Holocaust Awareness Arrived Late in Western Europe

Holocaust Awareness Arrived Late in Western Europe

“It took a long time until Holocaust awareness developed in Western Europe. Academics studying this subject found that much went terribly wrong in these societies during the initial post-war decades.

“This manifested itself in several ways. One was that prominent European politicians promoted self-images of heroic resistance against the Nazis. Another was that these politicians were unwilling to help Jewish survivors financially.

“They shifted responsibility for the persecution and extermination of the Jews as much as possible onto the Germans. This meant ignoring the huge assistance that the Germans received from many members of the occupied nations in their expropriations and deportations of the Jews.”

Johannes Houwink ten Cate is Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Amsterdam University. He specializes in the history of anti-Jewish politics of Nazi Germany in the occupied Dutch territories.

“The only comparative study of how elites in Western Europe dealt with the memory of Nazi occupation, including the Holocaust, was written by eminent Belgian historian Pieter Lagrou. In his book, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965, Lagrou noted that there was a marked difference between the Netherlands on one hand and Belgium and France on the other.

“In the Dutch case, the occupation was ‘experienced as a collective affliction for the whole of society, an external aggression and a moral outrage to a country that saw itself as a model pupil in the school of nations.’”[1]

Houwink ten Cate adds: “This last view has not changed. The Dutch still regard themselves as a ‘model pupil in the school of nations,’ even if the rest of the world does not agree.

“Lagrou furthermore wrote: ‘In the austere reconstruction ethic that dominated Dutch society in the first two post-war decades, the war was presented as an ordeal that had strengthened social cohesion and national identity.’[2] This national memory was – to quote Lagrou again – ‘harsh’ towards those who had suffered more than others.

“‘The Jewish survivors of the genocide in particular suffered from a lack of recognition (…), from a lack of support,’ both in material terms and in terms of ‘their need for integration.’[3] Thus, the few Jewish survivors – 75% of Dutch Jewry was deported to Eastern Europe in order to be murdered – ‘struck a bad deal,’ according to the impartial Lagrou: ‘no solidarity for them, no consolation.’”[4]

“Lagrou contrasted the Dutch perception of Nazi occupation with its Belgian and French counterparts. In these states, ‘the cacophony’ of commemorative narratives set different victim groups ‘in macabre rivalries and opposition.’ Nevertheless, this offered Jewish victims more recognition and more consolation than the ‘austere consensus’ in The Netherlands.[5]

“In the 1950s, the Dutch portrayed themselves as a nation unified in resistance against the Nazis, a view that was actively supported by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (then called RIOD, nowadays NIOD), which in its research focused on the three strikes during war time.

“In France in 1987, eminent historian Henry Rousso coined the neologism ‘Résistancialisme’ to describe the Gaullist effort to lump together Resistance, nation and state, [6] but this effort was not as dominant as its Dutch counterpart. Nevertheless, for 35 years, French historians ignored the co-responsibility of the Vichy government for persecution of the Jews. It was not until 1981 that American historian Robert O. Paxton and his Canadian colleague Michael R. Marrus, fully described this co-responsibility.[7]

“The situation was not fundamentally different in West Germany. It first became a habit of the authorities in various states of the Soviet bloc and later of the German left to correctly proclaim that the track record of the German Federal Republic in bringing Holocaust perpetrators to justice was poor.[8] It was as poor as the actual performance of the French, Belgian and Dutch states in bringing their bureaucrats who had aided the Germans, to trial. These civil servants went unpunished as a group.

“Nowadays, ironic descriptions of states which portray themselves as ‘nations of heroes,’ be it the Dutch, the French or the Germans, have become a sort of genre. But Rousso’s book marked the birth of Post-Holocaust studies as an academic field in its own right.

“Post-Holocaust Studies as a field have slowly widened and become more academic. More recent publications – such as the book by Lagrou – are often based on many years of research in the archives of states and civil society organizations.”

Houwink ten Cate concludes: “These studies on national self-image are part of the developing discipline of Post-Holocaust Studies. It is greatly enriched by input from scholars who are either legal experts, or have a marked sensitivity and understanding of legal issues. This branch of learning covers many other areas such as education, psychology, contemporary history, etc. There are many varied publications in the field of Post Holocaust Studies. However, it is not structured academically, e.g., there are no chairs for its studies.

“Yet if they were established, it would give this important discipline the support it needs.”
Sources:[1] Pieter Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 293.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Lagrou, 293, 295.
[4] Lagrou. 303.
[5] Lagrou, 303-304.
[6] Henry Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy: (1944-198..) (Paris: Seuil, 1987).
[7] Michael R. Marrus, Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews(New York: Basic Books, 1981).
[8] Dick de Mildt, In the Name of the People: Perpetrators of Genocide in the Reflection of their Post-War Prosecution in West Germany. The ‘Euthanasia’ and ‘Aktion Reinhard’ Trial Cases (The Hague/London/Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1996), 18-40.


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