Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Conference, Monday 8th July 2013: Part One

On Monday, 8th July, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster was abuzz with people. 500 Ambassadors of the Holocaust Educational Trust - and many Sixth Form students who had registered an interest in the conference - gathered to attend lectures, workshops, a panel discussion and a survivor testimony in what proved to be an exciting and diverse programme organised by the Trust. The entire delegation sat through speeches by guest speakers such as Nick Robinson, Yehuda Bauer and Shami Chakrabarti and also branched off into different groups at points, to hear from experts in the fields of history, gender studies, film studies and so on, connecting each broader topic and its relevance to the Holocaust.

Address by Nick Robinson, BBC Political Editor
After an introduction by Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Nick Robinson spoke (only too briefly!) about his personal connection with the Holocaust and the importance of the Conference for him.
His grandparents were German Jews who fled the country in the aftermath of the Nuremburg Rallies in 1935. They - correctly - sensed that things would only get increasingly worse for the Jews with the introduction of the Nuremburg Laws, restricting the basic rights of the Jewish population. He shared two fascinating anecdotes with the audience:
"I remember my grandmother telling me about going to a greengrocer's and queuing up to buy some fruit. The person in front of her gave her order and, at the end, said, "Heil Hitler". My grandmother openly laughed about this, but, after seeing the serious faces of those around her, stopped laughing and also gave a "Heil Hitler" when she had given her order."
Robinson also gave an example of a letter sent from a non-Jew with a terminal illness to his Jewish doctor after the Nazis had taken power. One line from the letter read, 'I hope you understand that you can't come through the front door anymore.' This was the extent to which some non-Jews were too frightened or embarrassed to let others know they were still mixing with Jews.
Finally, he discussed the importance of what it is to be an Ambassador and how vital it is to carry messages about what happened in the past forwards.

Address by Professor Yehuda Bauer, historian of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, Israel
When I first saw Professor Bauer ascend to the stage and sit whilst historian Professor David Cesarani introduced him, I honestly did not know what to expect. At 86, he does not cut a formidable figure; I decided his talk would be brief and inanimate to conserve energy. How wrong I was!
After his introduction, Professor Bauer walked to the podium and kept the entire room enraptured for just over an hour. He is an eloquent, passionate speaker, and both the content and delivery of his speech were absolutely gripping.

Too much was said for me to give a thorough and justified account of Professor Bauer's talk, so I shall list the main points of interest he gave below.
- The definition of 'genocide' created by the United Nations in 1948 came from the Holocaust, but when did genocide actually start? Was it with the Holocaust, or what about the Armenian genocide in World War I, or the genocide of the American Indians? The truth is, genocide is as old as civilisation itself.
- Human beings are both predators and collectors of food, and we work together to survive - we are all "herd animals"! Through collaboration with each other we gain love, sympathy and altruism. In the Holocaust, this was shown by those who helped the Jews escape their fate, who may have once been shown kindness by those they were saving.
- On the other hand, human beings can be hostile to other groups of humans. When two groups encounter one another, there are four ways this may be solved:
1. Assimilation of groups
2. Enslavement of one group
3. Forcing one group to leave
4. Killing one group
Therefore, there is a constant conflict of either collaborating with, or killing, other groups.
- The Holocaust must be compared with other genocides. It shares many similarities: the idea of wiping out communities; acts of brutality; the suffering of victims; the act of genocide by any means available, be that by gas, machine guns, machetes etc.
- Its main differences, however, must also be recognised. The Holocaust is different because of the definition of those persecuted against (not self-defined; only defined by the Nazis), the basic ideology and the fact that Germany was a first-world, liberal, humanist country. The Holocaust is not a unique event, but is the most extreme case of genocide in history.
- If we are to teach others about the Holocaust, analysis of the event alone is not enough; stories of those who lived and died during the time must be shared.

Professor Bauer is a most knowledgeable man, and also something of a great story-teller. He ended his speech with the following:
"In Auschwitz, there were two mothers. Both had a daughter who was dying from starvation. At the evening meal, when the daily bowl of soup was distributed, one mother gave her bowl to her daughter, so that she had two. The other mother, knowing her daughter's chances of survival were small, took her bowl away from her, so that she had none. Who was right in that situation? That is not something for us to judge, because we are not in that situation. The morals of the Holocaust were totally different from how we might see them today." This was just one example of the moral dilemmas and complexities faced by those who suffered during the Holocaust.
I honestly could have sat and listened to Professor Bauer speak for hours. He has made it his life's mission to research and educate people about the Holocaust, he himself having fled Eastern Europe in the 1930s when Nazism was on the rise. My admiration for Professor Bauer is endless.

Workshop One: Professor Richard Overy, University of Exeter
At this point in the day, Ambassadors and delegates separated into different groups. I can only write about the workshop I attended, of course, but this was just one workshop out of a number given by scholars such as Professor David Cesarani, Roger Moorhouse and Trudy Gold.
The topic Professor Overy introduced was, 'German Perpetrators: Nazi Monsters or Ordinary Men?'. The workshop delved into much social psychology and examined the Browning-Goldhagen debate that arose in the 1990s, after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s. Too many times had the words "just following orders" been heard from defendants in Nazi war criminal trials without any understanding of what this could indicate and how it could be interpreted.
Browning wrote a very famous book entitled, 'Ordinary Men' following a police battalion who were directly involved in the killing of Nazi 'enemies'. He discovered that they found their orders extremely difficult to disobey in the circumstances in which they found themselves. On the other hand, Goldhagen followed the same battalion and wrote 'Hitler's Willing Executioners' to complement his research. He proposed a 'German' mind of anti-Semitism and indoctrination. Those involved believed in the cause after so many years of propaganda and anti-Semitic beliefs being spread. The argument, therefore, is situation vs. disposition, and is still not totally clear.
Professor Overy discussed the famous Milgram experiment of influence of authority and also ideas of a "psychological theatre" in which the perpetrators adapted to their role as the victims did to theirs.
Questions and thoughts were then heard from the audience, where ideas surrounding the subconscious power attributed to perpetrators, sense of community and distortions caused by early indoctrination against the Jews were brought up.