Sir Andrew Burns: Teaching the lessons of the Shoah

Sir Andrew Burns

From 2010 to 2015, Sir Andrew Burns was the United Kingdom’s first special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, a position created to ensure that “the lessons of this terrible period in our history are never forgotten,” according to the government at the time. Prior to that, Burns was the U.K.’s ambassador to Israel from 1992 to 1995 and High Commissioner to Canada from 2000 to 2003.

Sir Andrew (he was knighted in 1997) is an expert in the transnational effects of the Holocaust – how countries combat anti-Semitism and deal with Holocaust denial or distortion.

The CJN interviewed him prior to his address that closed Holocaust Education Week in Toronto.

What did your position as the U.K.’s first special envoy for post-Holocaust issues entail?

Over the last 20 years, there’s been a lot more international co-operation on post-Holocaust issues of remembrance, education and research, and there came a point where the British government felt that it wanted a more senior figure to lead the British delegations on this front. It’s a mixture of government, policy-makers, experts, academics, educators, curators and so on.

I spent five years raising the profile and setting a strategy for the British government on these matters. There were three international bodies involved. One was the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is an intergovernmental body of more than 30 countries that brings together policy-makers and Holocaust experts in remembrance, education and research. And then there was the International Tracing Service, which is a major archive based in Germany, but run by some of the former wartime allies. It brings together the records of the concentration camps liberated by the Allies at the end of the war and has been a major source of information about the people who passed through the concentration camps. Other organizations have dealt with issues like looted art and properties and the problems of post-Holocaust remembrance.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which Canada is a member, has a membership of just 31 countries. Why so few?

Well, it began with three countries and has grown very steadily and quite rapidly in recent years. It includes almost all the countries of Europe – except Russia and Ukraine – but also Canada, the United States, Israel, Argentina – and Australia wants to become a member. It’s spreading its wings. It’s about a common understanding of the significance of the Holocaust and what needs to be done. The standard for admission is acceptance of the declaration issued in Stockholm in 2000 at the end of a big conference there convened by the Swedish prime minister. Actually, there were about 50 countries present. We’ve got 31 full members. I think there are two current candidates and seven observers, so we’re up to 40. There are seven or eight international organizations that are permanent observers. So it’s a pretty representative body of countries that had a direct relationship with the Holocaust in Europe. There are many countries elsewhere that are concerned about genocide issues, prejudice, anti-Semitism and anti-minority themes. Some of them take an interest in what we do, some will have other bodies, perhaps of a more regional nature to attach to. They’re part of a pretty rich international pattern of concern.


What is meant by the “transnational effects of the Holocaust?”

The experience of the Holocaust varied very considerably from country to country. Some were completely overwhelmed by the Nazi determination to eliminate all Jews. Others were less directly affected, like the U.K. or Canada. But as the years pass and survivors become fewer, the greater concern within the Jewish community, but much more widely than that, is that what happened may be forgotten.

The Holocaust, although it directly affected Jews and other groups, like the Roma and Sinti, has universal significance. The significance lies as much in what non-Jews did or did not do: the role of the bystanders, the role of indifference, as well as the role of the perpetrator. As the first-hand testimony from survivors and victims dies out, it’s important the world consolidates the message of why it’s important to teach about the Holocaust, to stand up against Holocaust denial and distortions, to stand up against anti-Semitism, and why it’s important to build cultures of remembrance so that policy-making in the future can be historically based.

What are the other major tasks ahead in Holocaust education and remembrance?

At the moment, most governments are deeply concerned at the apparent rise in anti-Semitism and the way in which, as part of that, Holocaust denial features. That is something we would be concerned about. Anti-Semitism fuelled the Holocaust and it’s a real tragedy to see it bursting out in different ways in different societies. Is it bursting out because people have lost an understanding of why it happened in the first place? The lessons are about not allowing the political discourse in any society to get coarse. The more it coarsens, the easier it is for hate speech to turn into hate crime. Things began with words in the 1930s and ended in violence, and that’s the lesson throughout.

The priority at the moment is to safeguard the record and make sure the archives are kept open – that sensitivities about privacy don’t lead one to embrace the right to be forgotten, when in fact, the whole point is the right to remember who the vast numbers of victims were. Not only do you have the Nazi extermination camps in Poland, but further east, there are killing fields, quarries, wells, ditches, forest sites and so on. How does one protect the memory of those sites so that later generations can’t say, “Are you sure this ever happened? There’s no sign of it.”

Safeguarding the record is one thing. Countering Holocaust distortion and anti-Semitism is a second priority. Another priority is how one uses the lessons of the Holocaust to fight against a resurgence of genocide elsewhere. And that’s a very difficult question: What is it that the Holocaust taught us? What could have been applied to stop the killing of the Rohingya in Burma? When and what could one have done?

What do you think is driving the resurgence of right-wing populism around the world, and do you see it as a worrisome trend?

All governments in Europe and beyond have a problem: that of having governed more or less from the centre for many years, the population gets disillusioned and turns to alternative solutions. They’re going to turn to more extreme points of view. And that’s the real challenge for all centrist parties.

I think a lot of problems derive from the rapidity of change in life. It’s a cliché, but the advent of the Internet and social media has brought about change of a very dramatic kind that is not well regulated or well understood in some areas, and a lot of people feel it’s a bit out of control. And I think that leads voters in many countries to look for perhaps overly simple solutions and more decisive solutions than they feel governments have been coming out with in recent decades. I think liberal democracy took a hell of a beating during the 2008 financial crisis, and that’s still playing out. I think there are a lot of reasons why people are distrustful of governments and are casting around for something a bit more decisive. You have some governments offering alternative proposals. You can see it in Poland, Hungary, Italy, Austria, Brazil. Many other countries have a desire for that, so it’s not surprising, but it’s important that populations don’t forget what the dangers are.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.