Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Forgetting the Holocaust and the end of Enlightenment

It has taken me a while to post, beacause lots of the things on my mind have seemed to be loosely connected, but not quite gelled.

Walking along the fondamenta beside the lagoon on Sunday, we passed a line of stalls selling tourist merchandise. One of the most prominent items was an apron, with an illustration of Mussolini in military uniform standing proud.

If we are to believe the statistics, damned lies and statistics produced by UK polling agencies, 60% of British under thirty fives do not know what Auschwitz is/was.

This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Media attention is currently focused on today's memorial for the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Prince Harry has been in tabloids world wide after wearing an African corps uniform, with swastika armband, to a friends fancy dress party.

If pressed on when I consider the modern era to be, I would give as symbolic termini the French Revolution and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

So, what does all this add up to? The 'modern' era, following the Enlightenment was characterised above all by a great humanistic optimism. Society was progressive, and colonialiam, now such a dirty word, hurried this progress in other parts of the world. The export of Enlightenment values was, in the Enlightenment's terms, self-evidently good. The cradle of this Enlightenment was Northern Europe. The United States provided a blank canvass for the architects of the brave new world, and the Federalist Papers attest to their brilliant determination to fashion a better kind of society.

It is possible to see Hiroshima as the hubristic trough of scientific progress' collision with human fallibility. It is also possible to see this moment as ultimately shattering to the Enlightenment dream. Men had always fought wars. Hiroshima starkly demonstrated that they could never unthinkingly do so again: that men had at last designed a weapon which could destroy them.

This weapon is symbolic of the difference of the Second World War. In many ways, the Great War was more horrific for the troops fighting it, but the Second World War was the first 'total' war of the modern West.

And this is the crunch with the Holocaust. The fact that these atrocities were perpetrated by one of those countries which formed the cradle of the Enlightenment was the final insult to high minded humanists. As such, Auschwitz was supposed to be our great modern myth. 'Lest we forget', a phrase most often spoken about the Great War found a new resonance in the memory of the Holocaust. But how could we forget? To the elder half of Britain's population it is so self evident that the Holocaust provides the most terrible, infernal warning, that it will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, the very obviousness of the atrocity may have allowed the message to go unspoken for too long.

It has been written that Harry's antics suggest that Britain has a problem to deal with in moving on from the Second World War. But it is not indifference which leads to that kind of micky-taking, it is ignorance. The Germans need to be allowed to write the history of the war crimes against them, and the scale of atrocity on both sides needs to be recognised. But the winners also need to start taking history seriously and not let relativism destroy the most important cultural memory we have.

The problems 'history' faces in this task are well illustrated by the current Labour government. Their outlook "change=progress=good" is a horrible sort of pseudo-Enlightened ahistory which recognises no dissent from the maxim that democracy and a global market are the only forces for good. As each day passes, the US abroad follows the path to doom once walked by the Athenian Empire. In Britain, the cult of progress derides the humanities as indulgent folly. Following this path is a bad idea. The 60th anniversary of peace provides a reminder of the lessons the World War taught us. Harry, the Mussolini aprons, and the statistics and lies are all there lest we forget.


At 8:18 PM, Blogger UK plc said...

Lengthy response on my blog. Si.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Meanwhile, the Boomer generation seems to be dying off in droves: Derrida, Said, Sontag, now Hunter S. Thompson. I guess the era really is over when the who first proclaimed its end starts to pop off.


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