Monday, 1 February 2010

Understanding the Holocaust Today

by Kathryn Hadley

On Wednesday January 27th, Holocaust Memorial Day, a panel of leading historians of the Holocaust, including David Cesarani, Dan Stone, Zoe Waxman and Peter Longerich, gathered at the Imperial War Museum London to discuss the historiography of the Holocaust over the past ten years. The event marked the tenth anniversary of the museum’s Holocaust exhibition and the founding of the Royal Holloway, University of London, Holocaust Research Centre.

All four historians are in some way investigating a previously unexplored aspect of the Holocaust and each began by introducing his, or her, particular area of research. Whilst Longerich’s research is focused on both the perpetrators of the Holocaust and how existing thematic and geographic studies can be integrated into the general history of the Third Reich, Waxman is primarily interested in the ‘lived experience of those who suffered’. Waxman’s research seeks, in particular, to explore and integrate issues of testimony and gender into studies of the Holocaust. David Cesarani is currently researching the historiography of the Holocaust in the years immediately after the Second World War, and Dan Stone is writing a book about the history of Holocaust historiography.

How have studies of the Holocaust evolved since the end of the Second World War? More specifically, how has historiography changed over the past decade? Furthermore, how is research set to evolve in coming years?

It is generally assumed that studies and public commemoration of the Holocaust largely developed over the past decade. During the 1990s, historical studies came to focus increasingly on the victims of history. Rather than writing the history of the ‘great’, historians sought to redress the imbalance and to give a voice to those who had suffered and had been largely silenced. Increased commemoration of the Holocaust was a core feature of this general trend. On November 1st, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/7 designated January 27th as an International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27th has been celebrated as Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK since 2001.

However, the perceived contrast between the considerable attention paid to the Holocaust by contemporary politicians compared to that in the years after the Second World War may be no more than an illusion. According to Cesarani, in the aftermath of the Second World War, there was a big drive to research the Holocaust and considerable efforts to gather testimonies and commemorate its victims. Jews dominated British politics, in part as a result of the campaign led by Holocaust survivors to emigrate to Palestine. Although research into the Holocaust was later sidelined, this was, in Cesarani’s view, largely a reaction against its ‘over-commemoration’ in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In the United Kingdom in particular, attention had been focused on the Jewish population for years and there was a sense that the British public had had enough.

Efforts to research and commemorate the Holocaust may be no more widespread today than sixty years ago; nevertheless, studies of the Holocaust have undoubtedly evolved. The changing shape of Europe since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in particular, has been a major influence on views of the Holocaust. According to Dan Stone, the effects of the collapse of communism and of European integration have been twofold, both positive and negative. On the one hand, the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe has given rise to far-right parties such as the Yobbik in Hungary, which were silenced during the communist era. On the other hand, there is also a sense in eastern European countries of an obligation to carry out national investigations into the Holocaust in their bid to join the European Union.

There remains considerable research to be carried out, especially in Eastern Europe, and views of the Holocaust will continue to change. Dan Stone highlighted important voids in Holocaust studies on the ‘micro level’, once again, in particular in Eastern Europe. Archives in Eastern Europe have only been opened in recent years and remain understudied. These untapped and unexplored archives are notably expected to reveal a great deal about mentalit├ęs in eastern European countries at the time and may help historians to understand what led to collaboration in some countries. However, a major obstacle to the study of eastern European archives is that they are mostly written in eastern European languages or in Yiddish. Interestingly, there has been a drive in recent years, in American universities in particular, to train historians in Yiddish. Nevertheless, according to David Cesarani, the future direction of Holocaust studies is clear: ‘the centre of gravity of writing history will shift eastwards’.

For more information on some of the controversies surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day read our article, Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain.
For an insight into the general debate surrounding the commemoration of historical disasters, read The Memory of Catastrophe.

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