It has taken decades for the international community to deal with the Holocaust in a really serious way. Perhaps a new generation first had to emerge with sufficient courage to ask about the causes of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe” and to look into the abyss of its inconceivable barbarity.
Today, Holocaust commemorations have become an integral part of political culture, at least in Western democracies. In November 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations established the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and fixed its date on Jan. 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This year marks its sixth commemoration.
Remembering the victims of the Shoah will remain of paramount importance. However, it should not become a frozen ritual. The authors of the U.N. resolution recognized that, too. Remembering the victims of the Holocaust, according to the decision of the world organization, should also prevent the recurrence of genocide in the future.
For that reason, Jan. 27 is a suitable time to ask the question: How far has this idea been internalized?
On the positive side, we can note that the democracies of today are seriously trying to clamp down on and combat anti-Semitism. Despite that, we should not allow ourselves any breaks in the fight against anti-Semitic propaganda. It would appear, unfortunately, that the evil specter of Jew hatred will not disappear and will constitute a danger. For this reason, politicians and society are always obliged to heed the warning: “Beware of history repeating itself.”
However, the greatest physical threat facing the Jews of today does not come from Jew haters in Europe but from those in the Middle East, where fanatics demand and relentlessly plan the obliteration of Israel. Their vicious schemes have not been constrained by the family of nations in an efficient way. This especially applies to the Iranian regime, which brazenly continues to develop nuclear weapons, striving to realize its threats of annihilation against Israel.
The international community’s failure in the face of the fanatic Ayatollah regime not only has a strategic aspect but also an ethical one. Despite its blatant genocidal plans, Iran is accepted worldwide as a partner only too frequently—in the West as well. Iranian politicians gallivant around the globe and are received respectfully by their counterparts. Too many companies, including Germany, of all places, unscrupulously carry on their business with a regime that has declared hatred of Jews a supreme command.
Other powers in the Islamic world, such as Hamas, which has openly and explicitly declared the intention to wipe Israel off the map, and whose charter demands the persecution of all Jews, are not confronted by universal ostracism. This is shocking; indeed, it remains a cause for alarm.
It is hardly surprising that the Israelis only have limited trust in the international community. The basic assumption of Israeli policy is that friendships are indeed important, but Israel must be ready to fight its fateful battles alone—exactly as the Jewish state has had to in the past. The acute threat to Israel also imposes a particular responsibility on Jewish people dwelling outside the borders of Israel. Thus our support for Israel is ongoing, solid and essential. It is not a question of ideology but a question of decency, a commitment of the Jewish soul, because all Jews in the world are responsible for one another.
Following the Shoah this old principle has assumed an entirely new dimension and moral depth.
The question also must be asked on this Remembrance Day: Could the Holocaust have been prevented? After all, the murder of 6 million Jews did not occur in a vacuum. The Final Solution was preceded by years of acquiescence to the Hitler regime by the major powers of that time. A peak of appeasement was the Munich Agreement of Sept. 30, 1938, whereby Czechoslovakia was ceded to the Third Reich by its protectors, France and Great Britain. In fact, that was a shameful, almost unforgivable betrayal.
However, opportunities to put Hitler back in his place had been missed already in the first years of Nazi rule. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union also made a grave error in judgment by putting its trust in its non-aggression pact with Hitler.
“Alternative history” can be written in science fiction novels, but not in real life. However, we can learn lessons from past failures. In this case the lesson would read: Eager capitulation to aggressors ends in fiasco. Therefore, the free world must never collaborate with dictators that threaten it. It should in no way rely on the belief that the aggression of the bullies is only directed at supposedly “unimportant” populations or targets—such as the Jews—or against “unimportant” countries.
No less disastrous are the attempts of world powers to utilize unpredictable aggressors for their short-term interests. However different historical circumstances may be, there are still constants, namely the dictators’ marked instinct to zero in on the obvious weaknesses of free societies and their tendency to forge alliances against freedom. And, naturally, the subjugated and oppressed citizens of the rogue regimes are the first to suffer at the hands of their “own” dictators.
As Jews, we are obliged to act to protect our coreligionists wherever they may live. Yet as representatives of a religion, a community and a culture that has developed universal moral values, we must also campaign for the welfare of all mankind. Without ever disregarding the uniqueness of the Shoah, we cannot remain silent when tragedies threaten other people, when other population groups are in distress and risk forfeiting their freedom and their rights, by remaining silent in the face of the evil.
Tikkun olam—improving the world—remains our great moral duty. Let us try to live up to this goal ourselves and hope that others will join us.
That is the message for all of us on Jan. 27.
Dr. Dieter Graumann is president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.