Diplomats use Holocaust Remembrance Day to warn of lure of extremist politics

Holocaust survivor Johanna Gerechter Neumann lights a candle as German Ambassador Peter Wittig looks on at an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Holocaust survivor Johanna Gerechter Neumann lights a candle as German Ambassador Peter Wittig looks on at an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Joshua Marks

Could Europe reopen the darkest chapter in human history? With a rise in anti-Semitism on the continent, what was once unthinkable is being asked in some circles, including at the U.S. museum dedicated to ensuring that “never again” is not just a slogan.

“In contrast to the 1930s, the situation in Europe now is all the institutional actors are uniformly opposed to any anti-Semitic language or activity, which is not to say that solves the problem, but it gives it a different context,” David O’Sullivan, ambassador of the European Union to the United States, told an audience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

O’Sullivan was part of a panel discussion on Jan. 27 titled “Combating Hate in Europe.” The program was one of many events around the world to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in 2005. The date also marked 71 years since the Soviet Army liberated the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.


German Ambassador Peter Wittig told listeners that his country will always be linked to the Holocaust and feels that it bears a moral responsibility to never forget the genocide it perpetrated.

“In the way that it shapes our foreign policy, we feel a special responsibility towards Israel — its security, the security of its citizens,” he said. “Its existence is non-negotiable for us. And we also feel a special responsibility to combat anti-Semitism in whichever form or shape it surfaces.”

Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt moderated the discussion, which also featured Gérard Araud, ambassador of France.

All three ambassadors agreed that addressing online hate speech is a priority. Anti-Semitic incitement on the Internet has very real consequences, Araud said. He recalled that the teenager who stabbed an observant Jew wearing a kippah in Marseille on Jan. 11 was radicalized online, spending dozens of hours on jihadist websites.

“After the Paris attacks [on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher], our minister of interior [Bernard Cazeneuve] flew to California to try to convince the major Internet providers to work on this issue the way they worked on child pornography,” said Araud. “It’s not that easy. Because of the [Edward] Snowden affair, there are libertarian atmospherics in California, but I think we have started to work with the IT companies.”

Hiatt asked if the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency could have an impact on American-European relations.

“I trust the American voters,” Araud responded to laughter and applause.

Similarly, O’Sullivan said he trusts European voters to find the “center way forward and to avoid the temptation of extremism.”

But he warned that the political classes will have to address the lack of faith in what mainstream politicians are telling them. He said that there is a disconnect between what politicians are saying and what the people are feeling that stems partly from economic anxiety.

“People don’t necessarily feel that their children are going to enjoy the same life chances that they did and [there is a] sense of frustration with that,” O’Sullivan said.

He cautioned that the political establishment is going to have to find a way to stop “this temptation for people to vote for people who provide simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions to very complex problems, because that is a tendency which we are witnessing. And if it continues, then I think we will have difficulties.”

Earlier, at a ceremony to remember the victims of the Holocaust, survivor Johanna Gerechter Neumann spoke about escaping from Germany to Albania, where the majority Muslim population saved her life and the lives of other Jewish refugees.

“Albania, this small country in the Balkans, saved the morality of the world at the darkest hour of history of mankind. What they did is immeasurable,” said Neumann. “I’m standing here today in front of you. I can tell you that I have four children. I have 14 grandchildren and I have 16 great-grandchildren with one on the way, which would not have happened had it not been for the Albanian people.”

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