“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This famous quote from George Santayana is heard routinely in history classrooms and schools all over the country, and for good reason. Although considered cliché to some and too morbid by others, it perfectly encapsulates the idea that the ignorance of history contributes to major modern atrocity. The stark truth behind this short statement has proved itself repeatedly in modern society. After the Holocaust, people pledged “Never again”, something I take very seriously as reflected by my role as Regional Ambassador for Holocaust education in the UK. However, whilst remembrance, education and awareness are on the rise mostly due to today’s young people, the sad truth is that genocide/atrocity did not begin and end with the Nazis. Examples such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and the Plight of the Uighur community in China right now are all repetitions of a history that we are all so disgusted by and prove that “Never again” simply does not hold its weight. So how can History and its lessons help us in combatting discrimination, inequality, ignorance and ultimately genocide today?
History gives people an intimate look at humanity; it helps us understand patterns of behaviour and cultural difference. A prominent example of its importance come from my own experience of living in Northern Ireland. I have often been confused as to my family members' feelings about specific political topics, their voting patterns and the ever-dreaded topic of “The Troubles”. When they are questioned, the answer I usually get is something vague or misconstrued or, overall, just uninformed. I found that many in the older generation (in my family at least) were ignorant to the historical events and truths that have made this country how it is today. Although they may have lived through it, their version of events is almost always blinded by bias - they are not open to learning why these things happened or how they could be avoided in the future. The much needed move out of a 'Protestants versus Catholics' mindset is a vital tool to progression that is being accelerated by young people today through groups such as political youth parties e.g. the SDLP Youth and young independent speakers using their knowledge and understanding of past events to combat sectarianism, racism and violence especially in NI.
Another prominent example, a lot further away from home but of a much larger scale and atrocity, is the plight of the Uighur community in China today. Whilst it is unfair to compare two awful events in history side by side as it can undermine their individual complexity and their events, it is, however, easy to draw parallels between what is currently happening in China and what was happening across Europe in the early 1940s. The Uighur community are seen as a threat to the Chinese state and have been discriminated against, rounded up and forced into 're-education centres' where acts of incredible brutality have since been reported as they are forced to ignore and forget their religious beliefs and customs. This only provides further evidence that awareness and education must be made a staple today: this barbaric treatment cannot be allowed to prevail in the 21st century. The incorporation of historical understanding and knowledge with political action and campaigning is essential in helping stand up against this modern atrocity. It is also an issue I feel politicians should be fighting more prominently and with more direct action. The Uighur community cannot be forgotten or continue to go unheard.
Important work in raising awareness and understanding come from groups such as The Holocaust Educational Trust. They play a vital role in teaching lessons on preventing discrimination, racism, inequality and how we, as young people, can spot the signs and educate others. The Trust works with many politicians and influencers across the UK and has helped them in opening and exploring how an acknowledgement of history is essential in making important decisions today. The Trust also keeps alive the testimonies of hundreds of Holocaust survivors and actively works with survivors of past genocides in the likes of Bosnia. They ensure the living testimony of these amazing people can be shared with others across the country and thus preventing ignorance from leading to atrocity.
As disheartening acts of brutality arise across the world, we can seek some solace in the fact that many people do rise up and use their voice in the face of adversity - taking what they have learned from history to fight for justice. The Black Lives Matter movement has taken the world by storm in recent months as protests against prejudice and discrimination continue. However, whilst many of the despicable acts against the black community are met with public uproar and some protests, many still manage to fly under the public radar and remain unpunished. Similarly, Anti-Semitism remains prevalent throughout the world today with many stereotypes and discrimination still running rampant. Recently social media advocates had taken a 48-hour silence after rapper Wiley spouted a stream of hateful and anti-Semitic remarks against the Jewish community. Even more alarmingly, elements of Holocaust denial are also found across platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The fight for a stronger stance against these issues lies with us, the young people, and our politicians must take a firmer stance to halt this. It is evident within the younger generation that education is the strongest weapon against the repetition of history leading to modern atrocity.
History continues to teach us analytical lessons that are invaluable to dealing with issues today. Penelope J Corfield states “The study of the past is essential for rooting people in time. This is important as those who feel rootless live rootless lives causing damage to those around them and to themselves; a study of history is not just useful but is essential”.
Ignorance of history undoubtedly can contribute to major modern atrocities, but if we all take lessons from history and give time to learning from past mistakes, we can help to prevent major issues today and combat them politically. The fight against inequality, disinclination, racism and much more begins with an acknowledgement of the past and a strong, powerful stance on how to combat it.
Alex Dougherty is 18 years old and from Derry in Northern Ireland. She will begin studying history at Lancaster University in September. Alex has always had a passion for the past and a desire to show how education and awareness can help us in the future and with the present. She is a proud Holocaust regional ambassador for NI and uses her passion for historical awareness to help tackle important issues in today’s society.