In a media-driven world where not a week goes by without some reference to Hitler, the Nazis or Auschwitz it may seem perverse to worry about how secure is the memory of the Holocaust.
But, in the week that we mark national Holocaust Memorial Day, what is at stake is not whether we choose to remember, but what form that memory takes and how far we are prepared to confront our past and seek to understand it.
Acts of public memory about the Holocaust are both important and remarkable: mass murder has been perpetrated across the world, at all times, but few such crimes have become part of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
The story of genocide has largely been a history of forgetting: for centuries communities have written out of the historical record their mass murder of other human groups. Yet even as we remember the Holocaust it is so often with a positive spin, a hope for the future - a redemptive, uplifting and empowering story. Why is this? Does a perspective that so focuses upon the future actually allow us to avoid dealing with the past, even as we commemorate it?
The Holocaust is in danger of being distilled into a moral fable for our times. It presents us with three stark examples of human behaviour: those who killed, those who resisted, and the 'bystanders' - those who took no active role. Typically, a story is presented of killers as fanatical racists (or even as 'victims' themselves: the myth that if they did not kill, they would be executed); rescuers as those who 'dared to care' - the role model for the active liberal citizen; and the rest: the mass who didn't care enough, or were too powerless or frightened to do anything.
The Holocaust, then, presents us with a very serviceable past with seemingly clear moral lessons - 'the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing'; but the past is only ever so serviceable when it is simplified to the point of distortion. Closer examination of the historical record allows us more nuanced understandings of people's behaviour, motivation and intent. The picture of the past that is then revealed is far more complex - and far more unsettling - than anticipated.
We discover that there is no record of anyone being killed or sent to a concentration camp for refusing to murder Jewish people, while there are records of people refusing to murder who were simply given other duties. So how do we explain the thousands of so-called 'ordinary men' who murdered? While Nazi antisemitic ideology was the driving motivation of many decision-makers and killers, others participated in mass shootings because of peer pressure, ambition or a warped sense of 'duty'.
And the killers were not limited to fanatical young men in SS uniforms. In a picturesque Austrian town, local women, elderly men and teenage boys joined in the hunt for escaped Soviet prisoners of war and murdered them. In a village in Burgenland local people deported the extended family of their Roma (Gypsy) blacksmith but kept the blacksmith himself rather than losing his skills. What can we say about whole communities becoming part of persecution and mass murder?
There is no real 'template' for the type of person who became a rescuer - no common denominator in terms of age, gender, nationality, social class, political outlook. There were rescuers who were antisemitic but who still risked their lives to save Jews, while others with more enlightened views did nothing. So what model do the rescuers give us, exactly?
And who could truly said to be a 'bystander' when everywhere ordinary people enriched themselves at public auctions where they bought the possessions of their deported neighbours. Where is the line between collaborator and bystander? The past reveals a shocking truth: you do not need to hate anyone to be complicit in genocide.
Essentially the moral lessons that the Holocaust is often used to teach reflect much the same values that were being taught in schools before the Holocaust, and yet - in themselves - were evidently insufficient to prevent the genocide. Notions of tolerance and of human rights have been advocated since the Enlightenment; belief in the intrinsic value of human life, the 'golden rule' of treating others as you would have them treat you, ideas of kindness, courage, charity and goodwill to those in need are all part of the ethical and moral teaching that have underpinned the values of Western society for centuries. And yet it was from that same society that the Holocaust sprang. What are the deeper flaws in our so-called 'civilisation' that allowed Europe to descend so completely into genocide, and what are we doing today to examine them?
So as we attend our ceremonies and we light our candles it is right to hope that more people may be moved to 'stand up and speak out' against injustice. But let us not move too quickly away from our reflection on why and how, not long ago and not far from where we live, everywhere across Europe people became complicit in the murder of their Jewish neighbours.
Unless commemoration is accompanied by detailed study and depth of understanding, the memory of the Holocaust will remain shallow and insecure.