Reflections 75 years after outbreak of Second World War

The good news since the end of World War II is that, so far, the Holocaust has not been repeated, although unfortunately many other terrible events have occurred.

Child Holocaust survivors (photo credit: REUTERS)
Child Holocaust survivors
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week we mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of World War II, the most lethal war in human history. Approximately 50 million people lost their lives in World War II – the majority of them were not combatants, but rather innocent civilians.
The conflict included the Holocaust, the worst case of genocide in the annals of mankind, and the tragedy has become a symbol of “man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.”
The war is often perceived as a struggle between the epitome of evil and those who fought the immoral monsters of the Third Reich and their Japanese and Italian allies to save democracy. In reality, the historical situation was more complicated. The German regime was defeated by a coalition of genuine democracies and the totalitarian Soviet Union. The threat to the future of Europe and Western civilization justified cooperation with Stalin, despite his terrible crimes and abuse of human rights.
Revelations of the true scope of Nazi crimes and the Holocaust in particular fed a determination in the US and its Western European allies to ensure that such atrocities would not be repeated. To that end, the United Nations was created, the Nuremberg Trials were conducted and the Genocide Convention created.
A slogan which reflected that determination – repeated ad nauseam ever since – was “Never Again.” The meaning of the slogan obviously depended on who used it, but it is generally assumed to mean that, in the future, no other group should suffer the fate of European Jewry under Nazi rule.
The good news since the end of World War II is that, so far, the Holocaust has not been repeated, although unfortunately many other terrible events have occurred.
Some of them are more or less similar to the Holocaust, although none of them actually replicate the original sin of decimating European Jewry during the Shoah. Biafra, Cambodia and more recent cases like Rwanda and Darfur, to name just a few, evoke memories of the Holocaust, and demonstrate the Western world’s failure to live up to the noble intentions embodied in the slogan “Never Again.”
A case could be made that part of the failure stems from insufficient efforts to bring those guilty of the earlier crimes to justice. In fact, only a small percentage of people who committed Holocaust crimes were ever investigated, let alone prosecuted and punished. The same applies to the perpetrators of crimes in succeeding tragedies. Had it been otherwise, perhaps subsequent atrocities could have been avoided, or at least confined to a smaller scale. We will never know for sure, but it is absolutely clear to me that the deterrent effects of properly administered justice must be strengthened through more effective implementation.
In recent years, the subject has gained ever greater exposure. There has been an enormous upsurge in Holocaust- related activities, as more people study the Holocaust at different educational levels, and many countries made Holocaust study a required part of the school curriculum.
Two other innovations contributed to Holocaust awareness: the 2005 UN resolution to designate January 27 as an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, and the establishment of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to promote Holocaust education.
The delegitimization of Holocaust denial in mainstream Western society has been important. Progress in this direction is based on revelations and documentary proof of Holocaust crimes, thanks to decades of research by dedicated historians, investigators and archivists who gathered information and made it available to the wider public in museums, on the Internet, and in an enormous number of books, movies, articles and plays devoted to the subject.
In short, the fact that more people are currently being educated about the Holocaust than ever before suggests that the likelihood of genocide and anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice would be lower than ever.
Sadly, this is definitely not the case. As recent events in Europe and elsewhere have show, overt anti-Semitism is on the rise. It takes more violent forms and comes with lethal threats.
When demonstrators yell “Jews to the gas,” they obviously are aware of what happened during the Holocaust, but draw none of the lessons we expected to follow exposure to that tragic reality. In that respect, Holocaust consciousness simply boomeranged, to the detriment of those it was supposed to protect.
Many of the demonstrators calling for Jewish blood are Muslims who come from a sociopolitical milieu replete with Holocaust denial of the worst kind. Propaganda for this hostility to Jews is sponsored by governments and preached by religious leaders.
So when we mark the anniversary of World War II and contemplate where we stand 75 years later, it is painfully obvious that “Never Again” is at risk of becoming a hollow slogan. Unless some way is found to communicate the appropriate lessons of the Holocaust to European Muslims and, hopefully, even to the predominantly Muslim world, we may again face a tragedy of the type the world swore in 1945 to do everything possible to prevent.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, deals extensively with the ongoing failure of the Baltic countries, and especially Lithuania, to bring to justice un-prosecuted local Nazi war criminals and honestly deal with the complicity of their nationals in Holocaust crimes.