International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated in Brussels
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International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorated in Brussels

In 2005, United Nations declared the 27 January as the International Remembrance Day for the victims of the Holocaust, marking the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This year also marks also the 75th anniversary of the notorious Wannsee conference in Berlin (20 January 1942), when the “final solution”, the mass extermination of the Jews in Europe, was planned.

Historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book “Black Earth – The Holocaust as History and Warning” (2015) that Auschwitz became the major killing site for Jews and other persecuted people in 1943 and 1944. But, he explains, if the Holocaust is reduced to Auschwitz, then it is can easily be forgotten that the Nazi mass killings of Jews started at shooting pits in areas which Nazi-Germany conquered from the Soviet Union.

His lesson is that most killings took place in the “blood lands” in Eastern Europe where the government had been destroyed and which were occupied twice by the Soviet Union and Nazi-Germany. Most Jews were sent to the exterminations camps from other countries in Western and Central Europe where governments were absent or weak and did not protect the rights of all its citizens.

Commissioner Vera Jourová said in a key note speech at a commemoration event in Brussels this week that in modern democracies we tend to think that institutions and civil services safeguard civilization, progress and the rule of law.

We don’t think that structured and well-regarded institutions came together to plan, organise and implement in cold bureaucratic language the annihilation of an essential part of the European population – the Jews.

“We don’t speak of criminals, sadists or madmen but of administrators, lawyers, judges and technocrats who often didn’t do more than signing papers, developing timetables, adding numbers and participating in conferences.”

She underlined that “in the face of rising anti-Semitic and other forms of hatred, in the face of rising anti-Semitic incidents and for as long as Holocaust deniers are still around, the European Commission is determined to prevent and combat anti-Semitism in all its forms and to ensure that Jews can lead the lives they want to live in Europe.”

As part of this effort, the Commission organized yesterday (26 January), a one-day training seminar for EU-officials on Holocaust Remembrance and Fundamental Rights with the Memorial House Wannsee conference.

The seminar aimed among others to reflect on the role of bureaucracy and sensitize staff to issues related to transitional justice and to the challenges of memory that societies in Europe face today. Commissioner Jourova will also open the exhibition “Auschwitz-Birkenau – The Nazi concentration system and the Final Solution” in the Commission’s Berlaymont Headquarters (Monday 30 January, 17 pm), followed by a debate with Holocaust survivors.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sent a message at the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and stated:

“We will not cease to say “We remember”! (…) The European Union is a project rooted in the history of the European continent and fully shares this duty of remembrance. In these challenging times, memory is not only a reminder of the past, it is a compass for the future to not repeat the same mistakes and to not fall into the same traps like we have done so by allowing discrimination and hatred to spread.” 

High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini issued a statement where she said, “We have a responsibility to remember: a responsibility towards the victims, towards the survivors. A responsibility towards the future generations. And a responsibility towards Europe, and all European citizens.”

She continued: “As a reaction to the World War and to Shoah (the Holocaust), the founders of a united Europe decided to turn the page. A united Europe was the only way to ensure that “never again” such tragedies would happen inside our continent. Our founders rejected the vicious idea that one nation, one people, one ideology should enslave all others. They chose to build a Union of diversities. And it is a choice we are called to confirm each and every day.”

The responsibility to protect (R2P)

There were no international conventions against genocide on the eve of WWII and governments were “free” to commit mass atrocities against their own populations. Only retroactively were crimes against humanity – defined as war crimes committed on a vast scale against civilians – included in the statutes of the Nuremberg trials.

In 1948 the United Nations adopted the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. Genocide is defined as killing and other acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.

The existence of international laws against mass killings of civilians and genocide might not have prevented the Holocaust but at least they would have raised awareness of the crimes and sent a signal to the perpetrators that they would be punished. The non-existence of any legislation made it easier for by-standers not to believe that such crimes could take place.

After WWII, Europe has been rebuilt. Former belligerent countries have reconciled with each-others and understood that something must be done in order to put an end to wars and secure the peace. This was the background of the establishment of the European Common Market which later became the European Union.

However, it would take more ethnic cleansing and mass killings of civilians on European soil – the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 90-ies – until Europe learned the lesson completely. Now all countries in the Western Balkans are offered membership in the European Union.

In 1994, genocide took place in Ruanda without United Nations and the former colonial powers intervened to stop it. Only in 2005 did the United Nation adopt a resolution on the “responsibility to protect” civilians. Every country has a responsibility to protect its own population.

If the government does not fulfil its responsibility, it is up to the international community to intervene with humanitarian and diplomatic means to stop mass killings of civilians. As a last resort the Security Council may decide on military means. This resolution has already been applied in different conflicts but, alas, not in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times


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