Exhibition to challenge narrative that genocide happened in the shadows
A new Imperial War Museums gallery will challenge visitors to “beware the Holocaust because you could have been a perpetrator”.
It is believed the £30m gallery will become the first in the world focusing on the Holocaust to be integrated with a second world war gallery when it opens in London. It seeks to re-examine the narrative of the genocide of millions of Jews and others, who are being commemorated on Wednesday on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Taking a robust view of perpetrators, it will say: “The men – and women – who did this, they weren’t unaware of what they were doing,” said the lead historian on the project, James Bulgin.
“In many other respects they were relatively normal; they had kids, social lives, did the things we all do. And they also killed people. It wasn’t a machine that killed people, which is what Holocaust galleries and representation have tended to suggest.”
While the Holocaust has attracted a great amount of historical and scholarly attention, with about 4,000 new books a year, the temptation had been to “push it to the margins”, to think of it in isolation and separate from what was going on elsewhere, he said.
The galleries – due to open in the autumn and with a fundraising appeal still running – will be brightly lit. Most such exhibitions are dimly lit because the subject is dark. “But that suggests it happened in the shadows, that nobody really knew about it, and the only way we can response to it is through silence. We think that is problematic. Because it happened in daylight, and it happened over a vast, vast landscape,” Bulgin added.
The Holocaust has become defined by centralised “tropes” – Auschwitz, trains, people being selected left and right on ramps, anonymous piles of shoes. Yet the majority of those murdered weren’t selected like that, except at Auschwitz. It happened because of European rail networks, collaboration between different people and organisations and businesses across Europe working together, Bulgin added.
Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List, was an outlier regarded by contemporaries as a “psychotic, radicalised dangerous individual”. “The tendency to make him the metonym for all Nazis is comforting,” said Bulgin, “because you think he’s so far away from me, he’s nothing like me.
“But the vast majority of the people responsible for these things were infinitely more ordinary and more normal than that.”
The galleries would challenge the “ongoing, persistent determination to think of the perpetrators as brainwashed, hyper-radicalised people”.
“That’s not how it really was. Holocaust museums for years have been asking visitors: ‘Beware the Holocaust because you could have been a victim.’ I suppose we are thinking: ‘Beware the Holocaust because you could have been a perpetrator.’”
Through testimonies and artefacts, it would aim to take victims out of victimhood, Bulgin added, to see them as “people who were born, who were living their lives, and the interruption of those lives shouldn’t be the only thing that defines them”.
Objects loaned from institutions across the world will include a V-1 flying bomb – or doodlebug – that will occupy a space between the Holocaust gallery and the second world war gallery. Other artefacts include the birth certificate of Eva Clarke, who miraculously survived after being born in Mauthausen camp in Austria days before liberation.
The emphasis will be on the contemporary, with testimonies only from the time, to illustrate how events were perceived as they unfolded. The word Holocaust is not used, as it was applied post-genocide.
Poppy Cooper, the head of projects at Imperial War Museums, said: “The academic thinking about the Holocaust has moved on significantly in 20 years.
“The Holocaust would not have happened in the way it did had the second world war not happened in the way it did. It isn’t really understood how inextricably linked they are.”