Holocaust Memorial Day: A Talk by Philip Spencer

Philip Spencer is Emeritus Professor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Kingston University. Below is the full text of the speech he delivered at Richmond Synagogue on 27 January 2019

Philip Spencer
Philip Spencer speaking at Richmond Synagogue on Holocaust Memorial Day

There are many ways of thinking about the Holocaust but one is to think about it as an event which stood at the intersection of two histories. One is the history of a particular hatred, of the hatred of Jews, of antisemitism, which culminated in the catastrophe that befell this specific group. The other is a more universal one and is the history of a more general destructiveness, that of the hatred of difference, which lies at the heart of the history of genocide, a history which (fundamentally because of the Holocaust) we are only slowly (too slowly but still) beginning to understand and change.

The Jewish catastrophe

I will start with the first, with the catastrophe that befell the Jews. It was a catastrophe that had at its root an extraordinary radicalisation of antisemitism, that is the hatred of Jews. This has a long history of course – in Europe but not only in Europe – and one which stretches back many centuries, even thousands of years. That does not mean that antisemitism is seamless, unbroken, or invariant. Jews have had different experiences in different places and times, and antisemitism itself is a complex phenomenon which takes different shapes and forms in those different places and times. We can distinguish for example between a religious form of antisemitism and a racist kind, but the distinction is not a hard and fast one. In fact, the Nazis, although they certainly focused on the racist kind, were not averse to using and mobilising the religious kind.

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem
The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem

What was more important was that they radicalised antisemitism, turning it into a global all-encompassing hatred. It was no longer enough to want to convert Jews or to expel them or even to kill them in one place. Now it was necessary to get rid of them completely, to wipe them from the face of the earth. This was new and hadn’t seriously been thought of before, even by inveterate antisemites. When Hitler began to talk in these terms (which he did quite early on) no one took him seriously – and it is one of the lessons of the Holocaust that when people say things that seem unimaginable, it is best to take them at their word.


I am not going to rehearse in any detail what then happened. You will know the broad outlines. But what I will say is that there were a set of stages to the catastrophe and, at each stage, once one thing had been tolerated and allowed to happen, something worse then followed. The direction of travel was always one way – always to more and worse.

It began with street violence; it was followed by economic boycotts (with its infamous slogan Kauft nicht bei die Juden); then by laws excluding Jews from all kinds of employment; then by the infamous Nuremberg  laws which stripped Jews of their citizenship, of their legal and political rights. Within three years of the Nazis coming to power, Jews had been condemned to what one historian has called “social death”. There was then the dramatic radicalisation in terms of open violence of Kristallnacht in November 1938.

The Holocaust

All of took place this before the Holocaust, as we understand it – that is the attempted physical destruction of the Jews as a people not just in Germany but everywhere the Nazis went or could go. Here too, we can identify a clear set of stages, beginning with deportation to the ghettos, where large numbers of people were killed through the deliberate disease and starvation that followed the appalling overcrowding in those confined and walled off spaces. There were then the mass shootings in the East, when the Nazis invaded the USSR. We often forget that over a million were killed that way. Even if we did not know of Auschwitz, that would still be a stunning, astounding, almost incomprehensible thing to think about. But then there was Auschwitz – and not just Auschwitz but the other extermination camps at Maidanek, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno, to which Jews from all over were transported from across occupied Europe to be murdered. And then there was the last stage, when the Nazis were being overrun in the East, and they forced the few remaining survivors of the camps in terrible death marches back into Germany.

Janus Korczak Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel
Janus Korczak Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel

The cumulative effect of all this was something extraordinarily radical, in at least four respects. Firstly, the aim was to kill all the Jews, not just some of them, not just German Jews, but Jews from across Europe, from North Africa, anywhere they could lay their hands on them.

Secondly, this was an end in itself. It was not a means to any other end – to gain territory, resources, or power, for example.

Thirdly, it was more important to the Nazis than anything else, even defending Germany as it was being attacked West by the British and the Americans and even more so in the East by the Soviet Union.

And fourthly, in the process, the Nazis turned what was most productive into a machinery of destruction. The extermination camps, camps that were set up not primarily to imprison or exploit people but to kill them, were effectively factories of death. They were constructed primarily not to produce goods or commodities but corpses and ashes.

All this was and remains utterly traumatic for Jews – both survivors (obviously) but also for all who came after. The Holocaust will always leave its mark on our collective memory. It makes Jews all alert to any recurrence of antisemitism, knowing where it has led and where it can lead. In this respect, I would like to add a note of thanks to the council for adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism which, amongst other things, recognises this trauma and shows such an important understanding and empathy with Jews who share this collective memory.

An attack on humanity

But I want now to say something else, which also follows from the radicalism of the Holocaust.  It left its mark not just on Jews but on humanity, precisely because it was so radical. If the Nazis had succeeded in their project, they would not “just” have destroyed the Jews. They would have destroyed something fundamental and essential to our sense of what humanity. Why? Because humanity is essentially diverse: it is made up of different groups, not hermetically sealed groups but many different ones. If you eliminate a group (as the Nazis tried to do), you make humanity itself something else, something diminished, impoverished, distorted.  It would no longer be what it was.

This was what was recognised by the newly formed United Nations in a rather extraordinary move immediately after the Holocaust,  and precisely because of the Holocaust, when it identified genocide as a crime (which it wasn’t before). It did so in the Genocide Convention of December 1948, passed alongside and indeed 24 hours before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Convention understood what the Holocaust had just made clear – that genocide is a crime which (as it put it explicitly) has always “inflicted great losses on humanity itself”. It understood that that whenever a group is attacked, it is a threat both to the group and to humanity itself. We are therefore are obligated to try to protect both the group and everyone from what it called this “odious scourge”.

In fact, the Convention (rightly) went even further. It said that any attack on a group not just in whole (as on the Jews) but in part is a such a crime. And it also identified a whole set of groups (not just Jews who fit into all the categories it named) could be at risk: national, ethnic, religious and racial (by which it meant racialised of course, that is groups which are seen as “races” by the perpetrator).

This was a dramatic step forward in the history of humanity because it places obligations on all of us – to come to the aid of any group threatened with genocide. And it does so because of the Holocaust.

Genocide since the Holocaust

Tragically (and this is something we also need to think about urgently today, on Holocaust Memorial Day), we have not yet adequately lived up to this set of obligations. The Holocaust has not yet put an end to genocide which has continued, despite the Convention, to wreak devastation on a whole set of groups, all of whom we must also remember.  And I want to say something about some of them now here today.

A burning village in Darfur

Some will or should be known to you and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has reminded us of them. There was a genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, where nearly a third of the population were killed. There was a genocide in Rwanda in 1994, where around 800, 000 people were killed. There was a genocide in Bosnia between 1991 and 1995, so in Europe again. And a genocide has been going for quite a long time now in Darfur.

But I would also draw attention to the genocide of the people of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971; to the genocide of the Mayans of Guatemala in the early 1980s; to the genocide of the Kurds of Iraq in 1988, where the perpetrators used poison gas; and to the genocide of the Yezhidis of Iraq in the extremely recent past. I could add more to this terrible list but what it tells us is that genocide is a catastrophe which has affected peoples across the globe: in many different countries, across different continents; and in many of the decades since the Holocaust. Each of the groups which have experienced genocide, has suffered a terrible trauma, which lies heavily on the collective memory, and must never be forgotten or ignored.

In conclusion

If we have failed (as we have) in so many cases to prevent these catastrophes; if we have failed (as we have) in so many cases to punish the perpetrators of these genocides; if we have too often been bystanders, failing to intervene at each and every stage, we must not surely continue to do so. If Holocaust Memorial Day is to mean what it must, it is not only to remember (as it absolutely must) the Holocaust and what was done to the Jews as a particular group. It is not only (though it absolutely must) to remember the attack on humanity that took place then. It must also be to mourn all those who have been the victims of genocide since then. And, perhaps above all, it is to call us back to our obligations as members of a common humanity – to come to the aid of any group whenever it is threatened and whenever it experiences genocide now, today and in the future. ###