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Memorial days have never been an English practice. We have a few 'holy days', whose religious significance is nowadays almost ignored, but even the Queen's birthday is not a public holiday, and it seemed unnatural when Michael Foot insolently proclaimed a bank holiday on May Day. We certainly eschew the Continental habit of national days, or the American way of naming days after public heroes from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King.
Until very recently, the idea that this country should have an annual day commemorating the murder of the European Jews, such as falls for the first time this Saturday, would have seemed far-fetched. It is not that the British state or people had failed to recognise that horrible crime. On the contrary. This country had, after all, gone to war with National Socialist Germany in 1939, voluntarily and as a matter of principle, more than two years before Hitler gave the United States no choice in the matter by declaring war.
Few countries had much cause for pride about the fate of the Jews during that miserable epoch. Most of the world turned its back on the tormented victims. But as a matter of fact this country had less reason for shame than most, admitting too few refugees, no doubt, but far more than the United States in proportion to the existing population. Before the war, it was this one question which more than anything else hardened British attitudes to the Third Reich. As A.J.P. Taylor wrote: 'Englishmen of all classes and of all parties were offended by the Nazi treatment of the Jews', and this was truer still during the war, when Churchill denounced the murderers and the House of Commons stood silent in memory of the victims. In other words, there may be good reasons why this dreadful deed should be marked in Germany and Israel with varying mixtures of shame and sorrow. But why here?
Why was Holocaust Memorial Day decreed by the British government a year ago, almost 55 years after the last inmates left the horrid shell of Auschwitz and Richard Dimbleby reported almost speechless from Belsen? Tony Blair has called it 'a day when the country reflects on the
terrible and evil deeds in the world', and the Home Office has added with similar banality that, This government has a clear vision of a multicultural Britain — one which values the contribution made by each of our many ethnic, cultural and faith communities.' In other words, the Day is a characteristic piece of Blairite demagoguery, characteristic of the Prime Minister's love of soundbite politics — even when the soundbite is as trite as 'terrible and evil deeds' — and of his desire to ingratiate himself with whatever audience he happens to be addressing or interestgroup he happens to be dealing with. It seemed a painless gesture (this Saturday is not, of course, a public holiday); a piece of
feel-good attitudinising which would cost nothing.
Interestingly enough, it may have misfired. Since the Prime Minister spoke, there has been a palpable change of mood. A year ago those few voices which questioned the wisdom or propriety of this Memorial Day were drowned in unreasoning abuse. But there has been a steadily growing mood of scepticism and disquiet, voiced most trenchantly by Jewish critics. Rabbi Jonathan Romain has expressed his anxiety that the Memorial Day will turn out to be a 'massive own goal' for Jews: 'Despite official backing, the Day may be greeted with apathy by the public and lead to a message of indifference.'
Others have wondered whether such a day, by using the name 'Holocaust', may not be regrettably exclusive, suggesting one Jewish tragedy alone and seemingly ignoring the horrors suffered by so many others at Hitler's hands, like the gypsies, or at the hands of others. Another bitter dispute continues about the slaughter of the Armenians in 1915 at the hands of Turkey, a dispute affected by the fact that neither the British nor the Israeli government wants to provoke Ankara. (At one point our government snivellingly argued that what happened to the Armenians could not be 'genocide' as that word had not then been coined.) Simon Sebag-Montefiore has thoughtfully suggested that the Day should stand as a memorial not only to Jews, gypsies and Armenians, hut also for all genocides — including those who died in Stalin's deportations of entire races', though this is something he did, it will be remembered, at a time when he was our ally.
It would be unseemly to scrap Holocaust Memorial Day in the same half-hearted and unreflective way that it was introduced. And, as it turns out, the Day may prove to serve a real purpose, though not that intended by our posturing Prime Minister. More and more people have indeed reflected on the evil in the world, contemplated the horrors of the 20th century, and recognised that, although the extermination of the Jews by Germany was qualitatively worse than any other great massacre, it was not alone. History is more terrible and evil than Mr Blair knows, and far more complex.