What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Holocaust Memorial Day: Thoughts and Complications

I wasn't going to write anything in particular for today because this isn't something I find easy to put into words in a little white box on my computer screen. It's on the one hand too complex a topic to say anything concrete about it at all (we still don't know, as an indisputable historical fact, how many people died, how, and on precisely whose orders*) but on the other hand it can be summed up quite simply: long-running prejudices, left largely unchallenged, led to the systematic murder of millions of people. However, living in Germany and studying Nazi cultural history means I think about this a lot and in connection with many other topics, and I might as well commit some of those thoughts to paper.
  • The Holocaust is not just Nazi history and Nazi history is not just the Holocaust; although neither can you extract one from the other. An accusation often more of less explicitly levelled at historians of "every-day life" in the Third Reich is that we (I guess I'm one of them too) are "trivialising" the Nazis, particularly when trying to trace broader continuities in cultural history. By looking at what people read or cooked or how they spent their days off, we're reducing the crucial question of "how could such evil have come about?" to just one of many sideshows. The counter-accusation is that of fetishising the Holocaust; by studying it only in a certain way, sealed off from other historical currents, we run the risk of draining it of all real meaning. Detaching the events from the physical and cultural worlds in which they took place - denying that they were a product of normal humans, and normal political processes - is to make them intangible and incomprehensible.
  • Related to this is the issue of "learning the lesson", of "never forgetting" and of "the message". If you ask someone what that message is, they will probably say something along to lines of "never again". Probe any deeper, and everything suddenly falls apart. What shouldn't we do again? Give governments control over life and death? Allow them to remove people from next door without paying attention to where they're going? Happily let much of the popular press print story after story, systematically demonising a particular religion or minority group? Vote for a man with a small moustache?
  • Sometimes, it seems that the main "lesson" to be learned is not to dress up in Nazi uniform or have any kind of fun while invoking that particular set of shared associations. I agree with Jennifer Lipman (who wrote this in the Telegraph today) that it would be nicer all round if people didn't do that kind of thing, and that it is a probable indication of a general lack of awareness. However, returning to my first point, the Nazis were not *only* mass-murderers. As a group they were also self-important, deluded, frustrated, crowing, bullying, pathetic... humans. They built themselves up as something greater than everything that had gone before and as the fathers (and mothers) of a new, better world order but, in the end, they were wrong and they were human. They deserve ridicule, not that hushed, fearful awe which so easily morphs into respect. The more people making fun of the mere idea of them, the more they can be kept spinning in their graves, and the less easy it is for groups wanting to emulate them to gain any kind of traction**. I'm not worried about people playing Nazi-themed games on a skiing holiday. I'm worried about people very carefully planning to plant home-made bombs in areas with high immigrant populations and paint neo-Nazi slogans on the resulting headstones. I doubt there's much overlap.
  • The other thing which the above article displays is the emphasis on visits to former concentration camps - primarily Auschwitz - as the best method of "understanding" the Holocaust. There's an assumption that if you haven't been there then you won't "get it", and that making people go will make them somehow "experience" "it" and (as I feel Lipman is implying) change their behaviour in accordance with this increased respect and understanding. I've never visited the Ground Zero of the Holocaust or any of the other former camps. I'd definitely learn something if I went - I'd have a greater understanding of the spaces people moved in, of the numbers, of the lack of privacy, of the dehumanising impact of the surroundings. But the Holocaust was not just in the camps. It was on packed freight trains, station platforms, on trams and on foot; it was in every city, town and village in Germany and occupied Europe. It was in the empty houses the victims left behind and the tragically hopeful letters they sent to their relatives. It was in every aspect of life from the laws which people supported and the brief economic prosperity they enjoyed, down to the desperate fugitives in their neighbour's attic and the second-hand clothes they received when their houses were bombed. The Holocaust was everywhere and in everything, and it certainly can't be "got" by a group of warmly-dressed, well-fed tourists looking at a gas chamber, before putting into practice their legal right and physical ability to turn around and walk away.
I have no way to conclude all of this except to say that I could spend my whole life studying the Holocaust and would still never claim to understand it. Nor would I criticise anyone for spending less time studying it than whatever is generally considered to be sufficient for a historically-aware citizen. Every one of the myriad factors and processes leading to the Holocaust is still in existence today in some form and in many different combinations. They are unavoidable aspects of humanity. We need to constantly be aware of them and prevent them from combining in such a way as to cause discrimination, suffering and death on anything like the same scale. The Holocaust is an example of what can happen; arguably the worst of many examples from history. To those with no personal connection, that's all it ever can be.

*Too many, horrifically and unnecessarily, and on the orders of people whose politics should never, ever be re-adopted.
**Making fun of fascism is not a worrying new trend but has happened for as long as there have been fascists to make fun of. Was Charlie Chaplin or the designer of this poster guilty of trivialising events? It's only wrong when we assume that people are doing it out of ignorance or a lack of empathy, which really isn't for anyone else to judge.