LONDON – The future of the governing Conservative Party. The role of King Charles III. The effect of Brexit. The destiny of the Manchester United football club. The fate of the proposed Holocaust museum.
Those are among the issues roiling British waters these days. The one that has received no attention on this side of the Atlantic involves a tragedy that ended more than three quarters of a century ago but that, unlike the others, has consequences that will outlive Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and even the new king’s immediate successors.
The controversy boils down to whether a Holocaust museum should be built in London and, if so, where it might be placed and what it might emphasize.
Those questions have been answered in the United States, where the Holocaust Memorial Museum opened 30 years ago in Washington and has recorded 47 million visitors. (Only a 10th of its visitors have been Jewish.) There are 18, maybe more, Holocaust museums sprinkled across the U.S., including in such places as El Paso, Texas, and Oswego, N.Y. There are three in the state of New Jersey alone. In Boston, a Holocaust museum is now being designed and will be built on the Freedom Trail. There is one on my street in Pittsburgh.
Part of the prominence of Holocaust museums in the U.S. is a matter of demographics. There are about 5.8 million American Jews, which translates into about 2.4 percent of the nation’s population. There are about 272,000 Jews in England and Wales, about the size of the population of Anchorage, Alaska. That translates to about half of 1 percent of the entire population.
Even so, Holocaust education is the only compulsory subject in the British national curriculum for history. The Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democratic political parties all favor a Holocaust memorial – a substantial change in the past four decades, brought about in large measure when Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron (2010 to 2016) – with an eye on the Jewish vote – added his support and when his successor, Theresa May (2016 to 2019), announced plans to place a National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre next to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey – in the heart of official Britain. Before long, the plan was endorsed by former Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The animating theory of a British commemorative center was set out in a 2015 report by Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, which stated that “in educating young people about the Holocaust, Britain reaffirms its commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred in all its forms.” The goal of creating “empathetic citizens with tolerance for the beliefs and culture of others” is similar to the rationale behind dozens of such commemorative centers in North America and around the globe. Empathetic citizens with tolerance for the beliefs and cultures of others are in short supply these days, both in London and across the ocean.
But skepticism about the Holocaust memorial reflects a subtler examination of the issue, one that goes beyond softening the rough edges of public discourse and fighting xenophobia and hatred.
It reflects the notion that the memorial might be out of scale for Victoria Tower Gardens. Plus because Great Britain was not responsible for the Holocaust, placing the memorial in the most sacred seats of British parliamentary government might be inappropriate. Then there’s the proposed memorial, like its cousins across the globe and events such as Holocaust Memorial Day, which aim at shaping personal conduct and outlooks even though the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazi government and its Axis allies – primarily Italy and Japan.
“The rhetoric surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day and the practice of memorialization more broadly has encouraged participants to perceive danger as springing from popular prejudice and hatred; from a population which might turn savage and intolerant if not tutored by a benign state,” David Feldman, the director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at the University of London, writes in an essay titled “Hijacked from the Centre: Holocaust Memory in the United Kingdom.” “In view of the fact that the Final Solution was a state project carried out in the circumstances of total war the widespread absence of the state from memorialization is a remarkable outcome.”
This viewpoint needs to provoke lively debate in North America, where Holocaust memorialization tends to include enormous numbers of personal testimonies that are searing, dramatic, and memorable, adding up to the implicit message that good citizenship and a national sense of individual responsibility are the best weapons against intolerance. Good citizenship is, by definition, good. But it tells us little about the Holocaust, which Feldman reminds us was a government effort.
“The failure to address the state stands in the way of our capacity to properly remember the Holocaust,” he argues. “To be sure, Nazis’ mass murder of Jews involved ordinary individuals who made fateful choices, but to place our emphasis on them fundamentally misconstrues what was a state-driven project.”
This is a viewpoint that has received precious little attention in North America. It is good that Holocaust museums and libraries are rushing to digitize the oral histories of the dwindling number of living Holocaust survivors, estimated at 240,000 worldwide, many too young to remember the atrocities. It is thrilling when we read that a Holocaust-era Torah that had been stashed in a bazooka case has been placed on display in the new Holocaust Museum that opened in Toronto this past spring. I’m not the only person preoccupied with tales of Holocaust survival, and indeed I have read two such dramatic and evocative accounts in remarkable books in recent months.
But the debate in London reminds us of an important element. The Holocaust was more than an anecdotal event. It was a political tragedy. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.