Europe and the Holocaust

Auschwitz-birkenau barbed wire

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, the sixty-eighth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces which last year I visited to pay homage to the murdered. Here in the Netherlands Anne Frank wrote “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” She died in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp days before its liberation by the British 11th Armored Division.

Almost seventy years on what does the Holocaust mean for the Europe of today? The Holocaust or Shoah defines modern Europe because without wishing to deny the suffering of millions in the 1939-45 European war it was the murder of six million Jews and others that stalks European politics to this day and rightly so.

The 1957 Treaty of Rome which established the then-European Economic Community (EEC), the forebear of today’s EU, “determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” It might have added “to prevent genocide ever again being committed on Europe’s soil.” All the human rights legislation overseen by the Council of Europe against which so many Europeans rail was also inspired by the need to prevent such obscenities. Anti-Semitism, far from being confined to Nazi Germany, was prevalent across Europe before the war.

As David Cameron last week finally forced Europeans to begin considering the relationship between power and people and just what “ever closer union” should actually mean in the future Europe, the Holocaust continues to provide Europe’s ghastly context. Like it or not Hitler’s ghost still haunts latter day Europe and at this tipping point in Europe’s history the political balance European leaders must strike is indeed a delicate one.

Clearly, Europeans have a special duty of care for the Jewish people but such care must also extend to all minorities. Indeed, Europe will be judged by its treatment of minorities, especially at a time of hyper-immigration, weak economies, and the social tensions inevitable at such moments. Today’s seminal debate on the future Europe is really about the interaction of globalization, Europeanization, and integration— and by extension power, structure, and liberty.

However, finding a new European balance is not the same as simply embracing the freedom-eroding mantras of political correctness that so infects European politics and which is fuelling new intolerance, new censorships, and the new discriminations felt by an increasingly oppressed majority. The Holocaust must always inform European politics but not enslave it.

That the Holocaust still defines a historical fault-line in Europe can be seen in the tension between British Euro-realists and Euro-federalists. Britain never suffered the terror of occupation. In the Netherlands alone some 205,000 Dutch people died, the highest proportion in any occupied territory. Moreover, one only has to visit certain parts of Central and East Europe to very quickly realize the importance of the EU as a safeguard against dangerous nationalisms and the intolerance of minorities. This is something most Britons simply do not understand. Indeed, even Britain’s so-called ‘pro-EU’ lobby simply see the EU as a means to an end of economic stability, rather than the quintessential historical end in itself many Europeans believe it to be.

Ironically, both the federalists and realists are deep down driven by the memory of the Holocaust and the need to ensure it never happens again. They simply disagree about how. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who is fast becoming the champion of federalism, when interviewed last week on the BBC suggested ‘peace’ in Europe can only be assured by a United States of Europe. For Euro-realists the opposite is needed; a new separation of powers between Brussels and the member-states, in favor of the latter, to re-establish vital checks and balances that alone can prevent extreme abuse of extreme power.

Ultimately political liberty must trump guilt however eloquently history speaks to Europeans. The Holocaust must not be used as an implicit alibi for an ever closer union that is really about the undemocratic concentration of too much power in too few elite hands. When the Treaty of Rome was drafted the key phrase was an ‘ever closer union of peoples;’ nowhere does it call for an ever closer union of states which is how it has come to be interpreted by the Euro-federalists.

Europe will continue to be held to account by its twentieth century history and rightly so. However, Anne Frank is a heroine of mine precisely because in spite of the horror she endured her spirit soared alongside her belief in the essential goodness of humanity. “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” is now online. Read her, celebrate her, and honor her belief in humanity.

Never again!

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Photo credit: Fotopedia

Image: Ogrodzenie_Auschwitz_-_Birkenau.jpg