How many words have you read today? How many have you spoken? Or written? Or heard? Words are sometimes nothing more than the wallpaper to our lives - in the background and often ignored. But words can also be the most powerful weapon we have.
This year, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chose the power of words as the theme for the day, marked on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We chose this so that we can reflect on how significant and influential words have been in the past – to destroy, to resist, to witness and to bring people together. Today, words are no less important, and with social media, can reach more people and in greater volume than ever before.
I want to focus on just two words – Holocaust and Genocide.
Of all the horrific aspects of the Holocaust, I always think the speed with which it came about is one of the most terrifying. In 1931, would any German - Jew or non-Jew – have thought that within ten short years there would be concentration camps operational, and murder happening on an industrial scale across swathes of Europe, with millions of Jews already killed in ghettoes, camps and forests?
The conditions that allowed this to take place meant a cultural and legal embedding of latent (and sometimes, not so hidden) antisemitism on a vast scale.
Propaganda was deliberately used across every sphere of life – children’s toys, school books, posters in shop windows, newspaper articles and so on - and targeted carefully in differentiated ways at children, young people and adults.
Words were used purposefully to stereotype, foster division, whip up prejudice and, ultimately, to persecute. Without a cultural acceptance of the language and ideas used in these ways and the normalisation of separation and discrimination, the later steps that led to the Holocaust could never have taken place.
On Holocaust Memorial Day we also mark the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. These are all atrocities where alleged perpetrators have been indicted for the crime of ‘genocide’ at an international tribunal.
In each of these cases we see similar processes at work with language used to denigrate and divide communities. The Khmer Rouge repeatedly used divisive slogans to spread fear and to dehumanise those they wanted out of the way.
But it’s not just in the past that we see language being used to deliberately divide and harm.
Today, our world often feels fragile, our society divided and suspicious. A recent parliamentary committee has heard evidence of the abuse suffered by parliamentary candidates - abuse that has frequently been misogynistic and anti-Semitic. This abuse is not confined to those who seek public office and take on a higher profile as part of that work. Ordinary citizens have been intimidated online and subject to vicious attacks, simply for who they are – for example, Jewish, Muslim or female.
Sometimes words are used without fully realising the consequences caused – but on many occasions this hurt and offence is precisely the outcome sought.
Yet at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust we know that hundreds of thousands of people across the country reject the language of division, and want to come together to commemorate the past, and do more to create a safer, better world. We anticipate approximately 8,000 local events across the UK to mark Holocaust Memorial Day this year – an astonishing number each bringing people together in a positive show of togetherness and defiance in every corner of the country.
Find your local event by visiting http://hmd.org.uk/.