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Dr Kara Critchell is a Lecturer in History, and Programme Leader of our MA History and MA War, Conflict and Society courses.

For those of us working in the field of genocide studies, Holocaust Memorial Day is a significant time of year. Established in 2000, with the inaugural commemoration taking place in 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day takes place across Europe on 27th January to coincide with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet army in 1945. Six million Jews perished during the Shoah and millions of others including Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, and those with perceived disabilities, were also persecuted and murdered in pursuit of the Nazi dream of a 1,000-year empire. As well as a national ceremony, commemorative services and educational events take place on a local level across the country to mark this day and to remember the suffering that took place in the heart of Europe.

Despite its name, the day itself was not only designed to commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution but also to encourage people to learn about more recent genocides, such as those that have occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Using the Holocaust as a lens through which to consider more recent genocides has been a valuable part of the commemorative day. Yet, as my final year History students taking the module Genocide in History and Memory know well, genocide is not a new phenomenon and certainly did not originate with the Holocaust. Earlier acts of violence, such as those that occurred against the Armenians and the atrocities committed as part of the colonial ambitions of European nations (none of which are commemorated as part of Holocaust Memorial Day), are also important in helping us understand not only how the Holocaust was able to happen but also how, and why, genocide still occurs around the world today.

For the Holocaust was also a product of modernity and of imperial ideas. Of a belief in the ability to strengthen societies through the implementation of eugenics and ideas borne out of racialised discourse and pseudo-scientific concepts which created a supposed hierarchy of people according to their ‘race’. Before the Nazis turned to sterilisation and industrialised killing it was Britain and America who were the biggest proponents of these ideas. Yet this is rarely acknowledged when we remember the victims of Nazism and praise the Allies for saving democracy. Equally, despite sentiments about the celebration of ‘British values’ infiltrating Holocaust Memorial Day in recent years, for example, it is clear that Britain’s own antisemitic attitudes and lack of assistance to the Jews of Europe prior to, during, and even after the Holocaust need further exploration and recognition.

Such amnesia is widespread. Whilst Germany has often been praised for confronting the crimes committed by the state during the years of Nazism, their acknowledgement of the genocide committed against the Nama and Herrero in Namibia in the opening years of the 20th century has been significantly less consistent. Similarly, there is a reluctance amongst many to reflect critically on settler violence committed against indigenous populations in Australia and the Americas. We need to ask ourselves why this is and consider how moving forward we can incorporate an understanding of colonial genocides into our study of the Holocaust to better understand ourselves and each other.

For Holocaust education and Holocaust memorialisation should be challenging. It should inspire critical self-reflection on the past to allow us to recognise the signs of genocide in the future. The idea that remembering the Holocaust will ensure that ‘Never Again’ will genocide take place is sadly one that no longer carries any weight. Despite considerable investment in Holocaust education and remembrance over the last 30 years, genocide continues unabated in the 21st century in Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq and Syria. But by teaching about and learning about the connections between colonialism and the Holocaust, between racialised ideas about slavery and Nazi perceptions of Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe and Russia, we can understand our own world more clearly.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 is ‘Be the Light in the Darkness’. On this, the 20th anniversary of the day of remembrance, the need for light in the darkness has never been more vital. In the midst of a global pandemic we have borne witness to the rise of political extremism, of challenges to democracy and a rising tide of xenophobia, racism and antisemitism. For me, if there is light in the current darkness, it comes in the form of my students whose shock and outrage at the genocides committed in the past is palpable each time we meet. Some of them are even carrying out their own outreach events to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day to pass on an awareness of these events to future generations. By looking back at the past in all its complexities, we are able to more clearly understand the present. By turning to our students there is hope for the future.

If you would like to find out more about our students’ work on the Holocaust, please visit our department webpage.

If you have an interest in history, you can find information about our History course here and you can also chat to History student, Kirsty, via Unibuddy.


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