Why Holocaust Memorial Day Matters 27 January 2014


Holocaust Memorial Day is held on 27th January 2014 and is only into its second decade, having been established in 2001.

There are so many important reasons that society should remember the Holocaust. There was a time when the Second World War was still fresh in the minds of many, Europe still recovering from its brutality and the Cold War a reminder of its global impact. Humanity moves on, as it must, but it is in danger of forgetting the lessons of history. As those who witnessed the brutality of WW2 and the Holocaust grow old and die, and as the world changes, it is easy to forget that 6 million Jews were once captured and killed as scapegoats for society’s ills.

Increasingly, Holocaust-deniers, anti-Semites, the far-right and neo-Nazis reassert themselves in Europe. Nick Griffin, on his now-famous Question Time appearance, said he could not share his views on the Holocaust for fear of imprisonment. What were his views? Like many other white supremacists, it is the view that the Holocaust never took place and is apparently a lie invented by the Jewish people. This is not pre-war Germany, but 21st century Britain. Griffin may be bankrupt, and Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League may be behind bars, but many more far-right and extremists are present in our midst.

What is equally worrying is that people are forgetting how genocide takes place. I am certain the majority of German soldiers serving in the Third Reich were not born hating Jews – perhaps they were not even raised hating Jews. Instead, they were told to look at Jews as all that was wrong with German society. They were told it was Jews who held the Aryan race back and not just Jews, but Romani gypsies, the disabled and countless others who did not fit into Hitler’s vision of a new German Empire. Genocide begins with scapegoating, hatred and lies. German society was led to believe there was a Jewish problem. And problems need solutions.  This process should be remembered.

In the modern press, the same narratives re-assert themselves. In December 2013, footballer Nicolas Anelka performed the ‘quenelle’ which is sometimes described as a reverse Nazi salute. Proponents of the gesture say it is simply an anti-establishment gesture, perhaps it started as such, but its appropriation by neo-Nazis should be the final word in the debate. I’m not concerned that a footballer made the gesture, I’m concerned by those who defend fail to recognise the wider process of demonisation behind the gesture.

The headlines today in the media are also taking a disturbing turn, such as the Daily Express headline ‘Britain Must Ban Migrants’ or The Morning Star’s ‘Migrant War on British Streets’ or perhaps the Daily Star’s ‘Roma Migrant Invasion Will Start UK Riots’. These are not isolated anti-migrant headlines, but are printed on a regular basis. At first sight, anti-migrant headlines may seem a world away from genocide, but the process of dehumanisation necessary for genocide begins with xenophobia, and xenophobia begins with demonisation.

In Greece, the Golden Dawn party proudly admit being racist, and their emblem is a sickening imitation of the swastika. If the horrors of the Holocaust were truly remembered, would such a political party ever be elected?

Nor should we forget the ever popular ‘Muslim problem’ in Britain that so accurately mimics the anti-Semitism of yesterday. Jews were considered to be unpatriotic leeches on German society in the Second World War, with foreign values and practices. I find it shocking to see the same things said today about Muslims. Those who stand against anti-Semitism should too stand against Islamophobia.

Some have criticised Holocaust Memorial Day for not appropriately including other genocides of the modern era.  Perhaps more attention should be given to global genocides, but the Nazi Holocaust should never be forgotten or side-lined. It is appropriately foregrounded because it reminds us that Holocaust is not a problem out there, elsewhere in the world, but is absolutely possible here in Europe too. It reminds us that while fascism took root in mainland Europe – papers in Britain shouted ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’.

To ‘Never Forget’ is to ensure we never make the same mistakes again. 

This article is from Issue 6 of On Religion (Winter 2014). To subscribe and receive the entire edition in print – simply follow the instructions below: –


About Ishmael Cohen

Ishmael Cohen is currently completing an MA in Cultural Studies. He is interested in how religion, faith, and politics interact with media and popular culture.

all, Britain, Judaism, Opinion