As the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, I have articulated on many an occasion and have initiated many programs on the basis of the idea that the Holocaust should teach us profound lessons about hate in general. ADL has a variety of programs, for the FBI, the CIA, local law enforcement, teachers and students that embody these messages about what we need to learn about the horrors that took place in Europe before and during World War II.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, that infamous meeting where the Nazis formally adopted the “Final Solution” and put it into practice as state policy, however, it is a moment to focus on what was unique about the Holocaust amid the other atrocities and genocides of the modern era.
Wannsee, convened by SS leader Reinhard Heydrich on January 20, 1942 in an affluent Berlin suburb, was all about a modern state in one of the most civilized nations on earth committing itself to the systematic destruction of another people.
It is unique not only because of the decision itself but because of all the elements that it entailed. The Jews were defined in such a way that people who never considered themselves Jewish were taken away to the camps because they had Jewish blood in them. This racial component was taken to lengths that were unprecedented.
The Jews of Europe were not involved in any war against the Germans. They were unarmed civilians who lived in countries on both sides of the conflict but none of that mattered.
The Jews of Germany, the first victims, were loyal citizens of their country, not engaged in any illegal or violent actions against their homeland.
How did it come to pass that a state could make a willful decision to murder millions of innocent people in a planned way?
It could not have happened without centuries of anti-Semitism deeply embedded in the culture of Europe.
The ideas about Jews that set the stage for the Holocaust were around forever. In the minds of Jew-haters throughout the centuries -- and it was not easy growing up in Europe throughout the years to avoid some sort of prejudice toward Jews -- the Jew was not merely someone to dislike, but someone to fear.
On its face, this was absurd since Jews had no armies, no power to speak of, and lived second-class lives at best. But the notions about the Jew were in the realm of fantasy, bearing no connection to reality.
So the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, even though the Romans were the power and the users of crucifixions.
So the Jews were accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes though there was nothing in Jewish law or practice remotely resembling that idea.
So the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and causing the Black Plague though there was not a single case where this was shown to be true.
And in modern times, the fabricated document known as “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” allegedly the plan of Jews to take over the world, had zero connection to the real life of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.
What all these ideas had in common was not only how deeply they were believed by many, but that they shared a common insidious theme: that the reality about the Jew is not what it seems, apparent powerlessness hid sinister and powerful intentions and capabilities that were a threat to all.
The history of anti-Semitism in Europe, a pervasive phenomenon, was therefore necessary for what later transpired, but not sufficient.
What changed was the Nazi racial ideology, which brought to a halt the safety valves that constrained most extreme cases of violent Jew hatred.
One of those constraints was the possibility of Jewish conversion to Christianity. While most Jews had no interest in converting, the very fact that Jews could become someone else stood in the way of regular mass killings of Jews.
So too was the idea that Jewish survival in a despised condition was important as testimony to the truth of Christ. As obnoxious at it was, this notion of Jews as living testament to the truth of Christianity generally inhibited the most extreme solutions for the so-called “Jewish problem.”
The Nazi racial ideology closed off all escape routes. The Jewish threat to society was now described as permanent and impossible to live with. And so came about the horrible and seemingly inevitable conclusion to such phantasmagoric assumptions, the Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution.
As we commemorate that momentous event, we must learn once again the lessons for all of the power of hate. At the same time, we must remember that the Holocaust was a unique tragedy that did not come out of nowhere.