Remembering genocide: Are we doing it right?

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1. Never again

‘Never forget’ and ‘never again’ are phrases widely used when talking about genocide. These emotive and powerful phrases evoke the idea that by forgetting acts of mass murder, we risk allowing them to happen again. These words suggest it is our duty – everyone’s duty – to remember and memorialise episodes of genocide forever.

Today ‘never forget’ and ‘never again’ are often used in relation to the Holocaust. Some Holocaust survivors speak of a ‘war against memory’, as the perpetrators tried to destroy material traces of their crimes, and revisionists today seek to deny what happened.

Holocaust Memorial Day provides a yearly opportunity to remember the Holocaust and other genocides, and there is logic and a moral urgency to do so. But remembering isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward.

2. The language of remembrance

Although only individuals can physically ‘remember’, our memories are influenced and recorded by the society and culture in which we live. Remembering is therefore a collective exercise.

What communities choose to remember and to forget is a selective process, influenced by changing power structures, social trends and cultural needs. It’s difficult to guarantee that any memory will last forever, but the language in which remembrance is expressed can make a big difference.

Naming genocide

The word ‘genocide’ was first coined by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943. Lemkin had long studied and campaigned against the mistreatment of minority groups, but as this mistreatment intensified in Nazi-occupied Europe, Lemkin introduced the term ‘genocide’ to describe these crimes.

After World War II Lemkin campaigned for genocide to be recognised as a crime under international law. He helped to draft the UN Convention on Genocide which was eventually adopted in 1948. Since then the Convention’s definition has been contested: some suggest it makes it difficult to distinguish between mass killing, forced movement and other atrocities. This argument has profound political and ethical implications, suggesting as it does that perhaps there are hierarchies of suffering, and that it’s more important to remember some atrocities than others.

But when genocide is condemned by the international community, is it ever acceptable to forget?

3. Painful memories

Remembering can be constructive and positive, but also uncomfortable, divisive and painful.

This tension can be seen in Rwanda, where it’s estimated around 800,000 people died in the 1994 genocide. Most of the dead were Tutsis, and the majority of the perpetrators were their Hutu neighbours. As the country has rebuilt itself, victims and perpetrators have had to live side by side. The genocide is annually commemorated and is now an important part of Rwanda’s collective memory, yet some survivors speak of the need to forgive and move on for the sake of the future.

Selective memories

As well as forgiving or forgetting, there is sometimes also the temptation to remember some things over others, or to emphasise the positive over the negative. Stories from the Holocaust of relief, rescue and escape, for example, should be remembered, but they were the exception to the rule rather than the norm. The stories we tell about the Holocaust, such as the successful novel and film ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, can be very powerful prompts for remembrance, but may – and in this case do – distort our understanding of what actually happened.

The problem of how to make our memories as authentic as possible, warts and all, is not easily solved. It challenges us to accept how complex and contradictory history can be, and to reflect that our remembrance of the past is conditioned by our own points of view and by our own knowledge of history.

4. Lessons to learn?

Today, the Holocaust and other genocides are remembered across the world. And while there is no single, uniform way of remembering, there are certainly some common themes.

Pledges like 'never forget' and 'never again' are examples, and so is the belief that we can and should learn about and learn from the Holocaust. These ideas give memory an educational role: we should not only keep in mind that the Holocaust happened, but also remember its 'lessons'.

But there are some questions to raise about this. Who decides what the lessons of the Holocaust are? How useful is it to think in terms of 'lessons' at all, when history cannot repeat itself? And since genocide has happened again since 1945, does this mean we have not been sincere about ‘never again’, or just that our expectations were unrealistic in the first place?

Preventing genocide is a moral and human imperative, and remembrance and education certainly help toward this goal. But we need to be clear about the difference between learning and remembering, and aware of the complexities of both.

5. Moving forward

The last 30 years has seen a dramatic increase in knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust, bringing in its wake greater recognition of historic injustices and persecutions, and widespread support for the codification and protection of human rights.

Sometimes, however, using the Holocaust as a symbol of evil results in it being removed from its historical context, over-simplified and leaving it open to misappropriation or even trivialisation.

Remembering the Holocaust and other genocides should not and cannot be easy: the questions thrown up by such events are simply too difficult and disturbing. Mass violence and murder force us to confront the ethical issues that surround any act of collective remembering: Who and what should we remember? Why is it so important? And what if anything should we try to forget?

6. 'The very least you can do'

Kitty Hart-Moxon,Laura Janner-Klausner and Judith Kerr on the importance of Holocaust remembrance. A Story of Remembrance is broadcast on Wednesday 28 January 2015, at 22:45 on BBC One.

7. What more can we do?

Remembering genocide is essential, but there are other steps that can be taken.

Knowledge is crucial

Years of research have greatly advanced our knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust and other genocides.

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Knowledge is crucial

There is still much that we don’t know, and new research may well challenge our understandings and assumptions. We need to be open to this.

Inquisitive mindsets

The occurrence of genocide poses questions which are not easily resolved.

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Inquisitive mindsets

In trying to answer why genocide happens and how we prevent it we need to be inquisitive and prepared to confront ourselves – as individuals and communities.

New generations

Education has a major role to play.

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New generations

Teaching about genocide is challenging. But it is a priority. It needs time, sensitivity and grounding in the demands of the classroom and how people learn.