A new dilemma in hosting a German president

Can Israel finally take a major active step in this direction and not squander the opportunity presented by Gauck's visit.

GERMAN PRESIDENT Joachim Gauck (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ever since the end of World War II, the shadow of the Holocaust has naturally strongly influenced German-Jewish relations, and since the establishment of Israel, that subject is a permanent factor in the relations between the Federal Republic and the Jewish state. Thus a visit of a German president to Israel is unlike that of any other head of state and is of unique significance to both sides.
Over the years, such visits have contributed to the slowly-evolving process of reconciliation and cooperation which has developed between Germany and Israel and helped strengthen the ties between the two countries, despite the horrific and unforgivable crimes committed by the Third Reich against the Jewish people.
In that context, the visit to Israel this week of recently elected (this past March 18) German President Joachim Gauck poses a serious dilemma for Israeli leaders. For the first time ever, the visiting German head of state does not share the heretofore-accepted narrative of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its recognition as a sui generis event in the annals of mankind.
Given the fact that in Germany the primary function of the president, who does not have executive powers, is, in the words of the important German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung following Gauck’s election to the post, “to ensure that the people are provided with a compass for intellect and morals... [and] is responsible for endowing politics with meaning,” this is likely to prove extremely problematic for Israel and Jews the world over.
Gauck’s divergence from the narrative accepted by previous German presidents became public almost four years ago when he signed the Prague Declaration of June 3, 2008. This document, which was signed by more than two dozen mostly East European intellectuals and political leaders, promotes the canard of equivalence between Nazi and Communist crimes. It calls for specific practical steps which, if implemented, would undermine the justified current status of the Holocaust as a unique case of genocide unprecedented in human history.
Thus, for example, the Declaration calls for the designation of August 23 as a joint day of commemoration for all the victims of totalitarian regimes. In other words, all those murdered by the Nazis and the Communists. The choice of date in this case is indicative of the agenda.
August 23 was the date of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact signed in 1939 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The message conveyed by the choice of that date is that the Soviet Union, by signing the treaty with the Third Reich, in effect shares equal responsibility for the atrocities of World War II, a distorted view of the history of that conflict, which purposely ignores the indispensable role of the Red Army in defeating Nazi Germany, and falsely equates the regime which conceived, planned, built and ran the Auschwitz death camp, with the country whose armed forces liberated that death factory and effectively halted the mass annihilation conducted there.
NEEDLESS TO say, should this proposal ever be implemented, and a non-binding resolution calling for the designation of August 23 as a joint day of commemoration was already passed by a huge margin in the European Union, the future of the International Holocaust Memorial day established by the United Nations in 2005 would look extremely bleak.
Other initiatives called for by the Declaration would also pose a danger to the accepted Holocaust narrative, whether it is the call to rewrite European textbooks in the spirit of the equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes or the desire to establish a “European Institute of Memory and Conscience,” which would include a museum which would reflect that false equivalency and support the work of Eastern European research institutes, which since their establishment have focused exclusively on Communist crimes and purposely ignored those of the Nazis.
Prior to his election, President Gauck campaigned for civil rights in his native East Germany and was the director of the Stasi Archives, and as such one can understand his natural sensitivity to the crimes committed by the Communists, a sensitivity which might also have been significantly influenced by the arrest, while he was a youngster, of his own father by the East Germans.
Yet while there is a legitimate case to be made for greater recognition of Communist crimes and additional commemoration and concern for their victims, the attempt to do so by creating a false symmetry with the Holocaust is not only misguided, it is rooted in the dishonest ulterior motives of its main proponents in the post-Communist world, and particularly the Baltic countries, one of whose major goals is to rid themselves of the guilt for their extensive collaboration with Nazi Germany in the mass murder of Jews.
Thus if Communist and Nazi crimes are declared equivalent, thereby earning the former a false categorization as genocide, they in turn can point to the crimes of Jewish Communists and spare themselves the justified accusations previously levelled against them. If members of every nation, including even Jews, are guilty of the most terrible of crimes, then obviously no nation can be accused, and its members prosecuted. If the choice is between being a nation of killers and a nations of victims, what country would not opt for the latter?
After his election, President Gauck was quoted in the German daily Tageszeitung as saying that in the wake of the debate over his candidacy, he would “engage himself with new issues, problems, and people.” His visit to Israel is therefore an excellent opportunity for our political leaders to enter into dialogue with him and present the serious dangers posed by the Prague Declaration and the potentially terrible long-term effects of its practical proposals.
The question is, however, whether President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman are fully cognizant of this issue and willing to bring it to the table during their meetings with Gauck.
Until now, Israel has refrained from actively seeking to thwart the adoption of the Prague Declaration and its various recommendations, even in its bilateral contacts with far-less important countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which are its major proponents. It remains to be seen whether the Jewish state can finally take a major active step in this direction and not squander the opportunity presented by the visit this week of German President Joachim Gauck.
The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. His most recent book Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice was recently published in German under the title Operation Last Chance; Im Fadenkreuz des ‘Nazi-Jaegers’ by Prospero Verlag.