History: The Holocaust, a part of who we are
8 May 2010
Sixty-five years after the end of the conflict, the memory of the World War II lives on in the work of new generations of historians, but also, as De Volkskrant points out, because the shoah plays a fundamental role in our European identity.
Every year, more and more people take part in ceremonies to remember the dead of WWII – a ritual that some commentators in the early 1970s thought was soon to disappear. At the same time, an increasing number of publications encourage us to adopt a continually evolving range of perspectives on the war.
The imposing work of historian Loe de Jong, which was thought to cover the entire range of geographic and thematic research on the Netherlands in WWII, has been overtaken by more nuanced studies focusing on the lives and circumstances of individuals who were involved in one way or another in the war.
Now that that last survivor accounts have been recorded, attention has shifted to the disorderly purge after 1945, Dutch collaboration and our post-war relationship with the conflict. And so it is that the historiography of the war has and continues to be marked by constant change.
"I believe that one day the memory of World War II will fade to a level we now associate with the Eighty Years' War (the war of independence against the Spanish, which resulted in the secession of the seven provinces and the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1648)," remarked writer and journalist Ad van Liempt in his journal. "But the significance of the massacre of the Jews will continue to be amplified as time goes on."
This is not only an inevitable consequence of European history, but also a mission that historians have established for themselves. As the Holocaust grows more distant, it is increasingly apparent that it does in fact mark the most important demarcation line in the history of our continent, which was the locus of the horror, and the field of action for those who were to blame and their accomplices.
In the wake of the Holocaust, thinking Europeans lost faith in themselves and in the benefits of ideology and technical innovation. Progress which, at the turn of the 20th century, inspired so much European hope for a brighter future, did nothing to prevent the massacre of so many. Worse still: progress as symbolized by trains, planes, factories and contemporary social existence, made organised mass murder possible. Nowhere was this disillusion with the self-destruction of progress felt more strongly than in Europe.
The Holocaust determines European identity
Conversely, no continent has been more purified by a sombre moment in its past. World War II created the conditions for European unification and the pacification of warlike nations. The real German miracle was not so much the rapid reconstruction in the wake of devastation wrought by the conflict, but the realization of moral purification. For centuries, Germany, which was unified in 1871, had been a source of conflict and war. Today it is the cornerstone of a pacifist and prosperous Europe.
The determining role played by the Holocaust in European identity is a major contributor to the difference in mentality between Europe and other parts of the world. The significance that the Holocaust has for Europeans is not universally accepted: to wit, the more low-key attitude adopted by the Arab world on this theme.
Sixty-five years after World War II, the massacre of the Jews is the incontestable nadir of European history, and the collective benchmark which distinguishes those who were guilty from those who were victims. At the same time, it marks a profound distinction between Europeans and others for whom the Holocaust does not have such a fundamental significance.