Daniel Panneton is a public historian and Holocaust educator at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.
As the dust settled after the insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, commentators were quick to denounce the anti-democratic spectacle. Many formerly hesitant North American politicians and journalists became comfortable with using the word “fascist” – long a controversial term in referring to the various permutations of far-right populism spreading around the world.
The development is as frustrating as it is vindicating, leaving those who have been publicly criticizing domestic fascism for years wondering why it took an attempted coup for elected officials and mainstream media outlets to listen. How could a society that holds the Holocaust up as our dominant moral metaphor, the ultimate symbol of evil, fail to recognize that the United States, according to Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, was “losing its democratic status”?
The attack on the Capitol occurred in the midst of more than one transition. In the next 15 years we are going to lose the last Holocaust survivors, and with them, a powerful anti-hate, pro-democracy education resource. Holocaust educators and scholars will soon be forced to continue the survivors’ essential mission, albeit without their first-hand guidance.
Much of Holocaust education focuses on the life experiences of survivors, and for good reason; it was the survivors who personally responded to an uptick of neo-Nazi activity and Holocaust denial by forming memorial committees. It was the survivors who have bravely shared their painful memories with students and the public, knowing that the personal connection forged is a powerful, effective tool in promoting empathy and understanding. Because of this central role, the loss of the survivors is potentially existentially threatening for the field of Holocaust education.
To make matters worse, we are fully immersed in a “post-truth era,” when trusted institutions and the very notion of truth are under siege, while conspiratorial world views ensnare and radicalize unprepared minds. Through the efforts of survivors, Holocaust education became a central educational institution, and as such it has come under renewed attack from denial, distortion and minimization. This is particularly concerning because, as historian Timothy Snyder reminds us, post-truth is pre-fascism.
Far-right movements have been growing unchecked in North America for years, and democracy does not seem as rock-solid as it did during the Holocaust “memory boom” of the 1980s and 90s, during which an explosion of survivor activism and speaking occurred. Canadians are attempting to perform “citizens arrests” on elected officials, while an openly fascist political party successfully registered with Elections Canada, and anti-Trudeau rhetoric on social media grows increasingly unhinged.
We have a responsibility to the survivors to maintain their promise to the world of “Never Again” by preparing students and the public to face down issues that are not going to disappear any time soon. To adapt to these circumstances, Holocaust education must take a multipronged approach that is anchored in survivor experience, and explicitly in service of reinforcing democratic values and promoting cross-cultural solidarity. These approaches ensure that students are being equipped with the tools needed to recognize and respond to fascism when they see it.
Not all fascist movements are alike, but there are similarities that tie them together, particularly anti-liberal and anti-democratic views, and the roles of conspiracy and resentment politics. The tightly interwoven anti-communist, anti-masonic and anti-Semitic beliefs that were at the heart of Nazi ideology can be seen in contemporary political discourse, and unprepared students may be accepting them uncritically. Students aware of this past are better equipped to understand why the motley mix of seemingly unrelated Holocaust deniers, white nationalists, militia members, anti-vaccination activists and QAnoners stormed the Capitol together, or why a notorious Ontario-based neo-Nazi would be rebranding as an anti-lockdown activist.
More traditional survivor-based approaches can be blended with the approaches taken by organizations like the Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech Youth Campaign, and Hope Not Hate in the United Kingdom, which explicitly address through education and advocacy the role that hate speech and racial discrimination play in undermining civic society. Such an approach will be invaluable for Holocaust educators moving forward.
To survive the loss of the survivors while adapting to the post-truth era and resurgent far-right political activity, Holocaust education must undergo a transition. By blending the emotional and interpersonal power of survivor memory with a purposeful, civic-minded approach that grapples with the threat to democracy that fascism presents, we just might be able to keep the survivors’ torch lit and the path forward illuminated.
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