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What didn’t start World War II: Memory, commitment, and history, 75 years later

European countries must reflect on their histories without idealized lenses; only then will they be able to challenge contemporary anti-Semitism
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

Remembrance, introspection, commitment — these were the themes of the World Holocaust Forum that convened at Yad Vashem a week ago, on January 23, 2020, symbolically marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem

Anti-Semitism was central to Nazi Germany’s ideology and policymaking, and as such was a cause of World War II and its unprecedented carnage. And anti-Semitism has not become a vestige of history; it has again reared its ugly head in recent years. The Fifth World Holocaust Forum aimed to rise above political disputes and focus on these themes, on which all participants and their respective societies agree. The relevance of these themes today is self-evident. The expressions of deep concern at the rise in anti-Semitic abuse and violence, the fear of many Jews to walk the streets openly as Jews, and the shame at lessons unlearned from the past united the leaders in affirming their commitment to remember the Holocaust and to address anti-Semitism today.

The presence alone of these leaders declaring their commitment to tackling contemporary anti-Semitism, as well as their own countries’ part in the events of the Holocaust, makes it most regrettable that the president of Poland was absent.

But now that the event is behind us, we can ask ourselves about the facts of this history that have been cited, disputed, and so widely discussed in recent weeks. Below are some issues on which there is widespread consensus among historians.

Pre-war Anti-Semitism and What Facilitated the War and the Holocaust

Nazi Germany was responsible for the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939. It was Germany that sought war and prepared its armed forces with this in mind. Poland was the first country victimized by this war, suffering an extremely brutal, murderous occupation in which its territory was divided between two powers and its populations terrorized by the Nazis.

Anti-Semitism was widespread in much of pre-war Europe. Pre-war Poland was rife with anti-Jewish sentiment — from government, Church, and other leadership circles down through much of Polish society. At the same time, it is also clear that these factors did not cause or facilitate the war.

The Soviet pact with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed on August 23, 1939, also did not cause the war, but the Pact’s appended secret protocol certainly facilitated Germany’s invasion of Poland, while arranging a division of Poland and of other countries between Nazi Germany and the USSR. The Soviet Union then strived to maintain good relations with Germany.

Regarding the roles of local populations and leaders in the Holocaust, cooperation and collaboration with Germany was extensive in most countries across Europe. In this sense, the Holocaust was a German-initiated and German-led European project, facilitated in many cases by various ethnic interests and often enthusiastic local involvement. Those who actively opposed what Germany, its allies, and its collaborators were doing to the Jews were generally a small minority. Without Nazi Germany, there would have been no Holocaust, but without extensive collaboration, alongside widespread indifference, the extent of the persecution and mass murder might not have been so great.

The Jews, Other Victims, and Changing the Subject

In recent years, some leaders have competed regarding the countries to which the murdered Jews “belonged.” Some might question the sincerity of many leaders today wanting to claim the Jewish victims as their own, while their countries seemed far less concerned with this before, during, or even for years after the Holocaust. Yet, this topic raises further questions: of borders at different times, as well as of how the Jews identified themselves. Yad Vashem and other institutions relate to the pre-war borders as being the relevant baseline for discussion. Thus, Poland was conquered and divided by two powers in 1939. Each country had its story. On the eve of World War II, there were some 3,300,000 Jews in Poland and just over 3,000,000 in the USSR. On June 22, 1941, the day of the German invasion of the USSR, approximately 1,800,000 Jews lived in German-occupied Poland, and 5,000,000 in the USSR, including Eastern Poland and other Soviet-annexed territories of 1939-1940. So, if approximately 3,000,000 Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust according to pre-war borders and citizenship, nearly half of these Jews were technically part of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, though few of them viewed themselves as Soviet. More attention should be given to these victims’ lives and deaths, rather than to their often-misleading national attribution.

An additional oft-discussed subject is who were the victims of the Nazis, and who were the victims of the Holocaust? The Nazi regime planned a “Final Solution” for one group, the one they identified as an evil, inhuman anti-race that endangered the very existence of the world – the Jews. This is the reason for the mass murder of the Jews and the attempts to destroy their history and culture. At the same time, many other groups were targeted by the Nazi regime (or their partners) for harsh treatment that included large-scale murder. That the Roma of Europe were targeted with genocide, even if not total extermination, is unquestionable. Similarly, it can be convincingly argued that the Nazi regime planned a genocide of the Polish people by killing a minority while destroying their possibility to exist as a distinct nation. Germany also discussed a postwar “General Plan for the East” that intended to murder millions of Slavs, while enslaving the majority and integrating some of the younger children into the “Aryan” race.

Finally, it is clear that, once invaded, the Soviets played a major role in defeating Nazi Germany. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945, and went on to extend Soviet rule over many countries. The new Communist regimes, widely resented by the subjugated peoples, were largely imposed by the USSR through local Communists. These regimes committed many crimes, but these were not the Holocaust. The painful history of Stalin and Communism is a complex and separate subject.

Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism 75 Years Later

The Fifth World Holocaust Forum called on the participants, and through them all people, to engage in serious introspection and to face their own histories forthrightly and not through idealized lenses. For this, leaders should learn and internalize historical facts on which there is broad scholarly consensus based on free research. On that basis, the participants were also called upon to face the worrying challenges of contemporary anti-Semitism with redoubled commitment, so that, collectively, we can ensure a better world in which persecution and murder based on a person’s religious or other affiliations truly become relegated to our history books.

About the Author
Dr. David Silberklang is Senior Historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. He served as Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal Yad Vashem Studies for more than 23 years and was also a long-term member of Israel’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
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