The Holocaust, education and national introspection

Education is always the first line of defense against intolerance, and history usually presents the best instruction.

A Holocaust survivor shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Holocaust survivor shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Famed author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi once said: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous.
More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
In the past few days, two events surrounding the Holocaust and its memory raised the issue of national introspection, which is becoming especially important these days in Europe with racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism at frighteningly high levels.
First, Hollywood star Natalie Portman was reported to claim that: “I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education.”
I believe Portman regrettably missed the opportunity to make an important point. It is not for the victims of a terrible genocide to reflect on the meaning of the tragedy which befell them, but rather for the nations which perpetrated or contributed to the attempted annihilation of a people.
Only days later, Prince Albert II of Monaco made the first official apology of his principality for its role in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust.
This apology comes at the end of a long period of study, research and introspection about Monaco’s role in the Holocaust, and follows Luxembourg’s apology just a few months ago to the Jewish community for its “suffering” during World War II.
Only a few nations in Europe have not made a true apology for their role during the Holocaust, the most prominent being Holland, where 75 percent of the 140,000 Jews which resided in the country at the time were murdered.
In fact, the Netherlands had the highest death rate in all of Nazi-occupied Western Europe.
However, more important than any particular official apology is the true and deep understanding of a country’s history and role, which should lead to national soul-searching.
As Levi argues, the majority of those involved in the Holocaust were not monsters but common folk who lost their moral compass and allowed themselves to be led toward the industrialized destruction of millions of people.
This has to be the lesson of the Holocaust for a generation of people who did not physically experience those dark times. We are taught too often that the perpetrators were all Nazi monsters and that decent nations and people played no role in the Holocaust. Those nations which have not come to terms with their role in the Holocaust will find it most difficult to prevent the rise of hate in this generation.
It is not a matter of mere apology; it is a matter of education and national introspection.
It is vital that European national curricula teach their nations’ roles in the Holocaust, and place a special emphasis on the role of common people.
For the murder of six million Jews, and many others, countless people had to be involved.
The Holocaust would simply have been impossible without the active participation or acquiescence of common people. From those who stood aside while families were rounded up to those who actively handed over their neighbors to the Nazis and those that attended the bargain sales of confiscated Jewish property and assets, knowing full well where the previous owners had been sent.
Millions enabled the Holocaust.
The simple lesson of the Holocaust for those nations grappling with the past is summed up by the famous Edmund Burke quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Today, Europe is grappling with rising levels of hate, the likes of which have not been witnessed on our streets since WWII. The lessons of the Holocaust have never been as important as they are now to quell rising manifestations of intolerance on our streets.
No one is suggesting that a Holocaust is around the corner, but the signs are ominous nonetheless. Far-right and neo-Nazi parties are growing in political power and support, parts of Europe are fast becoming free of Jews and immigrants are being attacked in broad daylight and used as scapegoats for all manner of perceived societal ills.
Once again, common and good people are not actively resisting the hate and violence perpetrated against our continent’s minorities.
As in the Holocaust, there are more of us then them, the “monsters.”
Nonetheless, the monsters are prevailing because the lessons of the Holocaust have still, over 70 years later, not been properly learned.
A proper and full introspection regarding a nation’s role during the Holocaust is the greatest and most important antidote against the crimes of the present and the future.
Education is always the first line of defense against intolerance, and history usually presents the best instruction.
Unfortunately, we have also seen that while the Holocaust is a unique event, there have been other genocides like that which took place in Rwanda, and the ethnic cleansing currently taking place on Europe’s doorstep by Islamic State of Yazidis, Christians and others in the Middle East, and we should be studying these with appropriate vigor, especially the West’s lack of response.
The author is president of the European Jewish Congress and of The World Holocaust Forum.