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20 January 2021

How should we remember the Holocaust?

Why the plan for a new national memorial in Westminster is causing such division.

By Richard J Evans

As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945 – we might spare a thought for the unsung David Morgan. He is the planning inspector whose task it is to make a recommendation to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, on a proposal to create a national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre located in the Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament. The proposal, originally made in 2015 by David Cameron, is supported by a range of ­eminent figures including other former prime ministers and more than 170 MPs and members of the House of Lords.

But in February 2020 Westminster City Council’s planning committee rejected the application, saying it contravened planning rules on size, design and location. Objections to the proposal had come from a number of groups including Historic England, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the London Gardens Trust, and the Royal Parks (to which Victoria Tower Gardens belong). Important archaeological remains would be obliterated by the excavations, it was said; there was a danger of flooding; trees would be destroyed; and the park, which forms part of a World Heritage Site, would be irreparably compromised.

The government now has taken the matter out of Westminster City Council’s hands. ­Jenrick insisted that “the government remains implacably committed to the construction of the Holocaust Memorial and education centre right at the heart of our democracy, beside our national parliament, to ensure that future generations never forget”. A public enquiry into the decision opened on 6 October 2020 with Morgan in the chair. By the time it closed, on 13 November, 678 public comments had been received objecting to the memorial plan and 36 had been lodged in support. The volume of documentation – publicly available online – is immense. If Morgan completes his report, as promised, by the end of April, he will have mastered a truly Herculean task.

Why all the fuss? Surely no one could object to the idea of a national Holocaust memorial, particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world? Throwing his “wholehearted support” behind the proposal, Keir Starmer, no doubt worried about alienating the Jewish community, said: “It is vital for our nation that we commemorate the six million Jewish men, woman and children murdered during the Holocaust. It is more important than ever that we educate current and future generations of the horrors of genocide and persecution.” Who could possibly quarrel with this? Why then, is the proposal finding it so hard to secure approval?

Nobody, apart from anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, could object to the idea of commemorating the Holocaust and its victims, and ensuring that future generations are made aware of history’s greatest and most terrible crime. A string of witnesses appeared before the enquiry to present this justification for the idea of a national memorial. Yet despite all this, there are good reasons why objections to the proposal far outnumber endorsements.

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The location of the proposed memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens is problematic, and not just because of the damage it will cause. The gardens are a much-loved oasis of quiet in one of the busiest parts of London. The proposal will remove over a quarter of one of London’s rare green spaces. The memorial itself will impede vistas onto the Houses of Parliament. It will dominate the other memorials on the site, including a fountain created by Charles Buxton in the mid-1860s to celebrate the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833]and moved to the gardens in 1957; Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, erected in 1911 to commemorate the civic virtue of six leading citizens of Calais who, in 1347, offered themselves to besiegers led by King Edward III, if he spared the rest of the citizens; and a memorial to Emmeline Pankhurst unveiled in 1930, with later additions, celebrating the victorious struggle for votes for women.

[see also: Defining genocide]

A group of 42 academics led by Dr Hannah Holtschneider, who teaches contemporary Jewish Studies at Edinburgh University, warned the enquiry that Victoria Gardens is a small space and the intended UK Holocaust Memorial would overpower all the existing statues and memorials there. They noted that in July 2005 the proposal by Memorial 2007 for a smaller monument to commemorate the victims of slavery was denied by the Royal Parks on the basis that there was not enough space for any further memorials in Victoria Gardens. David Adjaye, the architect leading the Holocaust Memorial’s design team, has not endeared himself to opponents of the project by saying that “disrupting the pleasure of being in a park” is key to the thinking behind his proposal.

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The memorial will consist of 23 bronze fins, with the gaps between the fins representing the 22 countries where the Holocaust destroyed Jewish communities. These aisles act as separate paths down to a hall named the “Threshold” leading into an underground learning centre, along with a “contemplation court” and “hall of testimonies”.

Why 22 countries? It depends on how you count them, but the figure is entirely arbitrary. From a historical point of view, it is important to count countries that existed in the 1940s separately because the processes and conditions of the Holocaust differed between them: thus it would make more sense to count as one country the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia as another – where a puppet regime pursued its own anti-Semitic agendas. Similarly, the dynamics of the Holocaust differed between Serbia and Croatia, so it makes sense to treat them separately rather than subsume them into their previous existence as parts of the state of Yugoslavia. But we could also count countries as they exist today and not in the 1940s. Thus we could count separately deaths in present-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia rather than merge them into the ­Soviet Union, though that would run the risk of implying that these modern-day states were in some way historically responsible for the Holocaust.

In any case it is inappropriate simply to count states whose Jewish communities were annihilated: a significant proportion of victims were foreign Jews, in most cases refugees, who were often the first to be handed over to the Nazis, as in Bulgaria, or Hungary, or France, precisely because they were foreigners.

Apart from these rather recondite problems there is also the more fundamental objection that the design itself is spectacularly ugly. Baroness Ruth Deech, one of the Jewish community’s leading objectors to the proposal, has compared it to a giant toast-rack. Lord Carlile, former independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, said that the site would be an obvious target for terrorist attacks. He reminded the enquiry that he had lost several relatives in the Holocaust. “Having a site which combines the Houses of Parliament and the new British Holocaust memorial seems to me to be asking for trouble.” Jenrick has reported that he and his family had received death threats from right-wing extremists because of his support for the memorial. Physical attacks on the memorial would be unavoidable. Others have suggested it would be a target for souvenir-hunters, and graffiti artists: the Buxton fountain was already vandalised and parts broken off some decades ago.

Would a memorial really help combat Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism? As Baroness Deech noted, anti-Semitism has been increasing in countries such as France and the US, and has not been prevented by the existence of Holocaust memorials and museums there. There are already a number of Holocaust memorials in Britain, including two in London. The UK’s first Holocaust memorial, established in Hyde Park in 1983, is a garden of boulders surrounded by white-stemmed birch trees. There is also a statue in Liverpool Street Station commemorating the Jewish children saved from death by being brought to the UK from Nazi-dominated central Europe in the Kindertransport scheme. These are fine monuments, but they have not prevented the rise in anti-Semitism in this country either.

Perhaps the proposed memorial’s underground “learning centre” would help. But this too is problematic. There already exist such institutions that are larger and better than anything the Westminster memorial could offer. Better than any “learning centre” is the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition, which attracts some 600,000 visitors in a normal year. It is linked to the museum’s significant archival collections, which make it an important location for research on the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The proposed memorial in Westminster would be an unnecessary duplication of the museum’s offerings. It would be on a smaller scale, and so less comprehensive and less effective, and would divert attention from the Imperial War Museum’s more important collections and displays. A significant expansion of the museum’s Holocaust Exhibition is under way and will soon be opened. In fact, the Imperial War Museum, located less than a mile away from the Palace of Westminster, is already the national Holocaust memorial centre and it remains the premier location for a comprehensive and scholarly coverage in the UK of this most tragic episode in human history.

There are other major research and learning institutions too, including the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire, the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in Huddersfield, and in London the Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust and genocide. Compared to the vast collections of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the internationally important research ­centre associated with it, the Westminster memorial would only be an embarrassment for Britain if it laid claim to be the national institution of learning and research on the Holocaust.

The implication that a new memorial is needed because more research on the Holocaust is needed is also misleading. Britain, with its universities and its research institutions, is, along with Germany, the US and Israel, the world’s leading country for Holocaust research. Two excellent examples are the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the research centred around the Parkes Library in Southampton. To suggest that recent and current Holocaust-related learning and research in the UK are inadequate or even non-existent does British scholarship and teaching in the field a grave disservice.

***

The designers of the Westminster project, if not all of its supporters, are aware that it cannot compete with these other research institutions, so they have proposed that it should focus not on the Holocaust itself, but on British reactions to the persecution and murder of European Jews. But this too is problematic. The location of the proposed memorial next to the Houses of Parliament has been ­justified on the grounds that it symbolises the importance of “British values” and parliamentary democracy as a bulwark against genocide. In 2016 David Cameron declared that the memorial was to stand beside parliament “as a permanent statement of our values as a nation”.

This amounts to the political instrumentalisation of the Holocaust. Baroness Deech has warned the enquiry that a Holocaust memorial might suggest that “it was not our fault”. In statements about the design and location of the learning centre, she has said, there has been increased ­emphasis on the promulgation of British values, and anti-extremism and faith as the foundation of those values, to the extent that the project now appears to be a monument to those ­values rather than remembering the Holocaust itself.

But these aren’t British values, they are universal values. The signatories of Holtschneider’s letter, who include some of ­Britain’s leading historians of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Britain’s responses to the Nazi persecution of the Jews – such as Tony Kushner, Donald Bloxham, Tim Cole, David Feldman, Mark Levene, Louise London and Bob Moore – have told the enquiry that placing the Holocaust Memorial next to parliament was likely to create a celebratory narrative of the British government’s responses to the Jewish catastrophe during the Nazi era and beyond. “Situating it so close to parliament is almost certain to add to the mythology of ‘Britain alone’ as the ultimate saviour of the Jews, which negates several decades of careful scholarship and research.”

Their concerns were supported by Raphael Wallfisch, a leading international concert cellist whose mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, also a professional cellist, was forced by the SS as a teenager to play in the infamous women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. “The proposed ‘British Values Learning Centre’, to be symbolically positioned at the heart of Westminster,” he told the enquiry, “must reflect, clearly and truthfully, the complete and unvarnished truth of Britain’s role before, during and after the Jewish Holocaust… If, as I hope sincerely, planning is refused for the learning centre at this site, it might allow for additional time for the search for a more generous space which would enable a thorough and dedicated study of the history and present state of anti-Semitism in the UK and worldwide.”

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That study, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, a leading Jewish academic and commentator on Jewish affairs, pointed out, must include difficult topics such as the restrictions on immigration to Palestine imposed by the British government in the 1930s and 1940s. “With parliamentary approval,” he declared pointedly, “the least possible number of Jews was permitted to enter the UK.” The proposal for a monument in Westminster, he added, had sparked widespread “incredulity, embarrassment, and cynicism” in the Anglo-Jewish community.

One could add that the British government’s acceptance of the Anschluss of Austria and its brokering of the Munich Agreement in 1938 in the name of appeasing Hitler brought hundreds of thousands of Jews under Nazi rule, with terrible consequences for them all. Anti-Semitism was widespread in the higher ranks of the British civil service, a disturbing fact brought to public attention by the historian Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies (1981), which found that the civil service played a significant part in dissuading the Allies from taking action against the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp when it was well within the range of British bombers.

The UK Holocaust Memorial needs a fundamental rethink. Whether it is located at the Imperial War Museum (an excellent institution whose title is, however, long overdue for revision) or somewhere else, it has to find a more appropriate place. As for Victoria Square Gardens, there is room for one more memorial at least, perhaps next to the Buxton memorial commemorating the Abolition Act of 1833.

In 2008 Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, enthusiastically endorsed the idea of a “permanent memorial to the millions who lost their lives” in Britain’s transatlantic slave trade and sugar plantations in the West Indies in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. That trade was maintained by numerous British companies, who fought hard to prevent abolition, as recounted in the historian Michael Taylor’s book The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (2020).

Unaccountably, however, the present UK government has been unable to find the funds to construct such a slavery memorial. 

Richard J Evans’s new book is “The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination” (Allen Lane).

This piece originally said that the Memorial 2007 project was run by the Windrush Foundation. In fact they are two separate charities and the piece was amended on 25 January 2021 to reflect this.

This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden