The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum impresses first with its architecture, with the deliberate industrial appearance contriving an absence of human warmth. Entrance is gratis and the location impeccable. There is copious material on offer, but the primary subject matter could have been treated in a superior fashion, in a manner more befitting our times.
For instance, Heinrich Heine is quoted – the bit about where one burns books, there will be people burnt – even though he was not opining about the Weimar Republic. With what justification is he then chosen? He is described as being German and Jewish, both of which appellations obscure some key facts – his settling (permanent emigration to?) in France, and his conversion to Christianity; but to choose an intellectual because he is (or was) Jewish is not far from not choosing someone because they are Jewish.
Flags of the countries which liberated Nazi concentration camps are hung up, in the grand manner: an anachronistic homage to the nationalistic ideal. Some of those flags represent regimes which discriminated against their own citizens on the basis of racial theory, not very unlike the architects of the Final Solution (USA, this is pre-1964); which invaded, occupied and exploited other countries and peoples (“war of aggression” to use Nuremberg-trial language; British, Russian and French); which had their own network of prison camps with near-arbitrary sentencing and conditions worse than in the Reich (USSR; if we believe the likes of Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn). All this glorification contributes to strengthening a dangerous narrative – that whole nations are good or evil, and absolves the victors of wrong-doing.
It affirms a high-ranking Nazi’s (Hermann Göring’s?) cynical observation that “…our greatest war-crime is that we lost the war.” What lesson do we give to current and future rulers? That if you cannot destroy the enemy, make sure you get rid of the damning evidence of torture, abuse, murder and genocide; think the whole process through, avoiding the errors of the amateurish SS who often had to go back to their victims’ graves and obliterate bodies? But mostly, win – at any cost.
Some aspects which are excluded or only superficially touched upon are:
– The tradition of European and global anti-semitism, perhaps covering Martin Luther, the Spanish expulsion, Richard Wagner, Emil Zola and the Dreyfus affair, et cetera.
– The inception and death of the Weimar Republic and the role played by the terms of the ceasefire at the end of WW1.
– The etymology of the term ‘Holocaust’, and the deaths, peoples and time periods to which it refers, and those which it excludes.
-The pogroms in Europe in the immediate aftermath of WW2.
– The impact of the Holocaust on world politics, including especially related thinking in Germany and Israel, and Holocaust denial legislation.
Photographs are disallowed – without explanation. Perhaps it is because they wish to protect intellectual property, but that would conflict with what is presumably one of their goals – of spreading awareness. Also, a museum on genocide must necessarily differ from, say, an art museum, in terms of the replaceability of its exhibits. A Van Gogh cannot be replaced, but a model of a gas chamber, or a photographic print showing the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau is easily reproducible. On display at the USHMM too, there are few “original” pieces.
In a space meant for reflection, the Bible is prominently quoted, to the exclusion of other religions, for instance. This preference is a tad surprising, both because it jars with the secular, humanist tradition one usually associates with museums, and also because this particular museum seeks to commemorate those who were persecuted because of their being different. In any case, not all who died in the gas chambers were believing Jews or Christians.
Perhaps the two most poignant parts of the museum are the train carriage one is forced to walk through, and the survivors’ video testimony – there we are beyond intellectual analysis.
Encouragingly, the institution purports to survey world affairs to identify and highlight instances of ongoing or potential genocide. It does not, however, articulate its criteria for what might constitute genocide. From the paucity of information on mass killings that unfortunately mark our age, and on the concentration camps and other ghetto-like areas that our conscience permits to exist, one may conclude that some bias, some undisclosed screening, exists.
All said and done, this monument to one genocide out of many plays an important role, but not particularly well. It does not clearly and unequivocally affirm the right to human dignity, personal liberty, and nominal equality for every single human being, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or nationality, and for the right of communities and languages to exist.