How the Holocaust became a dogma

27 January commemorations nowadays

This year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day is certainly expected to be one of the most difficult ones since its establishment 14 years ago. On the one hand, of course, this is due to the more and more widespread signals of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, from stadions to the Web, from Dieudonné to antipolitics and the success of the Mein Kampf as an e-book. But on the other hand, this is also due to the growing awareness – above all among those who are engaged in the celebrations, talk to students at schools and organize meetings and debates – that the rite of 27 January, the way it is commemorated nowadays, needs to be rethought and overhauled, as well as filled with such content that may better suit the times we live in and the questions we address to the past. 
Of course, the fact that anti-Semitism spreads precisely while Holocaust Remembrance Day seems to take more and more root, expanding to a full week or month dedicated to Memory, can lead us to wonder if an excess attention towards the Holocaust may in the end bother people and set in motion refusal and denial. Yet, I do not think it is an excess memory to provoke a reaction clashing with our best expectations, but rather the fact that the use we want to make of this memory is less and less clear to us. As a matter of fact, we are caught up by both the need to defend ourselves from negationism and the fear to do something against images and rituals that have stood the test of time. Though, by doing so we run the risk of turning memory into a cult and its content into a dogma. 
Hence, in the past years, the doubts that arose around the 27 January commemorations concerned mostly the issue of whether memory, with its burden of subjectivity and emotions, or history, that in turn could appear as cold and too detached, unable to win hearts as well as minds, should matter the most. 
We were confronted with the need to address history, to use the tools of research and knowledge instead of limiting ourselves to spur on memory. Today this problem has not been solved, yet, but it has been overcome by the urge to understand if the image of the Holocaust that we propose on Holocaust Remembrance Day is adequate to our intention. An intention which cannot be only that of keeping the flame of memory alive, but must necessarily aim at using this memory to watch the world around us, grasping its reality, fighting against its perils, which seem more and more real to us. 
In order to do so, first of all I believe that we need 

to open Holocaust remembrance to what has happened in the world during the century of genocide, the Twentieth Century. In the construction of the Holocaust object, which took a long time with periods of historical repression and others of great bereavement of remembrance and major steps forward in historical research, the Seventies witnessed the definition of the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust, which over time has become a true dogma. The fact that the extermination of European Jews had absolutely specific features, which are not retraceable in other genocide cases that have marked the Twentieth century, is certain. But from here to clearly dividing the history of the Holocaust from the rest of Twentieth century history, giving up the words by which we explain other times in history, and turning it into a metahistorical element, there is a huge gap. The question is not the trivialization of the Holocaust, although somebody indulge in it, but to include again in the long history of the Twentieth century, which is so crammed with violence and genocide, the history of the Holocaust. It is a matter of prompting debate, the analysis of similarities and differences from the other genocide cases, from the one of the Herero that opens the Twentieth Century to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia that closes it, passing through Rwanda and Cambodia. Not a competition between victims, thus, but a comparison between historical processes carried out with analytical rigour. What is required, hence, is a historical, not a theological approach. I believe we should convey the image of a knowledge and understanding process, not that of dogmas to which we should bow ourselves, or super-historical truths to be unveiled. And doing so we should not be afraid of pavint the way to negationism or trivialization of the Holocaust, nor be on the defensive face the racist and anti-Semitic propagandists of lies and sawers of hatred. We must remember, again and forever, that the history we want to remember is not the history of the Jews, or at least is not only a Jewish history. It is above all the history of the non-Jews, of everybody, of the executioners, the indifferent, those who turned their heads, those who tried to respond. The history of the Holocaust concerns us all, as well a sit is up to us all to tell about it, reconstruct it, keeping memory of it, and use this memory to prevent the resurfacing of genocide and racism. This must be our outlook, this is the message that we need to safeguard and transmit.

Anna Foa, historian and professor at the University "La Sapienza" of Rome

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14 January 2014

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