Most Germans, I am quite certain, have never heard of the Prague Declaration; nor do they have any inkling of its critical significance vis-a-vis the election of the president of the Federal Republic. Yet it is that document — probably more than any other — that casts a giant shadow on the record of recently elected German President Joachim Gauck, and should raise very serious doubts as to his suitability for this prestigious post .
Published on June 3, 2008 in the Czech capital, and signed by 27 primarily-Eastern European politicians, intellectuals and anti-Communist activists, the Prague Declaration is basically the manifesto of a campaign to rewrite the currently-accepted narrative of World War II and the Holocaust. At first glance, it appears to be primarily an appeal for parity in the evaluation of Nazi and Communist crimes and in the treatment accorded the victims of totalitarian regimes. Yet on closer examination, it becomes clear that its true goal is something much more revolutionary, insidious and extremely dangerous.
Beginning with its ominous warnings that “societies that neglect the past have no future” and that “Europe will never be united unless it is able to reunite its history [and] recognize Communism and Nazism as a common legacy” [writer’s emphasis], the declaration’s primary goal is to promote the canard of historical equivalency between the two most lethal totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. This false comparison, which purposely ignores the critical differences between the irreversible Nazi ideology that demanded the total annihilation of a people the world over based solely on their lineage, and which was implemented by industrialized mass murder unprecedented in human history, and its Communist counterpart, whose victims were primarily identified on the basis of economic and political factors, is the foundation for the demand for parity between the crimes of both regimes, which should all be considered genocide.
Robbing the Holocaust of its significance
The significance of such a false equivalency cannot be underestimated. First and foremost, it will rob the Holocaust of its justified status as a unique tragedy of unprecedented scope and nature, and elevate Communist crimes beyond their true historical significance. On a practical level, moreover, it will help the post-Communist countries, among whose nationals were many zealous Nazi collaborators and active participants in Holocaust crimes, to hide or deflect attention from their lethal role in the mass murder of European Jewry. Unlike Nazi collaborators elsewhere, who assisted in the initial stages of the Final Solution — defining and identifying the Jews; robbing them of their livelihood, property, and possessions; arresting them and deporting them to death camps in Poland — many of the Nazis’ helpers in Eastern Europe were integrated into the apparatus of mass annihilation and actively participated in the mass murder of Jews in their countries of origin, but in many cases elsewhere as well.
While under Communist domination from the end of World War II until the early ’90s, these nations were unable to honestly deal with their Holocaust crimes, but in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe, they were afforded such an opportunity. To date, however, such efforts have for the most part abysmally failed as the ruling governments found it politically difficult, if not impossible, to teach the truth about the scope and level of local collaboration in Holocaust crimes, let alone to bring to justice hereto unprosecuted Shoah perpetrators and/or restitute stolen Jewish communal and/or private property.
By elevating Communist crimes to the hallowed status of genocide, the signers of the Prague Declaration hope to shift the focus from the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust to the suffering of East Europeans under the yoke of Communism.
By elevating Communist crimes to the hallowed status of genocide, however, the signers of the Prague Declaration hope to shift the focus from the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust to the suffering of East Europeans under the yoke of Communism, thereby transforming perpetrator-nations into countries of victims. Even better, the assessment of Communist crimes as genocide would allow East Europeans to counter the accusations against them for Holocaust crimes by creating a false symmetry between their criminals and Jews who committed crimes against them in the service of Moscow. The fact that the former were motivated by ultra-nationalistic patriotism, while the latter’s motivation was a direct result of their decision to sever their ties with the Jewish community would of course be ignored by those positing this ostensibly meaningful equation. And if the guilt for such horrific crimes cuts across all national and religious lines, the criminals need not fear being held accountable for their crimes, since if practically everyone is guilty, ultimately few, if any, will ever be brought to justice.
A close look at the practical steps called for by the Prague Declaration makes crystal clear how problematic its adoption would be. Thus, for example, it calls for August 23, the date of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, to be designated as a joint memorial day for all victims of totalitarian regimes. The choice of this date clearly implies that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are equally to blame for the atrocities of World War II, as if the regime which conceived, built, and operated the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp is just as guilty as the country whose troops liberated that center of industrialized mass murder and stopped the killing. Were this proposal to be accepted — and several declaratory resolutions supporting it have already been passed in European forums — Holocaust memorial day will soon be a relic of the past.
Equally problematic are the Declaration’s calls for “the adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks” and the establishment of an “Institute of European Memory and Conscience,” which will create educational programs, as well as a museum for all victims of totalitarian crimes. A major function of that institution would be to support “national research institutes specializing in the subject of totalitarian experience,” but if the record to date of such existing institutions is any indication, it is institutions such as the Center for Genocide Research, and the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the Museum of the Occupation In Riga, Latvia, which are most guilty of distorting the history of World War II by focusing almost exclusively on Communist crimes, to the virtual exclusion of those committed by local Nazi collaborators.
Elevating such citadels of Holocaust distortion to the status of institutions like Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum would lend undeserved legitimacy to those least worthy of such recognition. Rewriting European history textbooks in the spirit of the false equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes would in effect raise future generations on a purposely falsified account of the events of the Holocaust, which would blur the critical distinction between perpetrators and victims, thereby absolving the criminals of all responsibility. Needless to say, such steps would do irreparable damage to the positive results achieved during the past half-century in the fields of Holocaust commemoration, research, and education.
Germany’s ‘Holocaust fatigue’
Joachim Gauck is one of only three Western Europeans who signed the Prague Declaration and certainly the most prominent among them. In fact, he is the most important figure to sign the declaration besides the late Czech president Vaclav Havel. As the first director of the Stasi Archives and a leading human rights activist in Communist East Germany, Gauck justifiably seeks greater recognition for Communist crimes, a worthy and legitimate goal that merits support. In this case, however, the document he signed to achieve this objective does so at the expense of historical truth in a harmful and destructive manner, which will have extremely negative repercussions for Western civilization in general, and for Germany in particular. In addition, in public statements, such as his speech “Welche Erinnerungen braucht Europa?” to the Robert Bosch Foundation, Gauck appears to reject the uniqueness of the Shoah and claim that dealing with the mass murder of European Jewry has become a substitute for religion in civil society.
Germany, in my opinion, is currently at a critical juncture in relation to the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. On the one hand, there is growing knowledge and widespread sensitivity to Holocaust crimes, but “Holocaust fatigue” cannot be ignored, and the voices stressing German victimhood during the war and its aftermath are becoming bolder and more strident. As the era of Nazi war crimes trials slowly, but inevitably, comes to an end, and the debates over the past are relegated to the history books and the public arena, the president of Germany will play an increasingly vital role in serving as a moral compass for German society.
As the era of Nazi war crimes trials slowly, but inevitably, comes to an end, the president of Germany will play an increasingly vital role in serving as a moral compass for German society.
His public stance and pronouncements will have a strong influence on the direction Germany will take in the coming years vis-a-vis Holocaust-related issues and their significance in both local and universal terms. Joachim Gauck’s signature on the Prague Declaration is an ominous and very dangerous sign that he is likely to lead the Federal Republic in a different direction than hereto pursued. Instead of building on the foundation of Germany’s to a large extent successful, even if far-from-perfect, confrontation with its Nazi past, he is likely to strengthen those voices which seek to de-emphasize the importance of the Holocaust in German history and consciousness. Instead of serving as a model for the countries of post-Communist Eastern Europe, which have hereto utterly failed to confront their bloody records during World War II, he is likely to strengthen their tendency to flee responsibility and wallow in their victimhood, a stance which would be a tragedy first and foremost for them, but also for Germany — not to mention the negative consequences for the future of Europe.
It is precisely for these reasons that Gauck appears to be the wrong person to assume that lofty post at this important point in time.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Director of its Israel Office. His recent book, “Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi War Criminals to Justice,” deals extensively with the role of Eastern European Nazi collaborators in Holocaust crimes and the reluctance of post-Communist countries to bring these murderers to justice.
His website is http://www.operationlastchance.org/.
A slightly-abridged version of this article was initially published on Saturday, March 17 in the German daily “die Tageszeitung.”