The Second World War ended more than 75 years ago now, and with it the most horrific, protracted, and multi-faceted crime against humanity ever to be captured in a single term. The Holocaust as a chain of events was viscerally experienced by only a small fraction of those still alive today: there were an estimated 67,100 living survivors of the Holocaust in the United States in 2020 and the number will only have dwindled since then. The number of individuals who could be termed “collaborators” has never been definitively assessed, but they too still walk among us.
Despite this, the Holocaust retains a half-life of its own in our collective memory and our contemporary existence. This is as true of those in all corners of the globe as it is in Europe, where the genocide itself took place. It is still studied, too, but the reasons for doing so are not always easy to explain.
Since 2021 IranWire has worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. to promote and disseminate Holocaust education to new audiences, and to young Iranians in particular. Unlike in many other parts of the world, in Iran the Holocaust is either omitted from the curriculum entirely or denied as a matter of official policy. Our joint endeavor, The Sardari Project: Iran and the Holocaust (you can read the story behind that name here), has covered the basic facts of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945 for the benefit of Iranian readers, but also the context: the age-old misconceptions, conspiracy theories, legal-judicial architecture and socio-political contingencies that allowed for the systematic, government-sponsored murder of six million Jews and an untold number of others to take place in what, in terms of the long reach human history, would now be considered the blink of an eye.
We are continuing to do so this year. In forthcoming weeks IranWire and USHMM will share a new series of original articles adding to the knowledge base created in earlier rounds of The Sardari Project. But first, we wanted to revisit the question of why. Earlier this year, I hosted a panel discussion with USHMM historians Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice and Dr. Edna Friedberg. Joining us were Dr. Sona Kazemi, an assistant professor in race, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Dr. Mehrak Kamali, a senior lecturer and Persian language program coordinator at Ohio State University, and Omid Shams, an IranWire contributor and PhD candidate in human rights at the University of Portsmouth. The question we posed was straightforward: Why continue to study the Holocaust today?
1. The Holocaust was not an isolated event.
The events of 1933 to 1945 did not occur in a vacuum. IranWire has previously covered the much older origin of some of the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that were seized on and weaponized by the Third Reich, but that had existed long before then. “Antisemitism or hatred of Jews did not begin with the Nazis and it didn’t end with them,” Dr. Friedberg said. “This has very potent lessons to teach us about why Jews continue to be singled out.”
The extent of the industrial killings that took place during the Holocaust was singular. But, Dr. Heberer Rice pointed out, they shared features with other genocides. “Genocides happen again and again in history, and there are some commonalities that link them. Is the Holocaust unique? In some ways. But we also need to look at it in the context of other genocides to see where the commonalities are.”
2. Minority issues are everyone’s issue.
The myths that were co-opted by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust still hold sway in parts of the world today. They will continue to pose a threat for as long as they remain undissected. By studying the Holocaust, the panel agreed, we can also learn about the conditions that allow these dangerous ideas to take root in the first place.
“The Holocaust is the most extreme example,” Dr. Friedberg said, “that when minorities are at risk, the whole society is actually unhealthy. It's a symptom. Societies that have this rigid approach to an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ cause a lot of destruction and violence and misery to everyone who is determined to be on the periphery.
“It's also about being allies: to know that if a group of people in a community is being demonized, marginalized and blamed, it may not be your problem or my problem today, but the foundation is rotten. Interfaith work is very important. Intercultural work is very important. Those all, I think, help to inoculate us and create a society that is less susceptible to this kind of hatred.”
3. Holocaust denial is a tool used by tyrants.
Holocaust denialism is still rampant in 2023 and is even now being used by malign actors to justify fresh crimes. But, Dr. Friedberg said, “Holocaust denial usually has very little to do with actual disbelief in the factual truth of the events that happened in the 1930s and 40s, and more to do with current agendas.
“When you look at a government like Iran or Russia, that is, if not outright denying the Holocaust, distorting it, it usually serves a particular aim. Either one that is about distraction – ‘Don’t look at our misdeeds or our crimes, look over there’ – or to point to some other ‘evil actor’, or to justify an unjustifiable war. It's a useful strategy. I don't actually believe that most Holocaust deniers don't believe the Holocaust happened.”
4. The Holocaust birthed new models for justice.
The Nazis sought to distinguish themselves from Germany's previous democratic government, the Weimar Republic, partly through invented narratives about the past, and partly through widespread, unspeakable violence that they claimed was both retributive and necessary. It wasn’t true. But other regimes have also resorted to violence.
There is always a danger that this could happen again. Omid Shams told the panel that in Iran today, some activists and civilians are understandably experiencing “a strong desire for revenge. We know that these people are victims of a totalitarian regime… But you see in some of these discourses, there are signs [of] a desire towards every atrocious kind of revenge.”
Dr. Friedberg noted that this had also been the case in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust; in some concentration camps such as Dachau, Nazi guards were killed on the spot by the former detainees. But this gave way in turn to war crimes trials, including the Nuremberg Trials, which paved the way for future international tribunals and a new understanding of the global rule of law, as well as the role judicial-type processes can play in healing.
“There were also domestic trials,” she said, “And there have been a number of ‘trials’ that were actually part of a much older Jewish tradition: theatrical trials where, as a form of catharsis through art, people who were victimized or who lost loved ones came and gave testimony in a court that had no authority to mete out punishment. Maybe even the so-called defendant was dead. But it's a way to process: to say we need to talk about what happened, we need testimony, we need acknowledgment.”
5. Ordinary people hold the power.
The Holocaust was not inevitable, not even after the Nazi rise to power in Germany. One of the most important, easily-forgotten lessons of the Holocaust is that it required hundreds of thousands of people to carry out acts of genocide. Ordinary Germans and collaborators of many nationalities across Europe, professionals of all stripes, and businesses all served as individual cogs in the Nazis’ transnational machinery of death.
“The people who committed those crimes were human beings just like us,” Dr. Heberer Rice said. “They found themselves in a set of circumstances where they made a choice to carry out atrocities, because they had the latitude to do it, because they were compelled by peer pressure, because they believed in an ideology that told them they were doing the right thing, because of greed, because of ambition. People had a choice to do as they did. So the big picture is simple. What you do matters.”
6. There is scope to change people’s minds.
One topic touched on by the panel was the importance of optimism in reaching out to people who are at risk of being seduced and used by extremist ideologies. Recent examples were shared of individuals who had been taken in by hateful, antisemitic and other dangerous belief systems having recovered within a few years after someone initiated a dialogue with them.
Moreover, it was noted that Holocaust education can alert individuals to the contemporary pain of others, and the need to not be complacent. Bahari said: “One of the main things that we can take away from learning about the Holocaust is to have empathy with other people.”
Dr. Friedberg agreed. “Some of the most beautiful interactions I've seen in my 20+ years at the Museum have been between Holocaust survivors and people who left behind families in crisis zones. If you can see that someone could endure something so terrible, like the murder of their entire family or the disruption of education, and still have the optimism to bring a child into the world, laugh again and live a life – I think that gives hope and strength.”
7. Because we can.
A feature of the Holocaust that distinguishes it from many other genocides is that the perpetrators often kept detailed records of the crimes they committed. These were discovered by the Allies when they defeated Nazi Germany, liberated concentration camps throughout Europe, and conquered Germany. The Nazis’ own documentation, coupled with the physical evidence, the testimonies given at Nuremberg and other war crimes trials, and the tens of thousands of hours and millions of words worth of accounts given by victims, perpetrators and other eyewitnesses in subsequent decades, make it the most voluminous body of evidence for a single crime ever collected.
Dr. Friedberg told the panel that the sheer volume of available material allows us to study the Holocaust in ways we cannot usually do with most other historical events. “I believe this is the best-documented crime in human history,” she said. “With so much of the evidence left by the perpetrators themselves. It is one of those rare events that we can study from a multiplicity of perspectives.”