The UK is to have a new national Holocaust memorial. In September, 2016, the British government launched an international design competition, the outcome of which was announced recently. The memorial, together with a learning centre, is to be located in Victoria Tower Gardens, close to the Palace of Westminster. The shortlisted designs will feature in an exhibition, to be held at a variety of venues this year. The government is inviting feedback from the public, through a link on the design competition website.
Media commentators have criticised the designs, and also the location, for the memorial. Its proximity to the Houses of Parliament (‘at the heart of Britain’s democracy’) could be seen as self-serving. And there is an existing world-class Holocaust learning centre nearby, in the form of the Imperial War Museum’s permanent exhibition. Remarkably, London already has a Holocaust memorial (see photo below), though it is not all that well known. Composed of boulders and birch trees, it occupies an inconspicuous site in Hyde Park. Nearby stands a vastly more prominent and striking memorial, to animals in war. According to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the inadequacy of the Holocaust memorial in comparison borders on the offensive.
Opinions differ about the design and location but it is widely agreed that London and the UK are in need of a new and suitable memorial and learning centre. Many other cities have one; examples include Jerusalem, Washington, D.C., and Berlin. In Ottawa, work is currently underway on a national Holocaust monument, to be opened later this year. A Canadian Museum of Human Rights opened in 2014 at Winnipeg, with galleries and learning facilities devoted to the Holocaust and other genocides.
If it is self-evident that the Shoah should be memorialised, it is less clear how that should be done. What form should remembrance and memorialisation take? Are physical memorials, such as monuments, always necessary?
Memorialisation has taken many forms since 1945. In some countries the initial emphasis was less on ‘victims’ than on wartime patriotism, heroism and resistance. That began to change only from the late 1980s. High profile trials of former Nazis, such as Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ (see photo), stimulated new inquiry into the past. So, too, did the collapse of the Soviet Union. To what extent, people asked more openly than before, might the violent tendencies of communism have been similar to those of fascism? Genocides in Rwanda and then at Srebrenica in Bosnia, in 1994 and 1995, raised many other questions, including some about the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
In the UK, memorialisation had already begun to take a particular course, encouraged above all by the interest and concern of British Jews. The first notable outcome was the Hyde Park memorial, funded by the Board of Deputies and dedicated in June, 1983. Five years later, the Holocaust Educational Trust was formed. It aimed to increase awareness and understanding of the Holocaust in schools and among the wider public. In 1991, it campaigned successfully for the Holocaust to be included in the National Curriculum for England. In part through the activities of the Trust and of similar organisations in other countries, interest in the Holocaust grew. Politicians and governments became more involved. International conferences convened, at Washington, D.C., in 1998 and at Stockholm in 2000. In the UK, government and national organisations agreed on the a Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), to be held each year on 27th January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz. Other countries made similar arrangements.
Britain’s first Memorial Day in 2001 engendered debate but also controversy. reference to Armenia angered the government of Turkey, which argued that the massacre of Armenians in 1915 did not constitute genocide. British journalist and author Anne Karpf, for example, worried about institutionalising the Holocaust: a 50-year near silence had turned into an obsession, she claimed, fed by recent events such as the David Irving libel trial. In a further 50 years, Karpf wondered, ‘will there be schools full of children chafing at having to feign sorrow over a distant historical atrocity?’ The late historian David Cesarani also had some reservations at the time, but welcomed the event overall: it might remind Britain that, while it had taken in some Jewish refugees from Nazi tyranny (see the photo from 1938), it had also been ambivalent and equivocal about Jews in general.
In 2005, responsibility for HMD passed from the government to the Holocaust Memorial day Trust, a charity funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Also, since 2005, there has been a government envoy for post-Holocaust issues. Launching public consultation on the proposed new national memorial, the current envoy, Sir Eric Pickles, emphasised the importance of the Holocaust to Britain’s history. The memorial would affirm the UK’s commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred. It would inspire reflection and compassion; and, having visited the memorial, people would feel encouraged to respect and embrace difference.
Plainly, HMD and the national memorial now proposed for Victoria Tower Gardens are about more than the Holocaust and other genocides. They can also be seen as part of broader, official initiatives to discourage extremism and to support certain ‘national’ institutions and values: democracy and the rue of law, liberty, mutual respect and tolerance. Governments in the UK and other countries have often shaped remembrance and memorialisation of the past for political and diplomatic reasons. For some campaigners and critics of government today, Whitehall’s commitment to memorialisation of the Holocaust sits uneasily with its unwillingness to accept unaccompanied child refugees from war-torn Syria.
As debate about these ostensibly separate issues shows, the present and the past are often more closely linked than we acknowledge or care to admit.
The above blog is based on research by John Stuart and the following students on the Kingston History department’s Level 6 ‘Capstone’ module: Matthew Burke, James Cullimore, Abi Harmsworth, Peter Lewis, and Rhiannon Speer
(Photos: WikiMedia Commons and Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust)
Board of Deputies of British Jews, Submission to the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission (2014)
Britain’s Promise to Remember: The Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission Report (2015)
David Cesarani, ‘Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain’, History Today 52, 2 (2002)
Anne Karpf, ‘Memories aren’t made of this’, The Guardian, 26 January, 2001
Rowan Moore, ‘Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Shortlist: Right Time, Wrong Place?’, The Guardian, 5 February, 2017
Sir Eric Pickles MP, ‘We Pledge to Survivors: Your Legacy is Secure’, Jewish News Online, 26 January, 2017