Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January 2020

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January 2020

By Dr George Gilbert

It is more or less impossible to fully understand the course of the twentieth century without reference to the Holocaust. For good reasons, this human tragedy has come to dominate the historiography of genocides across vast stretches of time and place. In recent decades, however, good scholarly work after good scholarly work has wrestled with genocides of other types. This comparative work forces us to reflect on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the ramifications of earlier and later genocides, and their collective significance across history.

There is an inherent scholarly importance to studying the Holocaust and related phenomena, but – in my view – the most pressing reason for disseminating that scholarly knowledge is to raise public awareness. A 2019 poll, which was the subject of an Independentarticle on Holocaust Memorial Day, found that 2.6 million adults in Britain did not believe the Holocaust had happened.[1]This alarming level of ignorance about a tectonic event in modern and Jewish history suggests that the work of centres such as the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton – of which I am an affiliate – and of individual researchers alike is more important than ever. 

I recently delivered a talk on the pogroms in late Imperial Russia as part of Oxford City Council’s Holocaust Memorial Day (this year, the service was held on 27 January 2020). The service put on display insights from a variety of figures, including those with personal connections to mass murders. The theme was ‘Stand Together’, exploring how genocidal regimes throughout history have fractured societies by marginalizing different groups. The day was also dedicated to exploring how we, as individuals, can challenge this by ‘standing together’. Specifically, how can we speak out against, challenge and eventually bring a halt to oppression. 

My role was to provide some historical perspective on pogroms in the late Russian empire. If one were to look at activities in Europe and elsewhere in the comparative frame that the year’s theme provided, then the Russian Empire provides a strong case study in the history of antisemitism. In the resulting discussion (which takes the form of a video — ) a variety of themes are discussed: what a pogrom is; the origins of the pogroms; some of the major controversies in the literature; who was responsible; some major examples of the pogrom wave; whether the word pogrom has been applied outside of the Russian context, and what the study of such events can help us to learn about the world around us today. The resulting video was cut to around eight brief minutes, and the responses touch on some of the major questions. 

One thing worth reflecting on is something that didn’t make it into the final video, which is the lessons we can take from studying racism, racial violence and hostility across time and place. The reality is that I am unconvinced that strong lessons emerge in many cases – context is ever-changing, events occur and meanings shift. Even to identify racism is difficult, as it doesn’t have a fixed appearance, but takes different forms, guises and shifts in complex and multivalent ways over time. What I do think such study can give us – and the positive lesson, if there is one, which can be gained – is the necessity of confrontation and action. That involves self-reflection and, if necessary, self-criticism, looking inwardly to our own behaviours, views and ideas as well as those of the wider social context of which we are all a product. In looking at the very contextually different case of late imperial Russia, some of the ideas and emblems inherent in the antisemitic motifs that myself and colleagues at centres like Parkes scrutinize can at times appear remarkably close to home. 

George Gilbert, 30 January 2020   

[1]Chris Baynes, ‘More than 2.6m Brits are Holocaust Deniers, Poll Finds’, 27 January 2019. <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/holocaust-memorial-day-poll-uk-jews-murdered-nazi-germany-hope-not-hate-a8746741.html> [accessed 30 January 2020].

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