Below is a full translation of an op-ed written by WJC Executive Vice President Maram Stern in Der Hauptstadtbrief.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day this Wednesday is overshadowed by several developments. On the one hand, the coronavirus pandemic prevents us from doing what we urgently need to do on this day, namely having personal encounters with the few survivors who were witnesses to this monstrous crime listening to their stories, sharing their pain, while also experiencing their fighting spirit against evil. This year circumstances oblige us to substitute a lot of this with digital forms of remembrance, but the urgency and intimacy of a personal encounter cannot be replaced.
On the other hand, the Holocaust commemoration this year is further overshadowed by another contagion: conspiracy myths. In calmer times one might be inclined to ridicule people who cobble together a worldview from fragments of information plus a lot of imagination, but in these troubling times, we know how dangerous this can be because thoughts shape actions, and ill-informed people can do a lot of damage.
The mechanics of conspiracy myths are well known and have been described many times. They tie into actual or imagined grievances and construct a system of stereotypes into which everyone from George Soros or Bill Gates to the police officer on the street or even one’s own neighbors can be classified. From the imagined omnipotence and imminent threat posed by these scapegoats one derives the right to break laws and become violent. Conspiracy myths ultimately work like a drug; consumers want more and more, and its use just becomes more excessive.
Politicians sometimes serve as suppliers for these addicts. Trump, for example, has made use of such myths, creating his own conspiracy myth based on existing ones. Many of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6th have long been involved in right-wing extremist and antisemitic organizations. The criminal group QAnon has achieved infamy for spewing rubbish, lies, and hatred.
We are also familiar with this phenomenon in Germany, where the nationalist right-wing AfD party is a political force whose business model is largely based on hatred, lies and incitement. In Germany, too, we have seen radicalized fanatics wanting to infiltrate the Reichstag at the invitation of the AfD party.
In the midst of the pandemic, everyone seeks to capitalize on the insecurity and dissatisfaction of the masses, and any means are deemed necessary to fill these voids. Alliances are formed with anyone who feels it necessary to act out self-hatred by projecting it onto others.
Many, myself included, find the attempt by so-called coronavirus deniers to claim a victimhood equal to the victims of the Holocaust to be particularly repugnant. Despite marching side-by-side with well-known neo-Nazis, they claim to be fighting a new Nazi dictatorship. Coronavirus deniers who compare themselves with Sophie Scholl or Anne Frank display an exaggerated self-importance and arrogance that lacks any reflective distance and at the same time demonstrate a relativization of the actual historical events. The singularity of the Holocaust is misused for self-satisfied stylization.
In such circles, demonstrators now tend to wear prominent yellow Jewish stars as well. I do not know what could be more shameful than to attack the history of suffering in the face of the aged survivors of Auschwitz, Majdanek and thousands of other concentration camps and ghettos. It is epitomized by the lack of empathy, continued delusion and cynicism. One would expect that those who are privileged enough to live in Germany today in peace and freedom would have developed a minimal amount of decency and humility towards real victims of the Holocaust.
But I have no illusions that such exploitation will stop any time soon. Disrespecting all boundaries is symptomatic of antisemitism stemming from coronavirus, for nothing is sacred to these ideologues. Yesterday it was the refugees from Syria, today it is the pandemic, and tomorrow there will be a new reason to stir up and incite hatred while abusing and reinterpreting history. One can only say to such people: Shame on you!
However, that does not mean that we have to passively watch such goings-on. There must always be two responses – one by governments and one by civil society. Regulatory authorities have been tacitly accepting such behavior for far too long, the police in many places were strangely passive and disinterested, even as people openly walked around with their tattooed swastikas on display. But such things cannot simply be dismissed as minor transgressions that are not worth the bureaucratic effort because this is exactly what those who incite hatred hope for - that they will gradually establish more and more leeway for themselves.
The state response also includes the surveillance of the AfD by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and a possible ban of the party. The AfD has already crossed many red lines. You don't have to pretend to be more stupid than you are. You don't have to pretend you don't know who you are dealing with. It is pointless to divide the AfD into “wings” and try to look for “moderates” with a magnifying glass. The same applies to Trump: call a spade a spade. Enough excuses already!
The civil society response includes the #WeRemember campaign, which the World Jewish Congress launched to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Hundreds of politicians, artists, athletes and other celebrities participate in the campaign, keeping the memory of the victims and the bereaved alive. Tens of thousands of people on social media express their sympathy via photos and make it clear: Don't forget! Never again!