German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit yesterday to the site of the Dachau concentration camp was criticized by the German left. The Green Party, among others, blasted Merkel for using the site of Nazi horrors as a campaign stop during the run-up to Germany’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The fact that her next stop after the appearance at the museum commemorating the victims of the Third Reich was a speech at a beer tent in the nearby town that bears the same name as the camp was seen by some as exposing the crass nature of her motivation in going to Dachau. But while it remains to be seen as to whether this event will help her as she cruises to reelection, Merkel deserves praise not just for being the first German chancellor to visit the Dachau camp but for articulating a call for tolerance at a time when the future of European civilization seems to be hanging in the balance.
To speak of the stakes of a speech about the specter of extremism in Europe today in such terms may strike some as hyperbole, but that is not the case. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote this month in Mosaic, we are living at a moment when a rising tide of anti-Semitism may wipe out the remnants of European Jewry. With hate for Jews, often masquerading as mere disagreement with Israeli policies, having its biggest comeback in Europe since 1945, at no time since then has it been as important for a major European leader to make such a statement. By going to Dachau at this moment to warn the continent and the German people that they must turn away from hate, she may not be able to reverse this trend, but she has set an example that other European leaders must emulate.
“How could Germans go so far as to deny people human dignity and the right to live based on their race, religion, their political persuasion or their sexual orientation?” she said in a somber ceremony on the wide plaza where inmates once assembled daily for roll call. “Places such as this warn each one of us to help ensure that such things never happen again.”
Merkel is right, but what has happened in Europe is, as Gurfinkiel noted, a threat not just to Jews and minorities, but also to the European idea of modern civilization. Many are in denial about the situation, yet as I wrote in response to his piece, his prediction that catastrophe lies ahead is a reasonable response to a steady drip of incidents and trends that have called into question whether the postwar revival of Jewish life in Europe is at an end.
Neo-Nazis grow in numbers and influence in places like Greece as well as in Germany. Intolerance for foreigners along with the importation of Islamist prejudices via the large number of immigrants from the Muslim world has created a toxic mix of hatred that makes Europe dangerous for Jews and other minorities. This is felt not only in the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents but the willingness of allegedly liberal Europeans to consider banning Jewish religious practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughter.
Moreover, the widespread revulsion expressed toward Israel and the delegitimization of Zionism is not merely a variant of traditional anti-Semitism. It is an effort to erase the memory of the Holocaust by falsely casting Jews as the new Nazis. As such, it is not merely a distortion of the truth about the Middle East conflict but a blatant case of Holocaust revisionism.
While Merkel should be applauded for speaking out when so many persons of influence are silent, her visit to Dachau will have no meaning at all if it is seen as only a necessary effort to remember the Holocaust. Europeans have worked hard in recent years to memorialize the victims of the Nazis. But since this has happened at the same time that the efforts of living Jews to defend themselves have been viciously attacked, it’s far from clear that these memorials have much meaning. What we have learned in recent years is that a Europe that abandons Israel will inevitably begin to abandon its own Jewish citizens as well as others. It can only be hoped that Merkel’s warning is a sign that there is still time for a critical mass of European opinion to reverse this ominous trend.