Holocaust Remembrance Falters in Europe

Red lights are flashing. As world leaders gather in Jerusalem and Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, Europe’s report card on Holocaust Remembrance is worrying.

A year ago, the Holocaust Remembrance Project found numerous European Union countries commemorating collaborators and war criminals while minimizing their own guilt in the attempted extermination of Jews. Revisionism was worst in new Central European members – Poland, Hungary and Croatia, and Lithuania.

This year’s update finds new signs of concern, particularly in Western Europe:

  • Belgium dropped to a red rating, reflecting the rise of a revisionist far-right-wing Flemish party and a series of anti-Semitic incidents — which most mainstream Belgin politicians ignored and refused to condemn. The most notorious example occurred in the town of Aalst, where a carnival parade float “humorously” pictured puppets of Orthodox Jews and a rat atop money bags. The European Commission condemned the float. UNESCO dropped the Aalst Carnival from its world heritage list. But for all of 2019, Belgian politicians of all stripes refused to condemn it. Only last week did the Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever express his concern.
  • Germany fell to a yellow rating due to an increase in anti-Semitic attacks and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. AfD leaders often minimize the Holocaust. On Yom Kippur, a gunman attempted to break into a fortified synagogue in Halle to commit a mass shooting, leaving two dead. The gunman stated that he was motivated by far-right and anti-Semitic beliefs. The German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner has warned the country’s Jewish community to avoid donning yarmulkes. On the upside, the ruling coalition’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism remains strong. At last week’s Jerusalem ceremony, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a moving speech acknowledging these disturbing trends.
  • Italy stayed stuck at yellow. Racist and anti-Semitic chants scarred the country’s football stadiums.  Police guards were assigned to protect Lilian Segre, an 89-year-old Auschwitz survivor after she received hundreds of threats on social media.  Segre, an Italian senator, had called for parliament to establish a committee to combat hate. Although the motion passed, members of the nationalist League party, led by Matteo Salvini abstained. At the beginning of 2020, the government Italy adopted a universal definition of anti-Semitism and appointed a national coordinator of the fight against anti-Semitism.
  • France remains green, despite an alarming rise in anti-Semitism. A  staggering 70% of French Jews say they have been victims of anti-Semitism, 59% suffered physical abuse in school and 46% suffered verbal abuse at work, according to a new survey by the American Jewish Committee. At the same time, the government remains steadfast, led by strong statements from President Emmanuel Macron. The National Assembly voted last month in favor of a resolution that endorses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which also defines anti-Zionism as a form of Jew-hatred.

Little progress was observed throughout Central Europe, the site of Nazi killing grounds. The Baltics continue to host commemorations for anti-Soviet resistance fighters who collaborated with the Nazis. Hungary continues to downplay the role of Hungarians in deporting Jews. Croatia, despite taking over the EU presidency, continues to display an unclear attitude towards its wartime Ustasha regime.

Tensions remain in Poland over its law criminalizing suggestions that Poles contributed to the Holocaust. After Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Poland of collaborating with the Nazi regime, President Andrzej Duda rightfully denounced him of rewriting history and downplaying the full significance of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which divided Poland. Instead of staying on the moral high ground, however, Duda protested Putin’s speaking spot at last week’s Jerusalem commemoration by boycotting the event. The Lithuanian President followed his lead, also citing Putin’s presence.

This troubled landscape around Holocaust remembrance reflects our troubled times. Despite the clear evidence of how prejudice can lead to catastrophe, we ignore its lessons. The post-Cold War liberal world seemed to have put these demons to rest. Jews felt at home, both in my native United States and my adopted Belgium, facing little discrimination or danger. Today, this is no longer the case.

Defenders of our tolerant, multinational ideal must stand up. In a notable move, Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte apologized on January 26 for how his kingdom’s wartime government failed its Jews, a first by a Dutch sitting prime minister. Rutte offered “apologies for the government of those days, while the last survivors are still with us.”

Another sign of light over the past year has been the much-maligned European Union. In declaration after declaration, officials representing its 28 countries have stood up and declared that a Europe without treating Jews as full, patriotic citizens and promoting a flourishing Jewish life will be a betrayal of the European ideal.

In two strong resolutions, Brussels has outlined a series of measures that member governments should take, from appointing a senior official to fight anti-Semitism to ensuring mandatory Holocaust education. The new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has increased the budget and staffing of the office dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. As we move forward into a new decade, I plan to study and benchmark Europe’s performance in living up to these commitments to protect and promote Jewish life.

About the Author
William Echikson is the director of the Brussels office of the European Union of Progressive Judaism. Before joining the EUPJ, Mr. Echikson worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to bring the State of Deception exhibit on Nazi Propaganda to Europe. He also worked for six and a half years at Google running corporate communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa. He launched the company’s Europe blog and led its efforts around data center government affairs and Internet freedom Issues. Mr. Echikson began his career as a foreign correspondent in Europe for a series of US publications including the Christian Science Monitor. Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. From 2001 until 2007, he served as Brussels Bureau Chief for Dow Jones. Mr. Echikson also has written, directed and produced for television documentaries for BBC and America’s Public Broadcasting Service. He is the author of four books, including works on the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the history of the Bordeaux wine region. An American and Belgian citizen, Mr. Echikson graduated from Yale College with a Magna Cum Laude degree in history.
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