The Holocaust Educational Trust's Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Lecture, Wednesday 21st January 2015

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Holocaust Educational Trust's annual Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Lecture, for the third year in a row. The lecture is held in honour of the late Lord Merlyn-Rees, one of the founders of the Trust who died in 2006. As this is such an important year, being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the end of the Second World War, it was no surprise that the keynote speaker for the lecture would be a world-famous, renowned historian.

The lecture was opened by Karen Pollock MBE, CEO of the Trust, who reminded us all of the Trust's ethos - remembering the Holocaust in terms of the individuals that suffered and perished, rather than the statistics. She read part of a letter written by one of the men behind the Oneg Shabbat Archive in the Warsaw Ghetto, asking that he, his wife and their 20-month-year-old little girl be remembered. All three died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper MP then followed this with a speech about the current levels of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice in the world, specifically in the U.K. Cooper stressed the importance of us all being able to feel safe "in our home towns, on our streets and in our homes," but emphasised the problems that still exist. This was particularly highlighted with the recent terrorist attacks carried out in Paris.

Left to right: Yvette Cooper MP; Professor Christoper Browning; Dame Helen Hyde; William Pinder

The keynote speaker was introduced by Dame Helen Hyde, a Trustee of the Holocaust Educational Trust. In previous years, the main speakers at the Lecture have been interviewed by the host; in the last few years this has been Martha Kearney, from BBC Radio 4. This year, however, the floor was wholly given to Professor Christopher Browning, an American historian who has written a number of books on the Holocaust. He is best known for his work Ordinary Men: Police Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, which was published in 1992, and the subsequent debate between himself and fellow historian Daniel Goldhagen. The debate centred around the different theories put forward by both historians as to why ordinary Germans were complicit, and sometimes collaborated, in the annihilation of the Jewish population.
This was also the topic for Browning's speech. He briefly outlined the research he conducted for Ordinary Men and the thought process behind his conclusions regarding the behaviour of members of the battalion. Part of the lecture was dedicated to examples of social psychology experiments that have explored conformity (Asch) and respect for authority (Milgram and Zimbardo). At this point I was certainly grateful for learning about the same experiments in my Psychology A Level!
There is, of course, no clear-cut answer as to why so-called 'ordinary men' became perpetrators and collaborators during the Holocaust, but Browning's theories are certainly of interest and may help to explain the behaviour of perpetrators in other genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Cambodia.

The evening was closed by William Pinder, a fellow Regional Ambassador, who spoke about the importance of passing on survivors' stories to future generations so that the Holocaust will not be forgotten.

Once again, the Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Lecture proved to be both engaging and thought-provoking, and it was fantastic to have the opportunity to hear from someone like Professor Browning. I am already looking forward to next year's lecture!