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What will be the relevance of learning about the Holocaust for the next generation, and in particular, the next generation in New Zealand? There are almost no Holocaust survivors left, and in a few years there will be none. Seeing DVDs of old people in distant lands talking about their terrible experiences will hardly be the sort of thing young people will be interested in. There is a real danger that Holocaust studies will be absorbed by programmes on Genocides, Human Rights, or God forbid, Tolerance. Whoever wants to be tolerated? Tolerance implies that the people tolerated are in some ways inferior, but due to the magnanimity of societies that are tolerant, such inferiority is not rubbed in.
There are Genocides and Genocides, all different in their way, all terrible, all with victims and perpetrators, but the Holocaust is significantly different from genocides. Human Rights is a basket that can accommodate numerous platitudes and at the end there are no lessons to be learned. It is not about Jews being forbidden to go to the swimming pools or sit on park benches, and certainly not about mass murder.
To learn something about the Holocaust and to understand its significance and relevance to our time, you have to think of it as a rift within Western civilization. It was a denial, a destruction of the values and principles of humanism that evolved over many generations since the seventeenth century, and that underpinned the basis of European values. Europeans who first encountered the Maori people found cannibalism abhorrent, Maori people on the other hand found flogging and hanging, European practices, cruel beyond all understanding. Maori saw kingship and aristocracy in simple tribal terms, something quite different form the British and European perceptions. Slavery as the Maori understood it was quite different from slavery as practiced in the American South, the Carribbean and Latin America. The wanton cruelty of ISIS or Boku Haram make perfectly good sense for people steeped in a primitive interpretation of the Koran, Stalinist crimes made sense in terms of his attempts to build a new dictatorship of the proletariat, and similarly racial purity, the annihilation of Jews as a priority above fighting and winning the war made sense for all whose thinking was confined by Nazi ideology.
The question that those of us who teach about the Holocaust need to address is what are the humanist values that are worth cherishing, values that we need to share and make a stand for. The Danube flows right though Hungary, and it divides the chauvinistic, intolerant patriotism of the Szeged school of politicians from the more universal, tolerant, broad embracing aristocratic school of Vienna and the West. Granted that this is a simplification, but there is an underlying truth in it. So if we talk about human rights we have to talk about the humanist view of human rights and citizenship. If we talk about racial harmony, about inequality, about humane treatment of minorities, of enemies, of victims, we have to turn back to the values of humanitarianism. We have to acknowledge that in an imperfect world such humanitarian values were always breached. The signatories of the American Constitution did not consider that the rights accorded to American people applied to African slaves, the humane treatment of the enemy in our time does not apply to torture of suspected terrorists and other enemies of the state.
Teaching the Holocaust we should set out to foster a consciousness that embraces the liberal humanist ideals that permeated Western culture and was destroyed by Nazism
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