People should remember the past in order to avoid making the same mistake twice. The trouble is that they usually remember the wrong things and therefore end up making ones that are even worse.
Take last week’s epic gathering in Jerusalem to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The commemoration, which drew delegations from some fifty nations, was a triumph for Israel and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. But the hypocrisy was so thick it’s a wonder the victims didn’t rise from their graves in protest.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier set the tone by apologizing for the millions of "my countrymen" who perpetrated the Holocaust. This was oddly self-congratulatory of him since the effect is to highlight how far Germany has come. But it left something out: the 800,000 Germans, one person in eighty, who wound up behind bars not because they aided and abetted Nazism, but because they were the first to fight against it.
Since these were "good Germans" who suffered under the harshest of conditions, why leave them out? The answer is that they were Communists by and large, the very people the 1933 Nazi takeover was designed to crush. So why sully such solemn proceedings by bringing up people who were pro-Soviet?
Steinmeier promised to "resist the poison that is nationalism" and "stand with Israel," yet somehow forgot to mention that Israel is today one of the most poisonously nationalist societies on earth. After World War II, he said, "The nations of the world built an order of peace, founded upon human rights and international law." Yet just a short stroll away from Yad Vashem, the Israeli holocaust memorial where the commemoration took place, lies a place where international law and human rights cease to exist: the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Then there was America’s ultra-right vice president, Mike Pence. "Today, we remember not simply the liberation of Auschwitz," he told the gathering, "but also the triumph of freedom – a promise fulfilled, a people restored to their rightful place among the nations of the Earth." But for the 51-percent non-Jewish majority of "Greater Israel," i.e. the entire area under effective Israeli control from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, the rise of Israel has meant something different: violence, oppression, deep poverty, and arbitrary arrests.
Pence paid tribute to "all the Allied forces, including more than two million American soldiers, who left hearth and home, suffered appalling casualties, and freed a continent from the grip of tyranny." But this omits the millions of soldiers who didn’t leave hearth and home, but who died fighting armies that had invaded their hometowns of Stalingrad, Sevastopol, Kiev, and Kursk. As the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi said of the Red Army troops who liberated Auschwitz in January 1945:
"They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defense."
Years later, a Soviet officer named Georgii Elisavetskii recalled that survivors refused to believe they were free until he told them in Yiddish:
"Do not be afraid. I am a colonel of the Soviet Army and a Jew. We have come to liberate you." With that, "they rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs."
Can anyone imagine Pence praising such people? These were troops who had clawed their way across thousands of miles of blood-soaked terrain and who faced another three months of hard fighting before reaching Berlin. But for American politicians, they barely exist.
Finally, there was Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who is truly in a class by himself. Back in 2003, the late historian Tony Judt created an uproar in the New York Review of Books by observing that Israel "risks falling" into the camp of "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states" that were just beginning to emerge. Under Netanyahu, however, Israel is no longer just a member, but the leader of the pack, a role model for ethno-authoritarians from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra, and America’s own Donald Trump.
Netanyahu has hailed Orbán as a "true friend of Israel" even though he’s held onto power by mounting a classic anti-Semitic campaign against the Hungarian-born financier George Soros – a campaign, by the way, that a couple of Netanyahu’s political advisers helped design. So does this make the Israeli PM an enemy of anti-Semitism or an enabler?
Netanyahu began by invoking "the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust," thereby omitting some five million Polish civilians, Soviet POW’s, Roma, gays, and others who perished in the death camps as well. He quoted French President Emmanuel Macron to the effect "that anti-Zionism is merely the latest form of antisemitism," a formula that allows him to absolve people like Orbán while condemning those who dare speak out against Israeli racism.
He denounced Iran as "the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet" while saying nothing about Saudi Arabia, Israel’s most important ally in the Middle East, which bans synagogues, arrests Ethiopian Christians for the "crime" of participating in underground services, and continues to publish school books filled with anti-Jewish and anti-Christian slander despite years of international protests.
Then came the cry for war. "Israel," Netanyahu said, "salutes President Trump and Vice President Pence for confronting the tyrants of Tehran that subjugate their own people and threaten the peace and security of the entire world. They threaten the peace and security of everyone in the Middle East and everyone beyond. I call on all governments to join the vital effort of confronting Iran."
Iran’s only crime was to faithfully uphold the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord that it entered into with the US, France, Germany, and others. Yet since Trump pulled out of the agreement in May 2018, its reward has been US economic sanctions that have reduced oil exports to a trickle and blocked the import of lifesaving pharmaceuticals. But for Netanyahu, it’s not enough. In the name of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, he wants an unprovoked war of aggression that could conceivably result in millions more.
The answer to the greatest war crime in history, evidently, is more war and more crime. In the seventy-five years since Auschwitz, how has liberation turned into its opposite?
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.