The Holocaust is not only about the past, but also about how we understand the present – we can start by teaching about it in school

January 27 is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Every year, there are commemorations of the victims of the Holocaust. World leaders pay their respects to all victims of the genocidal policies of Nazism, and commemorative programmes abound. That date was chosen because on that day in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the survivors from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Auschwitz has become the preeminent symbol of Nazi racist barbarism. Initiatives such as the January 27 Remembrance Day are intended to remind the world of the aphorism Never Again. Through knowledge and understanding of the past, we can chart a humane course for the future. However, here is something to consider – we never actually learned about the Holocaust in school; not even in senior high school.

To be sure, the details of the Holocaust can be emotionally distressing. However, school kids need to learn an accurate account of our history, including that of dispossession, colonialism and genocide. After all, succeeding generations are going to confront the disturbing realities of contemporary society. They need to have the information at hand to better prepare themselves for such confronting topics.

During World War 2, the United States and Canada refused to take in European Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. The reasons that Washington and Ottawa gave for denying sanctuary to Jewish refugees have similarities to contemporary anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric from rightist politicians.

After 80 years, there is little to no excuse to remain ignorant of the Holocaust. Why 80 years? Writing in an article for the Guardian, Lindsay Hoyle observes that in 1942 (her article was published in 2022), then British foreign secretary Anthony Eden gave a speech to the House of Commons detailing the deportation and mass killings of Jews in German-occupied territories.

Information about what was happening in the concentration camps steadily filtered out of Europe. James Bulgin, head of public history at the Imperial War Museum, notes that while Hitler and the Nazi party advocated genocidal antisemitism, it would be a mistake to write off responsibility for the Holocaust exclusively as the deranged vision of one man. The perpetrators of genocide had many willing accomplices, particularly in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Ultranationalist Nazi collaborators helped construct the pathway to the Holocaust.

An extensive survey commissioned by Deakin University explored just how much Australians know about the Holocaust. The results were reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in January last year, and they demonstrate appalling results. The surveyors found that as many as one in four Australians have little to no knowledge of the Holocaust. The survey, conducted by researchers from Deakin, derived their results from 3500 respondents.

One of the largest studies of its kind undertaken in Australia, it makes for shocking reading. For instance:

It found one in four Australians could not identify basic facts about the Holocaust, including that 6 million Jewish people were murdered; that the Final Solution was the pursuit of the elimination of Jewish people from Europe; that Adolf Hitler rose to power through a democratic election in Germany, and that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was in Poland.

Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, wrote a powerful article in the Dallas Morning News regarding the maintenance of the memory of the Holocaust’s victims. She makes the basic point that the January 27 day includes honouring all victims of the Holocaust; Slavs, Roma, the LGBT community, among others.

Attributing the genocide of European Jewry to the singular evil of Adolf Hitler makes us miss a crucial feature of the Holocaust; the Nazi party’s ideology found fertile ground for acceptance. Higgins wrote:

The Holocaust did not occur randomly or in a vacuum; it was the culmination of cultural developments, political events, religious prejudice, fascist ideology, propaganda and millennia of anti-Jewish discrimination and marginalization. Coupled with modern “race science” the Jews were marked as “other.” This dehumanization led to the genocide of the Jews and from here moved on to affect other marginalized groups.

There are lessons for today, especially in monitoring racism and xenophobia. The rehabilitation of Baltic, Ukrainian and Eastern European ultranationalist Nazi collaborators is not only a deliberate falsification of history, but also helps to revive racist doctrines in contemporary politics.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, there has been a resurgence of fanatical ultranationalism in the former Soviet republics. Numerous fratricidal ethnic conflicts, such as the continuing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested status of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, have their origins in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ultrarightist nationalism on both sides has resulted in the duration of that conflict, with pogroms and atrocities committed by both sides.

Georgian dissident and first postcommunist president of that country, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was a fanatical racist who made numerous blood-curdling statements against the ethnic minorities in Georgia. Promising to cut up and burn out the non-Georgian nationalities, such as the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, the latter minorities broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s, effectively seceding.

Their cases have parallels in with the secessionist Kosovar Albanians, and the Russian speaking minority in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. While we cannot adequately address all the post-Soviet territorial changes in one article, we can make a number of observations here. The growth and eruption of fratricidal ethnic conflict in the former Soviet republics contains warning lessons in relation to a repeat of pogroms and ethnic cleansing.

I am not suggesting that another Holocaust-magnitude atrocity is on the horizon. However, we do need to exert greater efforts to educate ourselves, unlearning any kind of racial or ethnic hatred drilled into us by rightist authorities. Let’s take steps to construct a better future.

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