Topic: The Holocaust in Civil Religion: The History of MemoryCommemoration of 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz
Although historical debate over the Holocaust (Shoah) began shortly after the end of World War II, it was only in the mid-1970s that the question of how to honor the memory of its victims became increasingly reckoned with in national communities around the world from Poland to Japan. Rituals, ceremonies, state-sponsored commemorations, educational initiatives and monuments have been created, and legislation has been enacted. In many cases this official attention to the Holocaust has led to debates over its meanings and dimensions. It has also led to the substantial revision of numerous national historical narratives. Many countries which have acknowledged their own participation in the Holocaust have, in varying ways, incorporated Holocaust memorialization into their national public life, or civil religion.
The phrase 'civil religion' was originally discussed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In chapter 8, book 4 of The Social Contract, Rousseau defined civil religion as a group of religious beliefs he thought to be universal, and which he argued governments had the right to uphold and maintain. His outline of civil religion included: the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance. All other religious opinions, he wrote, are outside the cognizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens. In the last years of the nineteenth century, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim was concerned over what would constitute the basis of a secular morality and social cohesion when the rise of rationalism, individualism, and industrialism challenged the traditional foundations of a religiously-grounded moral code. Referred to as the theologian of French civil religion during the Third Republic, Durkheim saw the nation or political society as enjoying a certain moral primacy in the new secular morality, replacing the traditional role of the church. In this context, civil religion referred to the creation of an overarching national or political culture based on rational individualism and social solidarity.
More recently the social scientist Robert Bellah applied a similar functional understanding of religion to the realm of secular society and politics. In 1967, he used the term civil religion to refer to the stories, ideals, and practices that modern polities endow with a sense of transcendence so that their citizens will treat the state with a sense of reverence. Bellah identified the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement as three decisive historical events that shaped the content and imagery of civil religion in the United States. Subsequently the notion of civil religion proved intriguing to observers of the State of Israel. In an extended analysis, Charles Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya argued that Israel has actually had different civil religions at different times in its history. They point out, however, that a Jewish state is particularly ripe for a civil religion because of its deep roots in a traditional religion - Judaism. More recently, Tom Segev, has characterized the Holocaust as the civil religion of Israel.
It is the interface of the Holocaust and civil religion that is our focus. We ask: How have Holocaust commemorations and memorializations become part of particular national narratives? Importantly, not all countries focus on the same dates or events in their Holocaust commemorations. Germany, Poland, and Israel, arguably the countries whose histories are the most intertwined with the Holocaust, commemorate it on different dates during the year. Germany recognizes January 27th as the day to commemorate the European victims of Nazism (the liberation of Auschwitz) as well as with a commemoration on November 9 (Kristallnacht); the Polish Jewish community remembers April 19th, the date marking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the Gregorian calendar and the Poles more broadly honor the Polish revolt of August 1944 annually; in Israel the official commemoration of the Holocaust, Yom Ha'Shoah (Day of Conflagration, officially in English: Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day) was chosen to coincide with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as it is marked on the Hebrew calendar.
The United States, a major center of Jewish life, has also addressed the issue of Holocaust commemoration. In 1980 a federal law marked Yom Ha'Shoah (as designated on the Israeli calendar) with an official ceremony on Capitol Hill. Holocaust museums and education programs have proliferated in the United States.
Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
In Israel, Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority:
For a list of Holocaust museums world-wide, you may consult a directory compiled by the Israel Science and Technology Homepage.
The Global Directory of Holocaust Museums:
In 1993 Francois Mitterrand established July 16 – the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup - a national day of commemoration for the persecution of Jews. In January 2005, the Mémorial de la Shoah opened in Paris, France. Beginning in the 1970s, with the publication of Robert Paxton’s book, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, there was much international concern that the French had not come to terms with their role in the Holocaust. Since then France has undertaken a heated public debate on the history of French anti-Semitism, the Vichy regime, and French collaboration in the Holocaust. Underlying much of these debates has been the meaning and lived experiences of republican values of citizenship, French ideals of universal human rights, and what many consider an American import - multi-culturalism.
The boundaries of citizenship and the dividing lines of inclusion and exclusion continue to plague French society as exemplified by the current controversy over the wearing of religious symbols. For an overarching discussion of French republicanism and secularity see:
Jean Bauberot, "France from A to Z: The Secular Principle."
Svend White, Europe and the Veil, Hijab Hysteria: France and its Muslims, Open Democracy, March 2004
In some cases, countries that have had no direct links to the Holocaust and few Jews counted in their population have also instituted Holocaust-related institutions and memorials. The Holocaust Education Center in Japan, for example, is built in the style of a medieval Polish synagogue. Their Small Hands organization presents a 'Rose of Anne Frank' to organizations that promote peace studies.
The range of issues implicit in the history of Holocaust commemoration is extraordinarily rich. This history can prompt students to think about the Holocaust as an element in the construction of national identity and nation-building, the conflicts over and the politics surrounding public history installations (including museums, monuments, etc.), the problematic of collective memory (whose memories become validated and whose erased or less visible?), dominant versus oppositional memory, and issues related to the practices of civil religion and the invention of tradition. Political disputes over Holocaust commemoration may also suggest how differing political strains may unexpectedly converge.
The history of Holocaust commemorations as civil religion speaks to the interests of students at all levels. This topic may expose introductory-level students to the political dimensions of how Holocaust commemorations have come into being. More advanced students can focus on the complex relationship among history, memory, and memorialization. For a llist of exercises, please see class projects.