The longer a discussion lasts the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Hitler or the Holocaust to justify their point of view. So states ‘Godwin’s Law’: a sardonic take on the overuse of Nazi analogies. The Holocaust has become a moral touchstone used to strengthen almost any political, moral or social position.

We do not have to search far for examples. Peta’s ‘Holocaust on your plate’ campaign equated the murder of human beings in Nazi death camps with the slaughter of animals in abattoirs. According to the Chicago Tribune, Pope John Paul II wrote that ‘abortion is today’s Holocaust’. Glenn Beck, television host on Fox News, invoked Adolf Hitler so many times that he was accused of having ‘Nazi Tourettes’.

Since 1945, advocates of military intervention in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq have all raised the spectre of the Holocaust and its death camps to rally support to their cause. More recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry added Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to the list of violent dictators who are said to be ‘like Hitler’.

Journalists play a crucial role in how the past enters the present, but how should we navigate these claims? What ethical obligation does the journalist have to people in the past, people long dead? Does it matter how their lives and deaths are represented, used, and abused? On what grounds should journalists challenge politicians and others who ‘play the Hitler card’? How can they avoid reaching for the Holocaust as shorthand for ‘evil’ in their own reporting? And when is it appropriate to make comparisons between the contemporary world and the crimes of the Nazis?

A starting point must be deeper knowledge and understanding about what actually happened. The Holocaust is so present in popular culture that we can feel we know a lot about it even if this knowledge has come largely from Schindler’s List or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas rather than scholarly sources. The problem with such representations is that they are so popular precisely because they give the illusion of addressing the Holocaust while actually avoiding its most challenging issues. So, in the example of Schindler we are presented with an uplifting and redemptive story of a collaborator who turned rescuer - a heroic figure who reassures us that the world we live in is fundamentally good; that decency prevails. If we were to examine the more typical story of mass murder - one of widespread participation and collaboration in genocide - we might conclude instead that the Holocaust was a catastrophe not only for the Jews of Europe but the very idea of ‘Western civilisation’ from which it emerged.

In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas we have a narrative in which Bruno - a fictional, non-Jewish German boy, the son of a death camp commandant - becomes an accidental victim of his father’s gas chambers. The ‘tragedy’ played out is that Bruno is killed by mistake through his relationship with a Jewish boy that he has met through the barbed wire. Bruno’s naiveté and friendship with the Jewish child Shmuel stands for the innocence of the victims.

But what of Shmuel? He appears as little more than a literary device to get Bruno into the camp and inside the gas chamber; he is given hardly any background story or inner life. And if the story had ended differently - if at the final moment Bruno was prevented from entering the gas chamber - his little friend would of course still have been killed along with all the other Jews marked for murder. A rather strange ‘moral fable’ this one. But enormously popular, perhaps because we are presented with a stand-in victim - a fiction with which the non-Jewish world can more readily identify than the 90% of Europe’s Jewish children who were actually murdered during the Holocaust.

Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised by this reimagining of the past. Given that the stories we tell ourselves are so important to our sense of identity, it is extraordinarily difficult for a society to examine its past and confront the difficult issues raised. “Forgetting,” said the French theorist Ernest Renan, “I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation.” And here in Britain of course the Holocaust has been incorporated into our national memory as part of a ‘just war’ that we fought against the Nazis, despite the fact that Britain declared war in 1939 for the geopolitical reasons all nations go to war, and never made saving Jews one of its war aims.

So what lessons will be drawn at the hundreds of commemorative events marking Holocaust Memorial Day? Often the Holocaust appears reduced to a few moral lessons and warnings from history: ‘this is where racism can lead’; ‘the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing’; ‘we need to strengthen tolerance and democracy’. While these are important and noble sentiments they too are a partial and selective reading of the past and are based on oversimplifications.

We tend to place the perpetrators and their collaborators into a framework that does not disrupt our view of the world overmuch. They are explained away as ‘evil’, ‘racist’ or ‘psychopathic sadists’, or else we tell ourselves that they had no choice - if they had refused to kill then they would have been shot themselves. But closer examination of the past reveals a far more troubling picture. There is not a single record of anyone being shot or sent to a concentration camp for refusing to kill Jews. There are examples of people who refused and were simply given other duties. While Nazi anti-Semitic ideology was the driving motivation of many decision-makers and killers, others participated in mass shootings because of peer pressure, ambition or a warped sense of ‘duty’.

Political and social outlook are not necessarily predictors of behaviour: we have examples of anti-Semites who risked their lives to save Jews, while others with more enlightened views did nothing. The silence of the public in the face of Nazi crimes came not simply because people were cowed by fear but because they were bought by the regime. They enriched themselves through the looting of the Jewish people, flocking to public auctions where they bought the possessions of their deported neighbours. Many businesses profited by supplying their products to the concentration camps or using camp inmates in their factories and workshops. Huge numbers of family-run farms paid the SS for the use of slave labour.

So, as we take our places at the Holocaust Memorial Day events, light our candles and intone our ‘never agains’, do we recognise that responsibility for genocide does not lie entirely with the ‘other’ - the racists and the sadists?

The Holocaust should be a rupture in how we think about modern European society and our place within it. How was it possible, not long ago and not far from where we live, that people everywhere became complicit in the murder of their neighbours? To constrain this within the framework of universal lessons may be to miss deeper insights from the specificity of the event itself; perhaps concealing some uncomfortable and inconvenient truths that we would rather avoid.

In a world of such vast inequality, social injustice and human exploitation from which we in the northern hemisphere profit, an uncomfortable truth of the Holocaust is that complicity extends far wider than we may care to imagine, and may be found in characteristics rather closer to home. The past reveals a shocking truth: you do not need to hate anyone to be complicit in mass human suffering.

Centre for Holocaust Education, Institute of Education, University of London

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Subject guide: Judaism

WWII: Witnessing the Holocaust (BBC Archive)

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