In a recent Mirror column on the foot-and-mouth crisis, Tony Parsons, the popular novelist, likened pictures of Phoenix the calf to the famous photograph of a small boy holding up his hands as Nazi troops herd Jews from the Warsaw ghetto on to trains bound for the death camps. Just as that "one doomed child" had become "a symbol of all the horror of the attempted extermination of the Jews", he concluded, so "Phoenix the calf is a symbol of this animal holocaust".
That a writer praised for the sensitivity of his novels could make such a crass comparison says much about the way in which the Holocaust can be used and abused today. The Nazi genocide of the Jews has been turned into a cheap moral resource, called on to support just about any cause.
The Holocaust is now an entirely safe subject to exploit in this way, a contemporary apple-pie issue in western societies. But it was not always so. In the immediate postwar years, it was more a case of "don't mention the Jews". European elites were uncomfortable because of their own complicity in Hitler's Final Solution. As we know, it was not only Vichy France that collaborated. Walter Laqueur, in his preface to The Holocaust Encyclopedia, reminds us that British officials and policemen in the occupied Channel Islands also helped deport Jews - and some were honoured for bravery by the British government. Another essay on British policy, by Michael Cohen, recalls how the government refused to shelter Jewish refugees and passed up the opportunity to bomb the railway lines at Auschwitz. Cohen puts the British attitude down to a lack of political will, spiced with anti-Semitic prejudice. In 1944, Winston Churchill told his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, that the Nazis were carrying out "the greatest and most horrible single crime ever committed in the whole history of the world". Yet, in 1946, Churchill told the House of Commons that he had no idea about the murder of millions of Jews until the camps were liberated at the war's end.
More broadly, the Holocaust can be interpreted as an indictment of the ideology of race and empire on which the authority of all the great powers rested. Until the Second World War, racism and imperialism could still be spoken of with pride in the inner sanctums of the western elite, who believed absolutely in their right to rule over "inferior" peoples. When the Nazis put those beliefs into practice, using the industrialised technology of the death camps, the horrifying consequences destroyed that confident imperial world-view for ever.
During and after the genocide of the Jews, then, the response was largely an embarrassed silence. The story of the Holocaust as we know it is very much a post-hoc construction - the H-word was not even in common use until the Sixties. As late as 1977, the Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz was asking: "Why has it found so little place in the history books?"
Yet today, more than half a century after the liberation of the camps, we cannot move without falling over a Holocaust memorial, museum or educational initiative. This year came Britain's first official Holocaust Memorial day, and there has been an explosion of books, plays and films about the Final Solution.
These impressive tomes are part of that blooming interest. The Holocaust Encyclopedia draws on the expertise of more than 100 authors to provide a substantial yet concise alphabetical account of the events leading up to and during the Final Solution. It should prove a valuable resource for researchers and general readers. Remembering for the Future is a more specialised endeavour, for institutions and experts who can afford to invest about £250. A frankly awesome three-volume, 3,000-page collection of 200 papers from a major Holocaust conference held in Oxford and London last summer, its expert analysis sprawls over issues ranging from food and gender in the camps, through the ethical dilemmas of Auschwitz doctors and Nazi priests, to the debates about Holocaust denial, Holocaust remembrance and Holocaust humour today.
These volumes raise many important questions. Yet, for me, the most interesting question is why such books should be published now. Why has there been this belated intensification of interest in the Holocaust? How is it that the further the Final Solution retreats into history, the higher up the public agenda it seems to move?
The Holocaust has ceased to be seen as history. It has been turned into a morality tale for our time. The events that led to the slaughter of six million Jews, and so many others, have been abstracted from their historical context and from their causes in the power politics of the 20th century. Instead, the Holocaust has been rewritten as a timeless horror story of human suffering and man's inhumanity to man. In effect, the genocide of the Jews has been emptied of its specific meaning, creating a "hollow-caust" into which all can pour their own meanings and messages.
Ours is a post-traditional society that finds it hard to be sure exactly where the line lies between good and evil. The furore over the rights or wrongs of first releasing, and then protecting, the boys who killed James Bulger illustrates the problem. In these peculiar circumstances, the Holocaust serves as a kind of shorthand version of a moral code. "Individuals from every point on the political compass can find the lessons they wish in the Holocaust," argues Peter Novick in his controversial book The Holocaust in American Life. "Where Americans could agree on nothing at all, all could join together in deploring the Holocaust - a low moral consensus, but perhaps better than none at all." Something similar has been happening with the Holocaust in British public life.
In the absence of agreed values and standards, remembering the Holocaust has become an artificial means of making a statement about what contemporary society stands for. Talking about the Holocaust has become a safe exercise in self-flattery for American and British society. See how the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC highlights George Washington's assurance that the US government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance". Over here, the official Statement of Commitment for January's Holocaust Memorial Day insisted that the Holocaust must have "a permanent place in our nation's collective memory" in order to "reaffirm our shared goals of mutual understanding and justice" and our "shared responsibility to fight . . . evils".
The apparent aim is to turn our horror at the Holocaust into a kind of national emotional cement. The implicit message is that, while we might not be too sure of who we are any more, we can at least agree that we are not Nazis. In an age when victims are the new heroes, we are witnessing the unseemly spectacle of groups and governments arguing over who has the right to be included on the roll of honour of Holocaust victims. In the United States, the Rwandans and Bosnians have already been included in Holocaust Remembrance Day, but what about the Armenians or, come to that, the Serbs?
There is a row over Jewish "exclusivity", and another over the place of homosexuals in Holocaust history. And then there are the self-styled "second-generation Holocaust survivors", represented by groups such as Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors and Children of the Holocaust Anonymous. Almost everybody now wants to claim a piece of the Holocaust - in effect, to scramble up the funeral pyres as a short cut to the moral high ground of history.
However worthy the underlying intentions, the net effect of the obsession with the Holocaust can only be to diminish the meaning of the slaughter of six million Jews, to render that unique horror banal. Worst of all, the Holocaust has been turned into a symbol of the evil that is supposedly within us all. The official statement on "lessons for the future" for Holocaust Memorial Day even talks about "the propensity of human beings to murder en masse" (speak for yourself, Home Secretary) and casually asserts that "persecution and mass death will almost inevitably form a part of the future of human behaviour, too".
This depressing and repulsive view of the human condition was captured by the poster adverts for the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust Exhibition. Beneath a picture of railway lines leading into the industrial death camp at Auschwitz, the caption reads: "See what man can do when he puts his mind to it." It seems the final "lessons of the Holocaust" that some would like us to learn have less to do with the politics of racial inferiority than with what they see as the debased nature of the human race itself.
Mick Hume is the editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)