On August 17, 1987 Rudolf Hess, a convicted Nazi War Criminal, the sole inmate of Berlin’s Spandau Prison, was found dead. He had hanged himself. The following year, mourners held the first annual Rudolph Hess Memorial March in his honor. Since then, the march has become an important event on the neo-Nazi calendar and a yearly networking opportunity. One year it drew as many as 3,800 participants.
In Hungary, there is the yearly Day of Honor, which features swastika flags, Hitler portraits, and demonstrators in Waffen-SS uniforms. Police have tried to ban the march, but the Supreme Court of Hungary has held that it’s protected under freedom of assembly.
In Bulgaria, the Lukov March honors the memory of the Nazi collaborator Hristo Lukov. Although organizers purport to honor him as a “patriotic hero,” he was in fact a war criminal who helped deport 11,000 Jews to Treblinka.
Similarly, Nazi collaborators are glorified on the Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires. There, every year, participants honor members of the Latvian SS units. Marchers display swastikas and sing SS anthems.
In Poland, far-right groups have co-opted the yearly Independence Day celebration by holding a march to promote antisemitism and extreme nationalism. Polish skinheads held the first march in 1996 and it became an annual event in 2006. By 2011, it was attracting more than 10,000 participants. Antisemitic slogans, banners, and chants are featured prominently.
These marches and others like them are the subject of an important new report published by B’nai B’rith International, titled On Europe’s Streets: Annual Marches Glorifying Nazism. “The common thread of these marches,” B’nai B’rith says, “is antisemitism, as well as denial and distortion of the Holocaust and the glorification of Nazi war criminals and their collaborators.” This includes the use of slogans, signs, and “shows of force in front of Jewish communal buildings or Holocaust memorial sites.” It also includes the use of common antisemitic tropes and the usual conspiracy myths. The result is “an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for targeted communities.”
“Holocaust distortion,” B’nai B’rith reports, “often takes the form of an inversion of roles between perpetrator and victim.” For example, the Memorial March for the Bombing of Dresden commemorates victims who died in a “Holocaust by bombs.” Thus, the memory of the true victims of Nazi genocide is misappropriated.
The marches also foster pan-European far-right ideology and alliances of extremists. Indeed, they are “one of the main avenues of right-wing extremist mobilization.” A common element of this is the “myth that Jews have sown discord between the European peoples and that World War II was a ‘fratricidal war’ between cultures that should belong together.”
For the most part, available remedies have failed. “Despite existing Europe-wide legal frameworks that ban Holocaust denial, gross distortion of the Holocaust, hate speech inciting to violence and other behaviors synonymous with these marches, they have persisted for decades, with scant intervention from relevant authorities.” Indeed, “in many cases in which marches glorifying Nazism and/or fascism persist with impunity, it is with the acquiescence or active participation of those charged with the responsibility to take action against them.” When complaints of antisemitic incitement or Holocaust denial are filed with judicial authorities, prosecutors and judges summarily dismiss them. Moreover, Jewish communities concerned about their safety “are often portrayed as oversensitive.”
In response to these issues, B’nai B’rith offers a thorough legal analysis. This includes a review of applicable European laws, as well as the legal frameworks of the Council of Europe and the European Union. The report also reviews the relevant case law of the European Court of Human Rights.
Continuing, the report provides a preliminary legal evaluation of the twelve marches it covers. And it highlights the existing instruments available to combat hate speech, Holocaust denial and other problems associated with the marches. It then concludes: “Both international and European-national legal frameworks already include proper instruments for banning assemblies that promote totalitarian ideologies, racial or religious hatred, genocide denial, or incite to violence.”
To effectively apply those instruments, B’nai B’rith recommends a holistic approach that includes “legislation, enforcement, public pressure and education.” Bans issued by legal authorities must be implemented. Transnational networks of far-right extremists should be monitored. The EU should be urged “to ban the sale of Nazi-related symbols, memorabilia, and literature”
Finally, B’nai B’rith emphasizes that it’s important to “encourage civil society at the grassroots level to raise awareness” of these issues. And that, of course, is where their report comes in. It’s required reading for anyone concerned about European antisemitism.