The Holocaust was remembered differently in different part of Europe. This was because although the Allies worked together to beat Germany and the Axis Alliance in the Second World War, there were key ideological differences between them, most notably between America and Britain, and the Soviet Union.
America and Britain were democratic, capitalist societies, where governments were elected. The Soviet Union was a communist dictatorship with one party rule. After the war, these differences, alongside the race to develop nuclear weapons, resulted in the beginning of the Cold War.
This section will look at case studies of different countries and groups of countries to explore how and when their awareness and memory of the Holocaust developed and changed.
After liberation, Communist governments under the domination of the Soviet Union were formed in much of Eastern Europe. These governments tended not to recognise Jews as specific victims of Nazi persecution. This was because identifying different victims and groups went against the idea of the shared struggle against Nazi fascism for communism.
For example, at the Babi Yar memorial erected in 1959, where the Nazis murdered 35,000 Jews, was inscribed ‘Here between 1941 and 1943, the German Fascist invaders executed more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war’. While recognising Nazi brutalities, the memorial did this in very general terms, specifically making no mention of Jews. This was a broad political decision taken in order to defend the legitimacy of post-war communist governments and unite citizens of these countries.
Although after the fall of communism between 1989-1991 discussion of the Holocaust grew, it is still subject to significant influence and explained in a way which suits each individual government political aims. For example, after the fall of communism in Poland, there was a resurgence of nationalism, which in turn led to increased antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
While the initial liberations of camps such as Dachau by the American army of camps shocked the American public at the time, the Holocaust as a whole took much longer to seep into popular awareness and understanding. Memories of the Second World War continued to dominate, and the role of the Holocaust within it was somewhat overlooked.
The 1961 Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem received a great deal of media attention in the United States which in turn increased awareness of the Holocaust – 87% of Americans had heard of the trial at the time. Despite this, the long-term impact of the trial remained was small, and knowledge generally was limited. For example, in 1964, a proposal for a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in New York was rejected, on the grounds that monuments within the parks should be limited to events relevant to American history.
In the 1970s awareness of the Holocaust in America transformed. A growing body of academic texts, films, literature and television productions – such as the mini-series Holocaust, produced by NBC and broadcast in 1978 – were produced. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced a Presidential Commission to look into a National Holocaust Memorial, which in 1980 culminated in Congress unanimously approving the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, to be built in Washington. The museum opened in 1993, the same year that the popular Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List was released.
American awareness of the Holocaust has continued to grow, to the point that it is now very much part of American history in a way it was not in 1960s. As the historian Peter Novick has asserted ‘‘In various ways, for various purposes, the Holocaust had entered the American cultural mainstream; it had become part of the language; it had become […] inescapable’ [Peter Novick, The Holocaust and Collective Memory (Bloomsbury, 1999), 231].