Genocide Studies

‘Decolonising’ Genocide Studies and its consequences for Holocaust memory

It took decades for Genocide and Holocaust Studies to be established as a legitimate academic discipline – but now that hard-won status is under threat. This threat does not primarily come from the new wave of genocide denial, distortion and revision that, exacerbated by the internet, is spreading across society. Rather, the existential crisis facing Genocide Studies today has arisen from within the discipline itself. For many leading genocide scholars today, the most important task to be undertaken is not the study of genocide – what it is, how to recognise it, how it differs from other forms of violence, and how it can be prevented. Rather it is to undermine, and perhaps fatally wound, the very concept of genocide itself – to reveal genocide’s status as the ‘crime of crimes’ to be a mere ideological fiction that should be deconstructed, dethroned and destroyed.

Genocide is increasingly presented here as little more than a convenient political weapon that is wielded by self-interested actors to illegitimately elevate the Holocaust and its remembrance to the level of religious belief, and to avoid coming to terms with other forms of historical (and ongoing) violence, particularly that of colonialism. Indeed for some, the main purpose of attempts to conceptually distinguish genocide – understood as the intentional attempt to destroy in whole or part an entire people – from other forms of mass violence is not analytical clarity but rather the justification of those supposedly ‘lesser’ modes of violence. Focus on the concept of ‘genocide’ from this perspective is merely a way to disguise and further new forms of oppression.

In this way, concern about genocide and the memory of the Holocaust is transformed into a cynical plot to protect the powerful – the imperialist, colonialist, white, ‘Zionist,’ ‘global north’ – and to oppress the weak – the subaltern, the ‘global south,’ the racialised. By extension, recognition of the particular and unprecedented elements of the Holocaust – a recognition that had and has still to be fought for against attempts to erase the centrality of exterminatory antisemitism from Nazi ideology – is portrayed as a calculated attempt to denigrate or devalue the horror and memory of other genocides and experiences of destruction. Rather than regarding the particularities of the Holocaust and of antisemitism as providing a critical perspective that can illuminate the study of other modes of genocidal violence, for much of Genocide Studies today, the memory of the Holocaust is an obstacle to be overcome.

Genocide and Holocaust Studies today thus risks becoming the facilitator of a new era of genocide and Holocaust denial and revisionism. An era that will lend academic credibility to narratives that seek to distort the facts of the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and of the centrality of antisemitism to the Nazi genocide; that will accuse Jews and the state of Israel of instrumentalising the memory of the Holocaust to justify oppression of the Palestinians; and that will portray those fighting genocidal violence today as stooges of the white imperialist West, depriving them of the one thing many have left – the language with which they can express their suffering.

There is thus an urgent need for a defence of Genocide and Holocaust Studies, and a renewal of it; so that we can remain certain that it will be capable of taking genocide and genocide denial seriously into the future. Rather than providing a semblance of authority to attempts to deny and distort genocide, Genocide and Holocaust Studies should be a forum in which the intellectual tools to challenge and combat historical revisionism are forged: in which the integrity of the historical record is protected, in which historical memory is retained, expanded and deepened, and in which efforts to recognise and actively prevent ongoing genocidal violence are supported and enhanced, rather than denigrated or dismissed.

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