Handbook on Memory Laws: A necessary tool for safeguarding the memory of the Holocaust

How a forthcoming IHRA Handbook on Holocaust denial and distortion laws will aid in the understanding and application of these laws, by Michael Newman

On 27 January 2000, the 55th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, representatives of almost 50 countries convened in Sweden to attend the Stockholm International Forum that paved the way for the Stockholm Declaration. Through a series of commitments, the governments that went on to form the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) pledged to preserve the memory and uphold the truth of the Holocaust. Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson fortified delegates by noting, “The future we are shaping now is the past that we will share tomorrow.”

Today, reference to and reminders of the Holocaust can be seen and heard almost everywhere. One need only consider the proliferation of Holocaust scholarship, Holocaust museums, and cultural products in the form of films, books, and television programs dedicated to the subject. The Holocaust also exerts a powerful influence on many of our shared political norms, such as in a number of important UN conventions, international law on the conduct of war, and growing international awareness of a responsibility to prevent genocide. Yet, this important, international, and shared history rests on maintaining awareness of the Holocaust as an historical event of considerable complexity.

One indicator of how the Holocaust is (or is not) framed in public consciousness, and the inviolability of its message, are the Holocaust denial laws on the statute books within and outside of the IHRA Member Countries that could be used as a resource to preserve truth, combat distortion and denial, and secure the record of the Holocaust.

IHRA Project on Holocaust Denial and Distortion Laws

To meet its commitments, the IHRA is developing a project to map memory and Holocaust denial laws that will facilitate an objective dialogue about the awareness, efficacy and deployment of such legislation.

The project will culminate in the production of a Handbook that draws on the considered views of leading authorities and acclaimed scholars and jurists, each of whom responded to a series of questions, including (but not limited to):

  • whether their existence helps or hinders Holocaust remembrance
  • how the laws are actually used
  • whether such laws should be revised

Led by Robert Williams (USA) this project includes representatives from across IHRA delegations, including Suzanne Rutland (Australia), Brigitte Bailer (Austria), Oscar Österberg (Sweden) and Michael Newman (UK), as well as other members of the IHRA community.

A necessary tool to aid in the preservation of Holocaust memory

Two decades after Stockholm, the IHRA operates in a changed landscape. With the pernicious spread of Holocaust trivialization and distortion, coupled with mutated but ubiquitous antisemitism, the need to fully understand national laws designed to protect historical memory has become ever more urgent. 

Through the project it is envisaged we will achieve previously unrecognized insight into, and more nuanced perspectives about, how these laws are used.

As we move from living memory to historical record, we are acutely aware, too, of the changing demography that sees the weekly passing of the eye-witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust. Alongside this is the promotion of distorted narratives of national history where truth has become expendable.

A practical and versatile resource on Memory Laws

As well as recommending standards of practice that will aim to preserve the historical record of the Holocaust and prevent distortion and misuse of the Memory Laws, the Handbook will enhance the capacity for the IHRA to understand, respond to and advise on regulations and laws.

And, as it has done with its series of working definitions, the Handbook will strengthen the IHRA’s position as the leading authority on Holocaust remembrance. This go-to resource could be used both proactively to protect memory as well as in reaction to abuses of the law.

It is hoped that the publication of the Handbook will also inspire and encourage further research into these laws, not least on the historical context in which they were drafted, and stimulate discourse between scholars and policy and law-makers around the world, all with the objective to safeguard the historical record.

It is also envisaged that the Handbook could be used by educators, journalists, and those engaged in the advancement of human rights. The study of Holocaust denial laws can also inform our response to subsequent genocides and modern-day humanitarian disasters.

In 2022, the IHRA, whose Presidency rotates annually, returns to Sweden for the first time since Stockholm. While the tenets enshrined in the Stockholm Declaration have since been augmented by the 2020 Ministerial Declaration, the Handbook will expertly inform the public debate about the memory and history of the Holocaust. There can scarcely be a timelier or more needed resource.

Image: Family portraits, Auschwitz memorial museum permanent exhibition. Credit: IHRA.