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Redeeming the Memory of the Holocaust

French president's plan shows promise but carries a potential problem.

In less than a year as the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy has consistently grabbed sensational headlines. Twice divorced, Sarkozy married a popular singer and former model in December 2007. More scandalous for France, he talks often about God, leaving some to believe he threatens the nation's strict separation of church and state.

Sarkozy's most recent controversy touches another nerve made sensitive by France's history. Last week he announced that every fifth-grader will learn about a French child killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The idea sounds rather innocuous to American ears, given the popularity of Anne Frank's diary. But to some critics, Sarkozy's plan will only disturb children. And they worry about how the growing population of Muslim immigrants will react. But there is another reason for caution: France has a troubled history of anti-Semitism. For centuries, Christians in France and other European countries lashed out at their Jewish neighbors in pogroms, ostensibly because the Jews killed Christ.

Then, decades before Hitler blamed Jews for all of Germany's problems, France endured the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer who was Jewish, was wrongfully convicted of treason in 1894. The Roman Catholic Church's criticism of Dreyfus, later released from jail, eventually led to legislation that further marginalized Christianity.

During World War II, France's powerful army suffered a strangely quick defeat to the Nazis. With the help of France's Vichy government, the Nazis eventually killed some 80,000 French Jews. Even today, French anti-Semitism can be potent. Remembering the Holocaust in France picks at a still-fresh scab.

Sarkozy's plan builds on the shared Jewish and Christian belief that memory is essential. God repeatedly calls the Israelites to remember "the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Deut. 8:14). This act humbles them. Forgetting is unfaithful. New Testament leaders are called to remember the Cross and Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-4), which supplant the Exodus as the ultimate acts of redemption. Memory also serves to warn believers. The Old and New Testaments alike tell readers to remember and heed the experience of the generation that disobeyed God and wandered in the wilderness (Deut. 8:19; Heb. 3).

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has devoted his life to preaching the message that memory guards us against repeating the sins of the past. He has turned his memories of the Auschwitz death camp into renowned peace activism. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Wiesel described how he coped with losing his family to Hitler's gas chambers. After the war he found comfort in the belief that "the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil … the memory of death will serve as a shield against death." Indeed, Wiesel exclaimed that "if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity."

Yale Divinity School theologian Miroslav Volf engages with Wiesel's beliefs in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Like Wiesel, Volf sees a crucial purpose for memory. "Memory ought to serve that grand vision of reconciliation God is working to create — as Jonathan Edwards has said — the 'world of perfect love,' love of God and love of neighbor," he told me in a CT interview.

Still, memory doesn't always work this way. Such was the case in Volf's native Croatia, torn apart by national enmity no one would forget. He writes in The End of Memory, "And so it happens with public remembering: the protective shield of memory often morphs into a vicious sword, and the just sword of memory often severs the very good it seeks to defend."

The hope Christians have — the escape from the deadly cycle — is rooted in the Cross, which Jesus told his disciples to remember through the Lord's Supper, and the historic fact of the Resurrection. If Christians are wrong about these, they are truly pathetic (1 Cor. 15:19).

But Christianity is incomplete without another hope: vindication for those wronged. Patiently anticipating the return of Jesus Christ, we can forgive. This is our hope for escaping the dark side of memory.

Verse for the Fortnight

"I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins."

Isaiah 43:25

Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Crossway, 2008).

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