When is the history of the Holocaust relevant today?

Hugh Linehan: There may be times when the lessons of the genocidal past are worth recalling, but not this time Mattie McGrath

The main entrance at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. Photograph: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

The main entrance at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland. Photograph: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

 

More than a million people follow the English-language Twitter account of the Auschwitz Memorial Centre, which helps preserve the site of the former Nazi extermination camp for posterity.

Every hour or so, the account (at @AuschwitzMuseum) tweets the photographs and biographical details of one of those murdered at Aushwitz-Birkenau between 1941 and 1945. The faces stare out at you – little girls, old men, teachers, clerks, farm labourers, from all over Europe. Most, but not all, are Jewish. The litany of death, loss and despair might seem overwhelming, but the account actually functions as a powerful act of remembrance and solidarity. In a way, it’s the antithesis of the current received wisdom about the shallowness and amorality of social media.

The people who run the Auschwitz Memorial account also see themselves as custodians of objective historical truth about what actually happened at Auschwitz and more generally during the Holocaust. They have been sharply critical of novels such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz for, as they see it, sentimentalising and eliding the truth of what happened there.

More recently, they have drawn attention to some egregious comparisons by Irish public figures between Nazism and our own current Covid restrictions.

In June, former RTÉ presenter Eddie Hobbs posted a picture of a yellow Star of David and suggested, presumably sarcastically, that using “badges so the terrified can identify the unvaccinated among us, has to end well surely?”

There does seem to be a fashion among certain outrage merchants for drawing a false equivalence between a temporary restriction on some people’s indoor dining rights and the horrors of Nazism

The Auschwitz Centre’s response was swift and damning. “Instrumentalisation of the tragedy of Jews who were humiliated, marked with a yellow star, isolated in ghettos & murdered during the Holocaust matched with Nazi salute in order to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline,” it tweeted.

Acknowledging the reprimand from Auschwitz (“where I’ve been”, he informed his followers in something of a non sequitur), Hobbs deleted the offending tweet, while maintaining that “vaccine passports instead of antigen testing is morally the wrong move and slippery slope”.

This week, in a not untypical rhetorical flourish, Independent TD Mattie McGrath asked journalists outside Leinster House: “Is that what we have come to now? Are we back to 1933 in Germany? We’ll be all tagged in the yellow and the mark of the beast will be on us.” When challenged by an Irish Examiner journalist, McGrath said that “if you study history, and I’m not a historian, you can see what happened in Germany”.

Perhaps taking note of that self-professed ignorance, the Auschwitz Centre sent McGrath a link to a free seven-part online course on the history of the Holocaust, along with a variation on the message it had sent to Hobbs about instrumentalising genocide for an argument about vaccination certificates in pubs and restaurants.

McGrath defended his statement, claiming he saw “railroading of draconian, discriminatory and profoundly unethical legislation on this issue as reminiscent of the early Nazi era”.

There does seem to be a fashion at the moment among certain red-faced outrage merchants for drawing a false equivalence between a temporary restriction on some people’s indoor dining rights on the one hand and the horrors of Nazism on the other. Whether it derives from ignorance, indifference or something worse, it’s good to have the Auschwitz Memorial Centre using its moral authority to call it out.

Timothy Snyder  argues the rising contemporary threat of xenophobic totalitarianism has clear parallels with what happened in Europe in the inter-war years

But things are not always so clear-cut. What of the comments of the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, who according to excerpts from a new book about the final year of the Trump presidency, told aides shortly before the January 6th Capitol riot that the country was facing a “Reichstag moment” because Donald Trump, whose supporters he called “brownshirts”, was preaching “the gospel of the Führer”? Were Milley’s comments “instrumentalising” the Holocaust, or were they expressing a justifiable fear that history might be repeating itself? And if it’s acceptable for Milley to make his comparison, why shouldn’t Hobbs and McGrath be able to make theirs, no matter how absurd?

Timothy Snyder is one of the foremost historians of the slaughter of 13 million people in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In his 2017 essay, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, he applied that historical knowledge to the rising contemporary threat of xenophobic totalitarianism, which, he argues, has clear parallels with what happened in Europe in the inter-war years. Some deride that comparison as alarmist, others find it convincing and frightening.

The Nazi genocide rightly occupies a central position in our understanding of modern human history. But, as it disappears from living memory, it may be inevitable that its lessons, which have always been contested, become further distorted and blurred. Or perhaps even more relevant.

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