. Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History and looks after the renowned Searchlight Archive at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.
© Paul Jackson. 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).