From Human Rights to a Culture of Remembrance: some personal and philosophical reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day 2021.

The personal is political and the political is personal

The Holocaust has always been of great personal and professional interest to me. The events surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 in my community, the University of Surrey, prompted me to write this blogpost, which is based on a speech I gave as part of the Department of Politics’ contribution to the University’s commemoration of the Holocaust.

What follows are some personal reflections on what the Holocaust and Holocaust Memorial Day mean to me as someone who trained as a moral and political philosopher, but who is, crucially, also a German citizen.  

Never Again! And the rediscovery of Human Rights

To begin, let me ask a question that is almost too obvious on Holocaust Memorial Day, Why Remember the Holocaust?

One answer that is in danger of becoming a platitude is that we remember the Holocaust so it does never happen again.

To me, it is never quite clear what is exactly meant by this statement. It could have a variety of implications. Nor is it clear what exactly needs to be done for history not to repeat itself.

Still, immediately after the Holocaust, there was an acknowledgement that something had to be done. And that something was the rehabilitation of an idea. The idea of universal human rights.

It is a simple idea, namely that all human beings have rights because they are human beings, regardless of who they are or where they come from. This idea had gone out of fashion in the 19th century and the early 20th century for a variety of reasons.

For example, Jeremy Bentham, the famous utilitarian philosopher, contended that the idea of human rights was, in his words, ‘non-sense on stilts’, while Karl Marx dismissed human rights as bourgeois inventions. But the experience of the Holocaust meant this idea made a comeback.

The Holocaust, and the German state’s ability to systematically murder six million Jews, as well as thousands of disabled people, homosexuals, and political prisoners, served as a monstrous reminder that there must be some moral limits to what states can permissibly do to those under their rule. There are certain ways in which no human being should be treated, in particular by the powerful organisation of the state and its agents.

This idea forms one of the cornerstones of global humanitarian governance, within the UN system and beyond. But sometimes one wonders to what extent its central message – that certain actions and policies are morally beyond the pale – has been heeded.

As the liberation of the extermination camp Auschwitz was commemorated in Yad Vashem in January 2020, the Syrian civil war raged on a couple of hundred kilometres from Jerusalem, with its mass disappearances, torture (even of teenage boys), indiscriminate bombing of civilians, starvation, and chemical weapons usage. The bitter irony is that some political leaders partly responsible for, and complicit in, the Syrian carnage sat in Yad Vashem, nodding along to the speeches delivered by the dignitaries and officials.

This is not, by the way, to equate the Syrian civil war, or any other contemporary atrocity, with the Holocaust. The Holocaust is morally and historically unique in its brutality, vastness, industrial methods, and, as the Israeli philosophers Avishai Margalit and Gabriel Motzkin put it, in the Nazi’s desire to ‘humiliate the Jewish people before history’ – that is to say, as never having been eligible for membership in humanity in the first place (see their excellent piece ‘The Uniqueness of the Holocaust’, in Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1996).

The great theorist of the American Jewish left, Michael Walzer, views the Nazis as a supreme threat to human civilisation. A Nazi victory would have, in Walzer’s words, ended human civilisation as we know it (see his seminal Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, various editions). Fortunately, we were spared a Nazi victory. Still, the Nazis managed to end human civilisation, not for the duration of a one-thousand year-long Reich, but until 1945, at the gates of Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The Holocaust must therefore be commemorated as unique. That is why there is Holocaust Memorial Day.

My point about the Syrian civil war is merely that, notwithstanding great speeches about ‘lessons learned’, human beings remain willing and able to commit unspeakable acts against each other, and global humanitarian governance remains a playball for the strong and powerful.


But probably there is some hope. In her book Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil (Allen Lane, 2019), the American Jewish philosopher Susan Neiman, who lives in Berlin and directs the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, finds hope in Germany’s attempts to deal with its past.The Germans, as you would expect, even have a characteristically bureaucratic term for this process, namely Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung [coping with the past].

I never liked this term. It suggests, to me at least, that once you have coped with a problem, you can move on. But nothing could be further from the truth in the case of the Holocaust. Remembrance is not a bureaucratic procedure that is completed once a box has been ticked.

I prefer the term Erinnerungskultur, or Culture of Remembrance. To me, this signals on on-going process. It also signals that remembrance must be embedded in cultural practices and institutions. The school curriculum is obviously important here. But remembrance also has implications for the arts, for music, and for, as Neiman points out, iconography (statues, memorials).

I remember vividly when Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List was released in Germany in 1993. My high-school made it compulsory for us to watch it as part of our history lessons. Our history teacher took us to the local cinema one morning. Many of us cried. It was a strange experience to hear one’s classmates cry in the darkness of the cinema. I myself burst into tears when Oscar Schindler’s grave was shown, in colour (the movie itself is in black and white), at the end, and the actors and their director pay their respects by placing small stones on it. A week or two later we all met up in our free time and watched the movie again.

If anything, the above illustrates the centrality of culture in remembering the Holocaust. Most importantly, it also bolsters Neiman’s argument that a Culture of Remembrance cannot be exclusively imposed from above. It must include bottom-up processes. And that requires personal engagement.

For young Germans like me, who came politically of age in the 1990s, this included, in addition to trips to the cinema, a long hard look, not just at our recently reunited country, but also at our families and especially our grandparents. Remembrance is personal indeed.

As the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it last year, as part of the international commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, you can only love Germany with a broken heart.   

That said, while Neiman deems the German Culture of Remembrance a success and thinks it can be applied to other historical and moral evils, most notably to slavery in the US, it is neither a happy nor smooth process. Remembrance is always political and contested. There are those who want to draw a line under events, or who simply had enough, or who belittle history, or who simply lie about it. Germany did not really move towards a Culture of Remembrance until the 1980s, no less than forty years after the Holocaust. 

Remembrance, then, is a political struggle and hard graft. Often unpleasant, often unsettling, sometimes confusing (what exactly are we remembering?) – but always necessary. For, while remembrance may lead to a broken heart, it is hard to see what a morally acceptable alternative should be.

Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Remembrance in the UK

Before I conclude, I would like to reflect on the relevance of the concept of Remembrance Culture for the United Kingdom. There are, I think, in British society, three main issues regarding the Holocaust and anti-Semitism where an engagement with Remembrance Culture might be fruitful.

First, a major political party, the Labour Party, was investigated by the UK equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), for anti-Semitism and institutional bias against Jewish members. Last year’s EHRC’s report on the subject is a harrowing read. Apart from the sometimes blatantly open display of anti-Semitism and bullying of Jews (including a pregnant Jewish MP), there seems to be, in certain political circles in Britain, a remarkable degree of historical tone-deafness with regard to the Holocaust. Rectifying this is not only a matter of better Holocaust education in schools or universities. It is also a question of bottom-up processes and the culture within political parties.

Second, the UK Secretary of State for Education has recently proposed that all British universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Much of the debate surrounding the IHRA definition concerns whether it inhibits free speech when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be precise, the issue is whether certain criticisms of Israeli policy are anti-Semitic. Some surely are – but that in itself does not settle whether there should be a legal penalty or other disciplinary procedure attached to them.

As an academic, however, I am always weary of government attempts to regulate universities, especially if announced with great fanfare in tabloid newspapers. Aside from the fact that universities are already regulated by equalities legislation, my own view is that the adoption of the IHRA definition will not spare us higher education professionals from difficult and probably even painful debates.

This is because much of what the IHRA definition has to say about anti-Semitism points to the relevance of a statement’s context in order to determine whether the statement in question is anti-Semitic or not. Reading the IHRA’s document on anti-Semitism, it strikes me how much of it is phrased in terms of conditionals: statement X could be seen as anti-Semitic if it was uttered in a certain way in a particular context. Arguments about context and a speaker’s intentions beckon. As a result, even if Higher Education Institutions adopt the IHRA definition, much work remains to be done.

Third, since 2014, the British government has been considering a new Holocaust Memorial, to be based in London close to the Palace of Westminster. Indeed, the current memorial in Hyde Park is woefully inadequate, not least when compared to the centrality of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the more recent RAF Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.

But the proposal raises a host of difficult questions. How can the Holocaust be represented in architecture? What does it mean as a British person to remember the Holocaust, not least at a time when British identity is itself under pressure? How does the proposed British memorial relate to other memorials and sites of remembrance in continental Europe? Will its education centre deal with uncomfortable questions for British history, such as British attitudes towards Jewish refugees from continental Europe at the time?

None of these questions has an easy answer. But hopefully, a suitable Culture of Remembrance can inoculate us against the ideologies of hate that seek to divide, and especially the scourge of anti-Semitism, be it on the left or the right, that continues to be a moral stain on all European societies and beyond.

Dr Alex Leveringhaus, Department of Politics