When I logged onto Twitter on the morning of September 11, the first thing that caught my eye was the trending hashtag #neverforget. I wondered briefly why these two words were trending – then, of course, I remembered it was 9/11. The reason I was confused is because I primarily associate the words ‘Never forget’ with the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular. I thought it would be interesting to delve into the history of this slogan, and to examine why it has become more universal in American culture.
When I was queuing outside the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., back in May, I saw people coming out of the building carrying bags from the giftshop. Slogans were printed on the side, including ‘Never forget’ but also ‘What would YOU do?’ and ‘Think about what you saw’. Out of context, these seem rather cryptic. ‘What would you do?’ is a question that is often implicitly asked in war museums as part of a strategy to keep the past relevant and alive. It implores visitors to identify with those who perished and put themselves in the shoes of who lived through the hell of trenches, air raids, concentration camps or battle. It’s kind of a loaded question in the case of the Holocaust. Dutch people like myself like to imagine we all would have been resistance heroes who sympathized with the Jews and stuck it to the Germans, which is, of course, a fantasy; the reality shows that most people did nothing to stop Jews from being rounded up and transported to the east, simply because they were too afraid of German repercussions. And who can blame them, really?
In the gift shop itself, I saw these phrases repeated everywhere around me, on coffee mugs, fridge magnets, stickers and T-shirts. At the time, I thought it was a strange way of preserving the memory of the Holocaust, but not entirely unexpected – I know Americans love a good slogan they can slap on a souvenir, from the ubiquitous ‘Nuts!’ I saw in Bastogne* to the ‘I love Utah Beach’ buttons sold at gift shops in Normandy. For most visitors to the museum, the memory of the Holocaust is not personal, but collective: a suffering on a large scale that has become part of American culture because of the many camp survivors who emigrated there after the war. While as individuals we have little control over what we remember and what we forget, on a larger, collective scale, memory is one of the most important tools a nation has. The way the words ‘Never forget’ are used is part of a strategy that determines which historical events are remembered, and which are forgotten. Some people I spoke to in the US were critical of the museum, because they felt the tragedy of the Holocaust had been adopted by the US as a national trauma as a cover-up for past tragedies committed by the US itself, such as the genocide of American Indians and the enslavement of black people. The Netherlands is hardly different; we still hold onto the image of being a small, innocent nation occupied by the big bad Germans, while conveniently forgetting that around the same time we were celebrating 300+ years of colonial oppression in the Dutch East Indies and West Indies.
In his book Nothing Ever Dies, which is about the Vietnam War, Viet Thanh Nguyen coins the idea of an ‘industry of memory’. He does not simply refer to the ‘cottage industry’ of things that are ‘easily bought and ironically forgettable’, such as the coffee mugs and key chains I saw at the museum. These represent only the surface of an industry of memory, as do museums, memorials, documentaries, et cetera. Sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ground Zero in New York are part of it too, giving people a chance to show, by inserting their themselves in that space, that what happened there is not forgotten. But the main elements, Nguyen argues, are ‘the ideas, ideologies, fantasies, and words that justify war, the sacrifices of our side, and the death of others.’ With certain forces in society deciding how and why memories are produced and circulated, it follows that the rich and powerful have control over this process, while the weak and the poor do not. They must make more of an effort to get their voices heard and their stories listened to. ‘Never forget’ represents an ideology: it has very clear connotations of who the victims and who the perpetrators are in the scenario of the Holocaust, and so, whose stories deserve to be remembered. And it is the same with 9/11. In that case, the words urge us to think of those who perished during the attacks on American soil, and not, or at least not immediately, of the victims from the ensuing war in the Middle East.
‘Never forget’ already has the connotations of martyrdom, which it inherited from being associated with the Holocaust. It’s not very surprising that the words are used for 9/11, which, though a completely different situation, calls up the similarly black-and-white ideas of victim and perpetrator, helplessness and aggression, and us versus them. Because of these connotations, the words implicitly justify the war the US waged in the Middle East and the death of others – the non-American victims. Interestingly, though, the definition has shifted to include the US military personnel who died or were wounded in the war that followed. A non-profit volunteer organisation called Operation Never Forgotten focuses on the more than 1.3 million veterans who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and still struggle with ‘invisible and physical wounds’ they sustained during that conflict. Thus, Operation Never Forgotten uses the words to raise awareness for those who took action and became aggressors themselves in a struggle that took place far away from American soil. The 9/11 campaign, on the other hand, uses the words to memorialise the martyrs who perished during the attack on American soil. The progression of the wars on terror in the Middle East has made them into something many Americans wish they could forget. And so, its veterans must fight to be recognized for what they did ‘over there’, to convince others that ‘Never forget’, in this case, justified the sacrifices of our side.
Earlier this year, controversy was stirred up when the phrase ‘Never again’, the second pillar of Holocaust commemoration, was used during the massive protests after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida. Though certain voices in the Jewish community took offense and felt that reappropriating the phrase was disrespectful to the Jewish cause, ‘Never Again is a phrase that keeps on evolving,’ this article in the Jerusalem Post said. ‘It was used in protests against the Muslim ban and in support of refugees, in remembrance of Japanese internment during World War II and recalling the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And now the phrase is taking on yet another life: in the fight for gun control in America.’ The article also states that many have begun to use ‘Never again’ in a more universal sense for the ‘warning signs’ of future genocides happening anywhere. What has happened with ‘Never forget’ is logical, following from humanity’s need to make sense of history by categorizing and labelling similar events.
Compared to the more subdued and antiquated ‘Lest we forget’, a slogan mostly used to refer to the First World War, ‘Never forget’ is a hand grabbing us by the collar, urging us, pleading with us, even commanding us to remember. Of course it is important to remember the dead. The reusing of phrases like ‘Never forget’ and ‘Never again’ in different environments does not make them less meaningful, I think, but more so. It puts pressure on the idea of a hierarchy of suffering, where some people’s suffering is more important than that of others. However, this is a thin line to walk when talking about the Holocaust, since all too often these days the very specific hate crimes targeting Jews are waved away with the argument that ‘other people suffered in the camps too’, making it seem as if there were no underlying ideology for the mass murder of the Jews. But when a certain type of memory becomes a commodity, it’s just as important to think of the memories of suffering that those in power do not want us to remember: the black pages in our history books that don’t sell any souvenirs. Those are the memories we as individuals have a duty to hold on to, without the aid of our coffee mugs.
*at one point during the Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes in 1944, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, General McAuliffe, received a letter from the German commander suggesting the Americans surrender. McAuliffe coined the famous reply: ‘To the German commander: NUTS!’, which has become symbolic for the endurance and spirit of the American soldiers.