The Holocaust’s impact in postwar societies

Perhaps the Holocaust’s main theological effect has been that the Roman Catholic Church radically changed its position toward Jews.

January 25, 2017 21:06
4 minute read.
A woman walks through the Holocaust memorial during heavy snowfall in Berlin

A woman walks through the Holocaust memorial during heavy snowfall in Berlin.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Holocaust has had major impacts in many areas in post-war Western societies.

The upcoming International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a worthy occasion to assess this subject.

One important reason why the magnitude of this post-Holocaust impact is largely hidden is that it is overshadowed by the Holocaust itself.

When seen against this extremely violent and tragic background, the multidisciplinary post-Holocaust impact, with its difficult-to-summarize multiple facets, does not draw much attention.

However, the subject does warrant consideration and focus.

Yet there is research being done in many isolated areas related to post-Holocaust studies. A huge number of individual books and studies concerning the influence of the Holocaust on postwar societies have been published. There are also many other aspects of post-Holocaust impact. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a direct result of the Holocaust. So is the United Nations Genocide Convention.

Perhaps the Holocaust’s main theological effect has been that the Roman Catholic Church radically changed its position toward Jews. This found its expression in a declaration by pope Paul VI in 1965 – Nostra Aetate, which translates to “in our time.” Various popes have spoken very differently about Jews in the past 50 years than their pre-war predecessors did. Similarly, a number of Protestant churches have apologized for their attitudes toward the Jews before and during the war.

The Holocaust has raised many ethical issues. A prime one is the ethics of obedience. Many Nazi criminals claimed that all they did was follow orders. This has raised the fundamental questions of what makes people willing to execute criminal orders from their superiors and to what extent can this be prevented in the future.

The many traumatic experiences of Holocaust survivors have led to advances in psycho-social treatment, including for traumas not derived from the Holocaust. Epigeneticists are now studying whether Holocaust traumas sometimes are being be passed on to the next generation genetically.

There are a multitude of other subjects concerning survivors. These include their contribution to the Jewish world as well as to societies at large.

Restitution and how it was handled can be seen as a prism for the diverse attitudes of countries which were under German occupation. A study by Sidney Zabludoff shows that only 20% of assets stolen from the Jews before and during the Second World War were returned. Furthermore, there can hardly be a major restitution debate without reference to guilt. One may wonder why some nations occupied by the Germans were willing to apologize in recent decades for their wartime behavior, while others, such as France, have limited their efforts to describe their wartime past truthfully.

Alone among Western European nations the Netherlands stands out as being the one nation consistently refusing to admit any culpability.

Remembrance also has many aspects. Monuments and memorials for Jewish victims were initially mainly located in Jewish synagogues, centers or cemeteries. Only decades later did they increasingly find their place in the public domain.

Many Holocaust museums have been established.

There are also books on the design and architecture of Holocaust monuments and museums. In the Communist world, no differentiation was allowed between Jewish and non-Jewish victims.

Also related to memory are the remaining structures of the camps themselves. Archeologists have been digging at the Sobibor extermination camp and unearthed the gas chambers.

Philosophy is another discipline touched by post-Holocaust influence. Has Never Again become an empty slogan? The leading Holocaust philosopher Emil Fackenheim has said that in addition to the classic 613 commandments of Jewish law, there is a 614th – the duty to remember.

Yet, philosopher Shmuel Trigano claims that this duty to remember has become a largely distorted issue in French society. And why is it that rather than fading away, the mention of the Holocaust seems to have increased in recent years in the public debate? The distortion of the Holocaust has become a major issue in postwar society. Often the focus of debates is on Holocaust denial. Far more important is the inversion of the Holocaust – comparing Israel to the Nazi state. At least 150 million citizens of the European Union agree with the absurd claim that Israel conducts a war of extermination against the Palestinians.

Many novels have Holocaust-related plots. The best-known poem on the Holocaust is probably Paul Celan’s “The Death Fugue” with its penetrating sentence, “Death is a master from Germany.”

There is also literary analysis of Holocaust novels.

All of this is but a small selection of a field of which no overview exists. Only once a number of universities start looking systematically at post-Holocaust studies in their entirety will we acquire important additional tools to understand better some contemporary developments in an increasingly chaotic world.

The author is emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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