Europe’s dangerous Holocaust revisionism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters gather for a counter demonstration against Polish nationalist and supporters of controversial Holocaust bill in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, 05 February 2018. [EPA-EFE/JACEK TURCZYK POLAND OUT]

Holocaust revisionism isn’t just about rewriting history, it’s about curbing some of today’s basic democratic freedoms like the rule of law and freedom of expression, warns William Echikson.

William Echikson, a former senior policy manager at Google, heads the Centre for European Policy Studies’ Digital Forum.

A new Polish law bans the phrase “Polish death camps” – or face three years in prison. The Hungarian government honours a journalist who has referred to Jews as “stinking excrement” and described Roma as “animals” that “should not be allowed to exist.” A former Croatian Culture Minister praises the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustase movement – and questions the number of killings at the regime’s Jasenovac concentration camp.

In the wake of marking United Nations Holocaust Remembrance day on January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp – these are just some recent examples of a rising tide of dangerous revisionism sweeping the Holocaust’s blood-stained lands. Nationalist politicians and governments are rewriting history, rehabilitating war criminals and minimizing their nations’ participation in genocide.

The rewriting of the past carries important implications for Europe’s present. Today’s revisionism coincides with a rise of extreme nationalist and far-right political movements dedicated to rolling back democracy, the rule of law, and its modern-day beacon, the multi-ethnic, tolerant European Union.

Are we returning to the horrors of the 1930s? The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibition “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda,” opening at the Parliamentarium Museum in Brussels on January 25, offers some alarming parallels. Full disclosure: I arranged for the exhibit to be shown in Brussels.

In the 1930s Germany, Nazi Party leaders understood the power of mass communication to disseminate hatred and anti-Semitism – and shape public opinion and behavior. They deployed sophisticated modern technologies, including radio and film, to win the battle of ideas among a well-educated population in a fledgling democracy. Importantly, the Nazis also rewrote history into a battle between the superior Aryan race and inferior Semite – with the Aryans always triumphant and the locomotive of civilization.

Nazi-style propaganda remains all too relevant today in the very land of the Holocaust. More and more politicians are descending into xenophobic language reminiscent of the 1930s and the 1940s. In Britain’s Brexit campaign, the Leave camp unveiled a poster of contemporary Middle Eastern migrants that bore a striking resemblance to a Nazi propaganda that maligns Jews, Poles, Roma, as “parasites” who “undermin[e] their host countries.”

Often, migrants are denigrated in terms reserved in the 1930s for Jews. Jarosław

Kaczyński, head of Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, has warned that migrants are “parasites” that carry “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe.” In the same vein, French right wing extremist Marine Le Pen called for the “eradication of bacterial immigration,” proclaiming that immigration was causing an “alarming presence of contagious diseases” in France. In his Mein Kampf, Hitler repeatedly refers to Jews as parasites.

To be fair, some European countries have made gigantic strides in recognizing their own culpability. For decades, many French have held onto the idea that their ancestors had been either victims or resisters of Nazis, or of the collaborationist regime that was set up in Vichy. This past July, standing at a site from which thousands of French Jews were sent to their deaths during the Holocaust, President Emmanuel Macron of France deplored his nation’s wartime role in abetting murder and pledged to fight a renewed tide of anti-Semitism.

Romania represents another star student. During the war, its Army organized the deportation of Jews. In response, President Klaus Iohannis has made Holocaust training mandatory for the country’s military General Staff. Until March 2017, Romania held the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), composed of 31 nations.

Unfortunately, though, history is often being forgotten or rewritten. Consider Hungary. Its government is minimizing its country’s participation in the genocide, rehabilitating war criminals, and introducing anti-Semitic writers into the national curriculum. According to Paul Shapiro of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the truth is that Miklos Horthy’s Hungary was the first European country after World War 1 to put in place numerus clausus legislation which restricted Jewish participation in high education. Hungary passed racial laws similar to Nazi Germany in 1938 and 1939. With war came the systematic theft of Jewish property and mass murder. In 1944, Hungarian police identified and concentrated the Jews, loaded them onto trains, and delivered them into the hands of German SS units for execution at Auschwitz.

Today, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban has described the arrival of asylum seekers in Europe as “a poison”, saying his country did not want or need “a single migrant”. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees trekked through Hungary and Austria in 2015 as they sought to reach wealthy European nations. But the flow slowed to a trickle after Orban’s government erected razor wire and fences along the southern borders last autumn and brought in tough anti-migrant laws.

The new Polish law raises similar issues. Anger is understandable when foreigners refer to Auschwitz and other extermination centers the Nazis set up in Poland as “Polish death camps.” They were Nazi death camps. Along with three million Polish Jews, at least 1.9 million Polish gentiles were killed.

Yet many Poles were complicit in the crimes committed on their land. When a Polish minister questions Polish participation in the murder of hundreds of their Jewish neighbours during a Holocaust-era program, he is wrong. Will the new law allow such lies to spread? Like other countries conquered by Germany, Poland too must face up to all aspects of its World War II history – without the threat of sending historians to prison.

Perhaps it is no surprise that a Polish nationalist government is behind the new revisionist bill.

The same government is waging an offensive on the rule of law and freedom of expression, imposing new repressive bills to control the media and attacking the independence of the country’s courts.

The threat from Holocaust Revisionism is not just about rewriting history. Above all, it is about curbing today’s democratic freedoms.

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