A few months ago, I was asked to write a blog post about Holocaust trivialisation for the HELC. I’ve been looking forward to explaining why, in my view, the real threat to the legacy of the Holocaust comes less from those who want to deny it and pretend it never happened, and more from those who know it happened, yet who trivialise it.
Compared to the tiny lunatic fringe who buy into Holocaust denial, those who trivialise the Holocaust are far greater in number. Only a small bunch of half-baked conspiracy theorists shut their eyes to the facts. But there are plenty more who treat the Holocaust as if it were just a repository of images from the cultural vernacular, to be bandied around as if they were nothing more than memes or movie quotes.
These people include some of the most respected and powerful members of society. Over the years, for instance, the Holocaust has regularly been exploited by political leaders all over the world as a source of imagery to make cheap rhetorical points for their causes. In Britain, Lord Wigley, a former leader of Plaid Cymru, invoked Auschwitz to oppose nuclear weapons. In America, ex-Vice President Al Gore invoked Kristallnacht to defend the environment. More insidiously, in Turkey, President Erdogan repeatedly uses Holocaust imagery in reverse – to liken Israelis to Nazis, and Palestinians to their victims.
With the fairly clear exception of those who think along the lines of President Erdogan, most people who trivialise the Holocaust intend no antisemitism. They generally mean well. Many are genuinely passionate about supporting a cause that is worthy in itself. Most are everyday people, often with no axes to grind. But that doesn’t excuse what they are doing.
Take, as an example, the bizarre trend that swept through the video-sharing platform TikTok in the summer of 2020. Young teenagers would dress up as Holocaust victims, wearing striped clothes and grimy make-up, in order to do a piece to camera describing their sufferings (especially their deaths) at the hands of the Nazis. These videos invariably mentioned Auschwitz – apparently, these teens didn’t realise the Holocaust wasn’t confined to this one location – and they recycled imagery from representations of the Holocaust in popular culture. Often they used a soundtrack in the background: Bruno Mars’s song Locked Out of Heaven.
The strange and thoroughly remarkable thing is: most of these videos were straight-faced. These were not alt-right teens mocking the Holocaust. They claimed, for the most part, to be trying to spread awareness about the horrors of genocide. They were seemingly well-intentioned.
Even with the best of intentions, though, fancy dress is not an appropriate way to commemorate genocide. You’d have thought that wouldn’t need pointing out.
Wired magazine found evidence to suggest that while these children might have claimed they were raising awareness about the Holocaust, their real motivation was to get likes and follows. So the Holocaust was being used as a form of what one commentator called “trauma porn”. (And perhaps that’s no exaggeration, given that the choice of a Bruno Mars soundtrack juxtaposes the lyrics “your sex takes me to paradise” with the brutality of Auschwitz. And anyway, doesn’t choosing a song with the title “Locked out of Heaven” echo the old antisemitic Christian trope that all Jews are cursed with eternal damnation?)
Worryingly, the BBC reported that Tiktok had pre-emptively banned the hashtag #Holocaustchallenge, as if they feared this trend would become some kind of successor to the 2014 ice bucket challenge.
This, I maintain, shows why there is greater potential for harm in Holocaust trivialisation than in Holocaust denial. If social media networks are accurate barometers of popular culture, then it’s likely that significant numbers of well-meaning people, who would never dream of flirting with Holocaust denial, might nevertheless regard Holocaust-themed fancy dress as an appropriate form of virtue-signalling.
And maybe the reason for this is because so many people in our culture – including those who ought to know better, like our politicians – keep engaging in the habit-forming practice of reducing the Holocaust to a handy cultural reference. Every time this happens, it weakens the memory of the Holocaust, by making it seem as if the Holocaust was nothing more than just something unpleasant or bad.
Worse still, this creates a natural cover for racists and anti-Semites to hide behind. Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, openly boasts that the best way to cultivate a climate more receptive to Holocaust denial is to trivialise the Holocaust through jokes. “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell whether we are joking or not”, he advised his fellow deniers. A 2017 report from the Data and Society Research Institute found that an internet culture of irony and in-jokes was playing into the hands of the alt-right by facilitating the spread of white supremacist thought, anti-Semitism, and hate speech online, by circulating jokes about them.
Simply put: perhaps what’s most disturbing about those home-made videos on Tiktok, then, is that a home-made video by a Holocaust denier might not look that different.
I started out by contrasting Holocaust denial with Holocaust trivialisation, on grounds that the former is the preserve of half-baked conspiracy theorists, whereas the latter is a kind of gaffe many well-meaning people might make. But the gap between them is narrowing.
In the United States and in Germany, anti-lockdown protestors have dressed in striped uniforms, trivialising the Holocaust by likening Covid restrictions to life in a concentration camp. In Germany, such anti-lockdown protestors have trivialised the Holocaust by wearing yellow stars bearing the word “Ungeimpft” – “unvaccinated” – in place of the word “Jude” [Jew]. In Britain, anti-vaxxers have trivialised the Holocaust in leaflets depicting the gate of Auschwitz bearing not the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” but the Evening Standard headline “Vaccines are Safe Path to Freedom” (sic).
Trivialising the Holocaust in this way makes life easier for anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, according to whose neo-medieval ideas the pandemic is a plague unleashed on the world by Jews. And those same conspiracy theorists subscribe to another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: Holocaust denial.
The Auschwitz Museum rightly described the TikTok phenomenon as “beyond the border of the trivialisation of history” and moreover as “hurtful and offensive”. Its response was admirably measured and restrained. Bearing in mind the age of these children, they said, we should regard it as an educational challenge. Clearly, there are many people with a lot to learn.