Does London need an official Holocaust memorial?
Last week the prime minister, Theresa May, joined her four living predecessors to make a video promoting a project to build a permanent Holocaust memorial and education centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park next to the River Thames immediately south of the Houses of Parliament. The plan has led to serious opposition, with the Royal Parks charity, which manages the park, having publicly opposed it back in February and a campaign launched, Save Victoria Tower Gardens, which is “concerned that this plan will change forever the use of a much loved and well-used local park into a sombre, security patrolled civic space” and suggests the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, across the river in Lambeth, as a better place for the memorial than the gardens which remain the only riverside park in central London. In Thursday’s Guardian there was a letter from a former chief executive of Royal Parks, William Weston, who linked it to the extinction crisis headlined in the Guardian earlier in the week:
Do politicians not get it? This threat is not only about the loss of rainforest. It’s also about the loss of green space where we live. Londoners are suffering from illegal levels of pollution, yet still another memorial bites into our precious green space.
I am not opposed to the idea of a Holocaust memorial or education centre in London, but VTG does seem very much the wrong place to do it; I suspect that it was chosen because it was less expensive than buying up an existing building in Westminster for the purpose and perhaps because some MPs really do want the last bit of open space that is open to the public around Parliament to become, as the campaign put it, a security-patrolled civic space (this installation will cut the park in half). As Rowan Moore noted back in February, there are already a number of memorials to oppression in the park, such as the Buxton memorial to the abolition of slavery, but this will dwarf all of them; it will take up the entire width of the park right next to the Buxton memorial fountain which will be fenced off from this site while it is currently easily visible across the whole park. There is already a Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park, opened in 1983 and funded by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and remembrance services are held there every year; it consists of a set of granite boulders set in a copse of beech trees, with an extract from the Biblical book of Lamentations on one of the stones in Hebrew and English. There is also a National Holocaust Centre and Museum, but its location in Nottinghamshire presumably makes it too insignificant for British politicians’ liking (admittedly its accessibility is poor with no public transport to the venue).
Besides the location, I question the concept behind the design of the memorial, designed by a team consisting of Adjaye Associates, Ron Arad Architects and Gustafson Porter + Bowman, which consists of 22 brass fins each representing a country whose Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust. The problem is that the specific countries they came from are of less significance than the numbers murdered; many of them had only been in existence for some 20 years at the time of the Nazi invasion (since the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and why should one ‘fin’ represent the 3 million Jews that lived in pre-war Poland while another represents the much smaller number from another country? Why fins, anyway? The European part of World War II was fought mostly over land, not sea; many of the countries affected were and are landlocked. Yes, there are fish in rivers, obviously, but fins are generally not part of the landscape of central Europe.
And finally, I take issue with a lot of the political rhetoric being used to advance this project. Theresa May describes the memorial on the Holocaust memorial section of the British government website as a “sacred, national mission”: “in the face of despicable Holocaust denial, this Memorial will stand to preserve the truth forever”. Really? Britain played a major role in defeating the country whose forces perpetrated the Holocaust, and I have not heard a huge amount of public debate about this, so who decided it was a “sacred national mission”? Clearly a lot of those who do not want to sacrifice precious public park space do not agree. People convinced of untruth will not change their minds just because the government builds a memorial and museum in a public space; they will just call it propaganda, much as they call all the evidence to the Holocaust that already exists. There is a lot of talk of the memorial serving as a reminder to guard against hatred and prejudice, but politicians, including those in May’s party, are quite happy to exploit prejudice against so-called “enemies within” and “economic migrants” to score political points and the mass media are content to do the same to make money, much as we have war memorials in every town listing the names of every local who died in the First World War (and the Second, if there is space), yet our politicians will still drag us into wars on dubious grounds when it suits them, including one of the former prime ministers who appeared in a video to support this scheme. The Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago; a memorial to a crime that is well in the past and in another country that we were at war with gives the message that these sorts of things happen elsewhere and in the past — much like, for example, the books set in the USA during the time of segregation from which so many young British students learn about racism in school and college. The proposal refers to the exhibition space as an “education centre”, but you cannot build much of an education centre in that space.
It’s a huge act of hypocrisy for the four former prime ministers to take part in this video (it is not really an appeal, as it seems to be a case of the government telling us what it intends to do and Blair and Brown gave it a ‘bipartisan’ appearance). John Major, when prime minister, sat on his hands for three years while a genocidal war raged in Bosnia, and did not allow Bosnian refugees to travel to the UK. There is no reference to this here; the only specific prejudice discussed is anti-Semitism. Blair made specific reference to the ‘poison’ of “anti-Semitism and hate” being “back from the political fringe to parts of the political mainstream”, an unmistakeable reference to Jeremy Corbyn and the fact that his faction are no longer in charge of the Labour Party. During his administration, the tabloid press abused and vilified minorities on a regular basis, in some cases resulting in physical abuse against their members in the street and their having to make changes to how they dress just to feel safe, or safer; rather than tackle them, he bowed to them, in one case locking up people who had lived here for years and had got into trouble years ago and served their sentences to sate tabloid demands to deport “foreign criminals”. I am not sure what lessons from the Holocaust any of them learned, to be honest. For decades anti-fascists have been calling for there to be no platform for fascists and for their propaganda to be rebutted rather than for them to be appeased, yet today politicians do deals with fascists or their allies: Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro.
The government tell us that the exhibition will “set the Holocaust within the British narrative”. It does rather seem like a national pat-on-the-back, a sign of how good we are as a nation. The truth is that most of those who visit will be tourists; it will not be big enough to provide enough material for schoolchildren, and if it is then only schoolchildren from around the London area will visit as London is in the far south-east of the country. That it will be “in the shadow of Parliament” will make it less accessible as the area is choked with traffic and prone to security alerts and the like; a repeat of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack will deter schools from sending parties there, while the Imperial War Museum, let alone the existing museum in Nottinghamshire, has no such issue. That educating children about the Holocaust is vital is not in dispute — a recent poll found that one in twenty British adults did not believe it had happened — but it must reach the whole country and not require a visit to a park in Westminster, and it must be about hate in general and all recent genocides, not just anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We must not let ourselves be deluded that anti-Semitism is a hate apart, that it is ‘primal’ while other prejudices are in some way grounded in fact or have some rational basis to them: they all feel ‘rational’ to the person who is prejudiced. The dangers of hateful propaganda, the politician who fosters false grievances against people or channels real grievances into hatred towards a minority rather than towards positive change, are universal, and in many countries, including many western countries, the danger has not for a long time been as real as it is now.
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