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Commemorating the Holocaust in Europe

By Rebecca Clifford

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Britain is certainly not the only country that observes this commemorative day; since the turn of the twenty-first century, countries across Europe have made 27 January an official day of remembrance of the Holocaust, and even supra-national entities such as the UN have official obligations to hold commemorative ceremonies on this day. Supporters of and participants in these commemorations believe that the day holds both a moral and a pedagogical purpose: it exists to ensure that citizens – the young in particular – are aware of the consequences of genocide and strive to prevent its re-occurrence. Yet twenty years ago only one European nation had an official Holocaust memorial day. That nation was France, and the story of how its memorial day came into being tells us much about how, in addition to serving an educational purpose, these memorial days shed light on the politics of the past in contemporary society.

If one were to take seriously the grumblings in some of Europe’s right-wing newspapers, one might believe that Holocaust Memorial Days were created through the ‘lobbying’ of Jewish organizations, or from pressure from left-leaning  political parties. Yet in France, as elsewhere, this was not the case. Rather, France owes the creation of its memorial day to the efforts of a small group of activists working in the very particular context of the early post-Cold War years. These activists, most of who cut their political teeth in the student unrest of 1968, were concerned with the direction that the collective memory of the Second World War was taking in the unsteady climate in Europe after 1989, and they launched a concerted bid to force the French state to recognize its own direct role in wartime crimes against Jews.


The spring of 1992 was a moment of uncertainty in France, as it was elsewhere in Europe. As the Cold War geopolitical system gave way to a renewed European Union, powerful questions emerged about how this new Europe could and should face its wartime past. In France, this process was brought into sharp focus by the trial of Paul Touvier, the first French person to be tried for crimes against humanity for his role in the murder of Jews in the Lyon area during the war. In April 1992, the Paris Court of Appeals declared that there were ‘no grounds’ for prosecuting Touvier, because he had been acting under the auspices of the Vichy state, and the court did not believe that Vichy had practiced ‘ideological hegemony’. The court thus passed judgment not only on Touvier but on the Vichy regime itself – and that judgment was profoundly inaccurate. To many observers at the time, the decision seemed to constitute an official white-washing of Vichy’s anti-Semitism.

Among those angered by the decision was a Parisian immunologist named Anna Senik. In its wake, Senik brought together a small group of activists, most of who knew each other from their time in left-wing student organizations in the late 1960s, to petition president François Mitterrand to offer a formal recognition of the state’s role in wartime crimes against Jews. Mitterrand refused. In essence, the debate between Senik’s group and the president was a clash between two conflicting readings of France’s wartime and postwar history: Mitterrand argued that the postwar Republic should bear no responsibility for the crimes of Vichy, and Senik’s group challenged this notion. Throughout the summer of 1992, France’s national media kept the issue in the public eye, particularly after 16 July, the 50th anniversary of the largest wartime roundup and arrest of Jews on French soil (the Vél’ d’hiv’ roundup), when Mitterrand attended a public commemoration of the event but refused to speak. Ultimately embarrassed by the increasingly negative media attention that the issue had drawn, Mitterrand’s government offered to turn the Vél’ d’hiv’ anniversary into an official Holocaust memorial day. The new commemoration was created by presidential decree in February 1993.

This was, of course, not what Senik’s group of activists wanted. In creating the new memorial day, Mitterrand’s government had avoided the larger issue of recognition of the state’s responsibility for wartime crimes against Jews – nothing in the new memorial day explicitly addressed the matter of state responsibility. It was not until Mitterrand’s successor Jacques Chirac came to power in 1995 that this formal recognition took place. Chirac, a child during the war, approached the issue from a different generational standpoint, and his willingness to recognize the state’s administrative culpability was applauded from every political quarter save the extreme right and a handful of stalwarts in Mitterrand’s own party. Its success as a political gesture was also noticed abroad, and in its wake activists in other countries began to demand similar recognitions of responsibility from their heads of state. It was the beginnings of a process that has brought us a pan-European Holocaust Memorial Day.

So as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, it is worth remembering its history. It may have moral and pedagogical functions (although the broader question of what these are precisely is worth asking, especially as the borders of the commemoration shift to encompass the ‘memory’ of genocide in a very wide sense), but it most certainly also has political ones. It reminds us not only of the genocide of Europe’s Jews seventy years ago, but of the continued importance of this history and memory in the political landscape of Europe today.

Rebecca Clifford is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Swansea University. She is author of Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy, and is also a contributor to another recent OUP publication, Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt.

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Image credit: The Vél’ d’hiv commemoration in 1992. François Mitterrand can be seen standing in the front row. (Collection FNDIRP; used with permission).

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