Britain’s chance to confront the ghosts of past genocides

Nearly 70 years after the event, Britain is planning a memorial to the Holocaust so that future generations will not forget. But the real question is what will they remember?

In the words of the British Prime Minister (27 January 2014), a newly appointed Holocaust Commission will “investigate what more needs to be done to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and the educational resources needed for generations to come.”

Dachau-Never-AgainFor the past 13 years Britain has dedicated a Memorial Day (27 January) to the remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. First held in 2001 it marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Union in 1945.

There is also a Holocaust Memorial Garden in London’s Hyde Park, funded by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and unveiled in 1983. Its worn inscription reads: “For thee I weep, streams of tears flow from my eyes because of the destruction of my people” (Lamentations 3:48). Yet in Britain there is no public memorial on the scale of Berlin or Vienna.

The idea of a British memorial is better late than never. But its impact and effectiveness will be conditioned by the extent to which the country is willing to come to terms with a much broader and more sinister context – what historian A. N. Wilson in After the Victorians (2005) describes as:

“…a period of history in which human beings massacred one another in numbers without historical parallel. The sheer number of deaths is actually impossible to comprehend or to absorb with the imagination, however often we might recite the actual numbers of those killed.”

Wilson is referring to the 20th century as a whole – haunted by genocide and by questions of culpability, racism, political expediency, and impunity. And specifically with regard to the Second World War, there are still stones to be turned about who did what, who was responsible, and who was silent or looked the other way.

Keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive should not be used to deflect attention from other genocides before and after 1939-45. In fact, it should reflect how a nation understands and carries out its moral duty towards other nations or peoples that are suffering.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), based on the work of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, defined genocide as any acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. It includes killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

As of 2013, 144 states had ratified or acceded to the Genocide Convention, 16 of them conditionally on the exclusion of any provision which explicitly requires that the nation consents to the trial of its citizenry before an international court for the crime of genocide.

Never-againIn reality, many countries have paid lip service to the immorality and inhumanity of genocide, while clinging to escape clauses for reasons of political expediency. Worse still, right from the beginning the words “never again” have been tossed to the four winds, trampled and reneged.

Long before “Never again!” became an empty slogan, there was the Armenian Genocide in Turkey (1915-18 – 1,500,000 deaths). Then came Stalin’s Forced Famine (1932-33 – 7,000,000 deaths); the Japanese Rape of Nanking (1937-38 – 300,000 deaths); and the Holocaust or Shoah itself (1933-45 – over 11 million deaths, including more than 6 million Jews).

Many genocides came after 1948, contradicting the Convention’s noble aspirations. The following list may be incomplete and the number of deaths in every case is an estimate:

  • North Korea (1948-1994) 1.6 million.
  • Algeria (1954-62) 700,000.
  • Guatemala (1960-96) 45,000.
  • Indonesia (1965-66) 500,000.
  • China (1958-61 and 1966-71) 50 million.
  • Nigeria (1967-70) 3 million.
  • Chile (1973-90) 2,279.
  • Ethiopian (1975-78) 1.5 million.
  • Argentina (1976-83) 30,000.
  • El Salvador (1978-92) 8,000.
  • Cambodia (1975-79) 2 million.
  • Sri Lanka (1980-2011) 55,000.
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-95) 200,000.
  • Rwanda (1994) 800,000.
  • Darfur (2003-12) 480,000.
  • Syria (2011-14) 50,000.

If Britain’s Holocaust Commission merely satisfies itself with a design for an aesthetically pleasing monument and an anodyne educational package that blurs the boundaries of moral responsibility, it will fail in its duty. Bold thinking is needed to confront the ghosts of the past and to find a way of remembering the victims of the Holocaust and of all the other genocides that have taken place over the last 100 and more years.

In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Britain’s memorial should do just that.

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