History

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and elsewhere around the world. I don’t think it’s widely known in the United States — partly because it falls on the 27th day in the Jewish month of Nissan, and so moves year by year within the Gregorian calendar — but even if this is the first time you’ve heard of it, please do find some time to reflect on the Holocaust today.

Indeed, it’s probably a good thing to be surprised by the day: since the 1970s, the Holocaust has been so widely addressed in history curricula, public memorials, and popular culture that it may — impossibly — lose its power to shock. Commemoration is a cultural liturgy, and like the religious ones, it can become dry and dusty, drained of feeling by rote repetition.

Beevor, The Second World WarLest “never forget” and “never again” become dead orthodoxies, it’s well that you might be caught off guard when you visit Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader and find essays like this one from Ta-Nehesi Coates at The Atlantic, who reencountered the Holocaust while reading Antony Beevor’s history of The Second World War. Coates starts by stating his preference for a “humanist” approach to history, and why it doesn’t seem to work with history’s most infamous genocide:

When studying a great evil, my general approach is to try to preserve my judgement but suspend my judgementalism. In other words, I want to be able to tell you very forthrightly about the evils of, say slavery, while at the same time telling you about the psychology of the slave-holder. And I want to do this with the full knowledge that I could have been on either side of the whip.

…That humanist approach to history, as opposed to marshaling history for condemnation or the improvement of collective self-esteem, is one I have tried to emulate.

In the case of the Holocaust, it is failing me. For all the talk of supremacy, Nazism in Beovor’s [sic] telling is savagery and cannibalism. I don’t mean that for rhetorical effect. The Nazis are using human body hair, human skin, human fat to make products. When practiced by the darker peoples of the world, we call this savagery.

Or as Coates notes at the end of the post, “There were groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the Kalahari who were more civilized than Germany in 1943″ — causing him to rethink the progressive-historical notion that “racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress.”

Jewish memorial at Dachau

The Jewish Memorial at Dachau

I sympathize entirely with his frustration. As I’ve written in earlier posts on the Holocaust, I try to approach it as I do any tragic historical event: balancing empathy (not sympathy) for perpetrators with a desire for justice, and preferring to engage in moral reflection rather than moral judgment. (I especially love this phrase from Coates: “…preserve my judgement but suspend my judgementalism.”) But while I still think that seeking that balance is the appropriate impulse for any student of history, and ultimately a better solution than either indulging unreflective rage or feigning icy detachment, there are times when those other responses have allure.

Better yet, today I’m reminded of a verse from the Hebrew scriptures that is inscribed over the Jewish memorial at Dachau:

Set terror over them, O LORD; let the nations know they are but men. (Psalm 9:21, Mechon-Mamre)

Discussion

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Yom HaShoah | Braman's Wanderings - April 8, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Follow Me on Twitter

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 167 other followers

The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education

The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons

Coming in late 2014 from InterVarsity Press... The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity

Pietist Impulse cover

Now available from Wipf & Stock Publishers!

Copyright Notice

© Christopher Gehrz, 2011-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chris Gehrz or "The Pietist Schoolman," with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Disclaimer

This blog is not affiliated with any of the organizations or institutions at which Dr. Gehrz is employed and/or with which he is affiliated. Links to any sites are not endorsements of the contents of those sites.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 167 other followers

%d bloggers like this: