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The Holocaust heritage

Every day brings new facts about the Final Solution. Antony Lerman asks how much we need to know
It won't be this year or next, but before too long, the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust will all be dead. The living memory of the tragedy will be extinguished, and a priceless link between past and present finally severed. The inexorable transition from memory to history will be complete - or will it?

Such a transition is the inevitable fate of every historical event, but there are few signs of it happening to the Holocaust. Quite the opposite. The Holocaust is unfinished business.

There is an acceleration in the pace of historical research and writing. New campaigns to settle accounts - legal, political, financial - have a harder, more urgent edge. Controversies over the siting and erection of memorials and museums touch the deepest sensitivities. The political and moral repercussions hang thick in the air as if the past is a dimension of the present, but one that we cannot physically touch or see. The presence of the Holocaust in popular culture is ubiquitous. Far from being an event which was so unique as to be practically outside of human history, it has become part of daily life.

The expansion of historical scholarship has been stimulated by the new information emerging in huge quantities of documents from archives in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which were closed to Western scholars before the collapse of communism. This in turn has fuelled a reassessment of studies completed before 1989, with historians and investigative journalists examining the roles of individual, corporate and state actors in the tragedy whose actions had not come under the spotlight before now. The revelation that significant numbers of officers with Jewish backgrounds served in the German armed forces stems directly from this new approach to Holocaust history.

From the 1960s and the Eichmann trial, as the Holocaust entered the public consciousness in a big way, it became a subject for film-makers, producers of documentaries, novelists, poets and even television mini-series. This cultural production has continued to grow, again encouraged by the collapse of communism and the willingness of people in former communist states to confront this aspect of their pasts.

Further, many survivors were reluctant to speak about their experiences in the first decades after the war. But as the Holocaust has become an integral part of our culture, and as those survivors come nearer to the ends of their lives, there has been an outpouring of memoirs and accounts. A fourth reason is that the Holocaust remains an issue of immense political and cultural significance in Germany today, with different groups defining themselves according to the part they believe the Holocaust should play in determining Germany's future path.

But most significant is the deliberate effort, during the past three decades, to place the Holocaust centre stage as the key historical, moral and legal problem of our age, and the central issue of Jewish life. Much of this effort, quite naturally, has come from Jews and Jewish organisations, but by no means all.

For many years, Jews were reluctant to locate the Holocaust at the centre of their communal concerns. But in the post-war years new leaders emerged, too young to have experienced the Holocaust, for whom the Holocaust became a powerful motivating force. They saw that, as time passed, it would be impossible to call the world to account for the crimes committed or to record survivors' accounts of what happened.

This effort produced extensive results; among them were new laws to prosecute suspected Nazi war criminals in some Western countries, the establishment of the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, an international campaign to secure compensation for stolen Jewish property in Eastern Europe, the building of countless memorials in synagogues, community centres, towns and villages. And most recently the international campaign to recover the assets of Holocaust victims held in Swiss banks.

The consequences of all this are not wholly welcome. Since much Holocaust- related activity has developed a momentum and logic of its own, that might be expected. But it applies also to the conscious attempt to shape public memory and influence political action.

For example, as a quest for justice, the campaign against the Swiss banks and the effort to obtain compensation for stolen property in Eastern Europe cannot be faulted, but if, in the process, the image of the Holocaust changes from that of a moral issue to one of gold, property and cash, the consequences will be damaging.

The Holocaust continues to shape the political outlook of significant sectors of the Israeli right on Middle East peace, Israel's relations with the world at large and relations with the Jewish diaspora. That is deeply worrying. It fosters an attitude of mind which sees every concession or compromise as the breeding ground for another Holocaust.

Finally, placed at the centre of Jewish communal concerns, the Holocaust has had a powerful but in many ways negative impact on the shaping of modern Jewish identity. That Jews should learn about this aspect of their history goes without saying, but that it should become the principal reason to be Jewish makes little sense. The enduring quality of an identity derived from the glorification of one's status as a victim hardly bears thinking about.

What distinguishes these negative consequences is that they are the product of deliberate policy choices and consciously adopted attitudes, grounded in a narrow and philosophically bankrupt view of how to secure the Jewish future - a view epitomised by the utterly unacceptable, though sadly too common, notion of Jewish assimilation as a second or silent Holocaust. But since the choices and attitudes are made on earth, they can and should be altered, however difficult that may be. And the difficulty is compounded when the Holocaust is used as a justification for action, because its effect - often deliberately engineered - is to prevent debate and de-legitimise dissenting voices.

In effect, along with growing attention and the delayed transition from memory to history, there is a hardening trend towards politicisation. Left unchallenged, it will undermine the continuing and very necessary process of embedding the Holocaust in public memory.

Antony Lerman is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.