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Auschwitz in Jerusalem

The conflicting messages delivered at a recent commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz reveal the extent to which today's politics are being defined by the tug of war between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. But when it comes to drawing lessons from the Holocaust, the cosmopolitans retain the moral high ground.

BERLIN – Looming over this year’s commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, were two contradictory impulses that lay behind the creation of the Jewish state: cosmopolitanism and nationalism. A painful dialogue between these perspectives marked the event, reflected in the utterances of the officials who attended and the objections of those who stayed away.

In opening the ceremony, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set the tone for what was to come. He described Auschwitz as “an abyss” and Jerusalem as “a peak,” with the former representing “enslavement” and “death” and the latter epitomizing “freedom” and “life.” To give meaning to the lives of those murdered in the Holocaust, he sought to link their deaths to Israel’s founding just a few years later. Rather than presenting the fate of Europe’s Jews as a reason to renew the struggle against hatred and genocide everywhere, he focused more narrowly on the interests of the state of Israel and concluded his remarks with a battle cry against Iran.

The choice between cosmopolitanism and nationalism has always been an especially difficult one for Jews. Historically, the exclusion of “wandering Jews” from official life meant that they were de facto “citizens of nowhere,” and thus cosmopolitan by default. Yet precisely for this reason, many Jews went on to become ultra-nationalists in the countries where they were eventually assimilated. A quintessential example was the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who as a young man initially welcomed World War I as an opportunity to fight for his country. The same contradictory sentiments are now bound up in Israel’s national identity, animating an abiding tension between democracy and the desire to provide a Jewish homeland.

The foreign speakers at Yad Vashem this year also embodied this conflict between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried the weaponization of history, before doing exactly that, claiming (not inaccurately) that the Holocaust was carried out not just by Germans but also by European collaborators who “were often crueler than their masters.” Not surprisingly, he directed this charge specifically at Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia – all countries with which Russia has a troubled relationship.

But it was the Polish government that objected most strenuously to this interpretation. After not being invited to speak, Polish President Andrzej Duda boycotted the ceremony. And in anticipation of Putin’s speech, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote a commentary for Politico arguing that, “Russia is trying to rewrite history. Far from being a ‘liberator,’ the Soviet Union was a facilitator of Nazi Germany and a perpetrator of crimes of its own – before and after the liberation of Auschwitz.” The official Polish response comes as no surprise, given that this is the same government that, in 2018, passed a law criminalizing any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

The contrast with the remarks delivered by the French and German presidents could not be greater. Each reflected on his own country’s guilt before making a case for universal human values. “Those who murdered,” noted German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “those who planned and helped in the murdering, the many who silently toed the line: They were Germans.”

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Like Netanyahu, Steinmeier also focused on the theme of renewal following the Shoah, which gave way to a new “order of peace, founded upon human rights and international law.” But, unlike Netanyahu, Steinmeier was not triumphalist. In fact, he underscored an issue that, in spite of decades of vergangenheitsbewältigung (“working through the past”), is now afflicting Germany: the return of anti-Semitism.

Likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron was equally brutal in his self-criticism. “France has looked at its history head-on and faced up to the irreparable responsibility of the French state in the deportation of the Jews,” he declaimed. The lessons he takes from Auschwitz are universal and forward-looking. “No one has the right to use the memory of the dead,” he argued, “to justify some kind of contemporary hatred.”

One wonders how Zweig would have responded to all of these speakers. Although he was a protégé of Zionism’s founding intellectual, Theodor Herzl, a recent biography by George Prochnik shows that Zweig became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of nationalism over the course of his life. Following the rise of the Nazis, he argued that Jews had a “sacred mission” not to create yet another state with “cannons, flags, and medals.” Rather, he wanted Jews to serve as “the gadfly which plagues the mangy beast of nationalism,” and to work for the “dissolution of nationalist tendencies.”

In other words, were Zweig alive today, he doubtless would sympathize more with the cosmopolitan humanism of Steinmeier and Macron than with Netanyahu’s ethno-nationalism. But, it is worth remembering that even as they established a Jewish nation-state, David Ben-Gurion and most of Israel’s founders were similarly committed to a cosmopolitan and universalist vision based on “complete equality of social and political rights … irrespective of religion, race, or sex.”

For my part, as a descendent of German Jews – some of whom were exterminated – I strongly support Israel’s right to exist. But I also believe that Netanyahu’s instrumentalization of the Holocaust’s victims – many of whom did not share his Zionist nationalism – directly undermines the ideals of the country’s founders.

As Auschwitz passes from memory into history, it is ironic that the lessons people draw from it would become more particular, rather than more universal. Clearly, the global fight against anti-Semitism needs a new narrative for the twenty-first-century world of hyper-fragmented and multicultural societies, where no one knows Holocaust survivors personally. Otherwise, history will continue to be politicized and pressed into the service of nationalist agendas, rather than showing the way to a more peaceful future for all.

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