Repetitions of History

Holocaust survivors and leading historians have devoted their lives to the preservation of its singularity in the hope that its memory would serve to prevent its repetition.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the history of the past half-century to suggest that remembrance has had such an effect. We see a repetition of large-scale and systematic destruction of human life.

The recurrence of genocide soon after the Holocaust raises questions about the effect of Holocaust memorials and their impact, if any, on human behaviour.

It is difficult to maintain that the growing literature of the Holocaust, the witness of the survivors and the proliferation of museums and memorials have mitigated the cruelties of genocidal ethnic and national conflicts anywhere in the world.

To make comparisons between Auschwitz and tragedies like Bosnia invariably draws reflexive condemnation by most, if not all, of those who have dedicated their lives to teaching the world the meaning of the Holocaust and its uniqueness. Yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this very emphasis on the uniqueness of the Holocaust is part of the problem.

To insist on the incomparability of the Holocaust is, in the end, to insist on its irrelevance.

Presumably, the purpose of memory is not only to memorialise the victims. What gives memory of the Holocaust its urgency and its sanctity is the expectation — indeed, the desperate hope — that memory will make a repetition of such evil if not impossible, at least less likely.

But to insist on the Holocaust’s radical uniqueness, as those who tell its haunting story inevitably do, and to condemn and scoff at those who see its echoes in Kosovo or in Rwanda, is to doom the memory of Auschwitz to irrelevance.

The keepers of the flame of the Holocaust, by insisting on its difference, have paradoxically contributed to its detachment from history, and therefore to public indifference to subsequent genocides.

If the world’s indifference to the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo suggests that the Holocaust has made little if any real difference, perhaps that is, in part, because the Holocaust “establishment” seems to react with greater anger at comparisons between Auschwitz and subsequent genocides than at the awful similarities.

It is time to take stock of how the Jewish community and the international community have dealt with the Holocaust. For if the meaning of the systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews will continue to have little impact on how the civilized world responds to new threats of genocide, what is the purpose of memory so carefully nourished by witnesses to the Holocaust?

Does not such indifference, even as we repeat the traditional pieties about the Holocaust and its uniqueness, desecrate the memory of the 6 million?

Henry Siegman

The New York Times

February 1, 2000

Henry Siegman is himself a Holocaust survivor, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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