Holocaust Memorial Day 2018: The Power of Words

Yesterday, 27 January, marked Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK and the international community. Each year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust sets a theme with which to explore this day: this year, the theme was 'The Power of Words'. Here, I share a few of my own reflections on this broad, and interesting, topic.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me." This age-old adage is taught to young children in this country to help them grow a thicker skin against playground bullies and teasing from older siblings. The reality is, however, that words can be significantly more hurtful than any sticks or stones that are thrown. Where minor scrapes and bruises heal quickly, words can have an effect for years, if not a lifetime.

Words can, of course, have a positive effect, encouraging social action and bringing about change. Various quotes from notable figures spring to mind:
"Be the change you want to see in the world." (Mahatma Gandhi)
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." (John F. Kennedy)
"The pen is mightier than the sword." (Edward Bulwer-Lytton)
And, even more relevant to our theme, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

When it comes to the events we remember on Holocaust Memorial Day, however, the power of words were used for very different means, bringing about change in the most negative way imaginable.

The way Adolf Hitler used his public speaking skills to convince ordinary Germans to vote for the Nazis, and to support their policies.

The way Rwandan radio was used to disseminate propaganda against the "cockroaches" and "snakes" - the Tutsi population.

The way millions of Cambodians were starved, tortured or worked to death for the sake of creating "Year Zero".

The way German guidebooks of the 1940s gleefully declared certain occupied cities and towns 'Judenfrei' (free of Jews).

The way Serbia claimed to invade Bosnia to "free" Serbian Orthodox Christians living in the country, before slaughtering thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

The way that words such as "Jewish," "Muslim," "Tutsi," "intellectual," "Roma," "disabled," "Darfuri" and "Armenian" changed from expressions of cultural or religious identity to labels with which to persecute and murder.

The mistreatment of these people has also resulted in other words and phrases being written into the history books, and into our memories - "Auschwitz," "killing fields," "genocide," "Interahamwe," "Srebrenica," "Final Solution," "Holocaust," and so on.

The power of words can also emphasise reflection on the power of silence. Many people were afraid to speak up against what was happening in countries such as Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and some simply stood by and did not intervene in any capacity.

Genocide does not begin with killing; it begins with words, and labelling, designed to create an 'Other' and encourage an 'us vs. them' mentality. In countries like the UK, we are fortunate enough not to be in danger of genocide occurring, but there are those who try to drive a wedge between different cultures, ethnicities and religions. Anti-Semitism has not gone away: nor has racism, or Islamophobia, or sexism, or other forms of discrimination.
Social media, for all its benefits, also has a lot to answer for. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are used, by some, to promote their hateful ideas and agendas. We've all seen the damage that Donald Trump can do, retweeting racist organisations such as 'Britain First' and covering up his mistakes by playing the 'fake news' card. In the wake of other recent events in America, it seems that neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers feel more emboldened to promote their twisted distortion of history online, and minimise events such as the Holocaust to compare them to other conflicts and issues. This is not to say that present-day struggles are not important, but rather to point out the futility of comparing smaller political or social issues with industrialised mass murder.

If we can take anything from this year's Holocaust Memorial Day theme, it should be to reflect on how we communicate with each other. We have the power to use our own words to promote positive action. We can use them to educate and motivate people, and treat each other a little more kindly. Learning the lessons of genocide should not equate to telling children not to bully each other in the playground; they should be used to help us remember what can happen when words are used to create differences between us, and what can happen if we choose to stay silent.