Adrian Hamilton: Keep the politicians out of Holocaust Day

What should be an argument about its meaning has been hijacked by a dispute over ownership
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If Holocaust Memorial Day is still surrounded by passionate debate, all the better. An event of such magnitude, remembering such horror should be surrounded by contention. The day that the Holocaust is remembered by sage nods and agreed sorrow is the day you know that it is being forgotten.

Yet this is exactly what today's celebrations in Cardiff seem intent on doing. What should be an argument about the meaning of this monstrous event has been hijacked by a political dispute over ownership - ownership of the victim status and ownership of the feelings of compassion and the promises that "we will never allow this to happen again". Holocaust Memorial Day is becoming a Victorian religious rally to which the audience is urged to subscribe and those who don't are cast as uncivilised.

It shouldn't be. For at the heart of the Holocaust debate is a question that only constant research and debate can answer - if it ever can - which is this: was the Holocaust an exceptional event, an act born of such peculiar malignity that it cannot be compared with any other such historical fact, or was it the logical outcome of political and social developments that made it more extreme but not necessarily different in kind to other persecutions?

On the whole it has been the "exceptional" argument that has carried the day for most of the post-war. That is partly because the evidence itself from Nazi papers seemed to make the policy of extermination of the Jews a particular perversion of the minds of Hitler and his coterie, and partly because it was politically convenient.

The unique nature of the Jewish persecution made it easier for the post-war generations of Germany, Poland, Ukraine and other countries to come to terms with their part in the Jewish tragedy, while also buttressing the case for Israel as requiring special concern and protection.

During the past few years, however, the tide of historical evidence has seemed to point to a less exceptional explanation for the Holocaust. Detailed examination of the security and government papers in individual communities and regions has thrown up a picture in which persecution of the Jews was part of a more general persecution of a range of peoples considered inimical to the progress of the Third Reich, including not just gypsies and homosexuals but the mentally impaired, criminals and Slavs.

That of course throws up some hard questions about the complicity of the average citizens in Germany, Poland, etc, in what happened. But it also poses wider questions as to how such things can happen and how they can be avoided in the future. If the Holocaust is not unique then should the day be renamed as Genocide Day to include all persecution, now and in the past, and is there some discernible distinction between genocide and persecution?

The problem with politicising the issue is that it confuses the question. Muslims want to make the Holocaust not unique but one of many such "genocides". But they (or rather Turkey and the Sudan) don't want that expansion to include the Armenian massacres of 1915 or the Darfur oppression of 2005.

Israel wants to make the Holocaust exceptional but at the same time wants to use it to impel the recognition of all sorts of countries who had nothing to do with the events in Germany and the occupied countries of the Second World War.

So you get the ridiculous and totally unproductive barrage of words between Israeli ministers and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president of Iran. The Holocaust, shouts he, is a European problem, nothing to do with the Muslim world. "Holocaust denier", they retort. "Clearly he wants another Holocaust."

Politically, Ahmadinejad (as well he knows) does little for the Iranian cause in the West with such opinions. In hard political terms, it must equally be said that he expresses the majority opinion within the Middle East. The Holocaust, in the eyes of 90 per cent and more of the Middle East, is nothing to do with them nor should they be made to pay for it with their land and blood.

To the West this may be "denial", to them it is not so much denial of the fact as of the political use to which Israel makes of it. They deny the exceptionality which would force them to pay special obeissance to the state of Israel.

This is getting us nowhere except to a barren land in which one side after another claims victimhood and accuses another of responsibility. If we in Europe are to understand the past, there should be a Holocaust Day. It is too big a part of our history not to keep circling and trying to comprehend it.

In the same way, I believe there should be a Slavery Day and an Empire Day. Looking at the history of the West, these are the great edifices, and reproaches, that we must come to terms with if we are to learn from the past. Slavery in the 18th and early 19th century, Empire in the 19th and early 20th century, the Holocaust in the late 20th. If we can learn to understand them in all their causes and consequences then we have some hope of understanding the present and the lessons for the future.

But they belong to the historians, the archivists and those who were part of them, to Europe and the West first and only then to the wider world, not to the politicians, who would use them for their own purposes and the leaders of religion, who would embrace them only to smother them in their own righteousness.