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Europe’s Moral Attitudes toward the Holocaust in Light of the Current Defamation of Israel

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 475   19 Nisan 5762 / 1 April 2002

From Weimar to Durban

The moral aspects of Western attitudes toward the Jews and the Holocaust since World War II have not yet been analyzed systematically. However, the current campaign of hatred against Israel and the Jewish people — unprecedented since the end of the war — recalls many elements of the prewar decades. Yet it is too easy to generalize and describe this as one more outburst of the ancient illness of anti-Semitism.

The current propaganda war reached a peak at the United Nations Anti-Racism Conference in Durban in September 2001, where the main defamers were Arab governments, supported by many Muslim countries and a considerable number of Western NGOs. Terms such as “genocide,” “Holocaust,” “ethnic cleansing,” and even “anti-Semitism” have been hijacked by the defamers and are now being used against the Jews, who have been key victims of all these phenomena.

Several currents of the human rights movement have made common cause with countries who turn beheadings and amputations into public spectacles. At the November 2001 plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem, Canadian parliamentarian and leading human rights activist Irwin Cotler denounced a number of Western organizations for hijacking the human rights movement.

Several arguments used by the Arab defamers are similar in nature to those of the Holocaust deniers. A typical example is the claim that there was never a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Both groups tell us much about the society in which we live. Deborah Lipstadt commented on this denial phenomenon: “It is important to understand that the deniers do not work in a vacuum. Part of their success can be traced to an intellectual climate that has made its mark in the scholarly world during the past two decades. The deniers are plying their trade at a time when much of history seems to be up for grabs and attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become commonplace.”1

The two groups might link up together. In November 2001, Michel Friedman, the German president-elect of the European Jewish Congress, told the German daily Die Welt that, among the main issues confronting his organization in the coming years, combating anti-Semitism will be in first place. This can no longer be done at a national level only. He expressed the fear that collaboration might develop between Islamic extremists and rightist radicals. In Germany, for example, the right-wing NPD party and many other rightist extremists viewed the attack on the U.S.A. favorably. He pointed out that, whereas hate propaganda is punishable in papers and other media, a lawless space has been created for it on the Internet.2

The Nazis Started with Words

In recent years, the European Union has frequently chosen to take pro-Arab positions in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The undemocratic character of the Arab world is intentionally ignored, as is support for terror among sizable sectors of Palestinian society. On the other hand, moral condemnation of Israel has often been stressed beyond all reason by European politicians and media. Although the Europeans are followers, rather than leaders, they have been playing an important role in the defamation process. Their attitudes are particularly hypocritical in view of the European past, not only during the Holocaust, but also before and after it.

In the context of this renewed defamation, one should remember that the Nazis started out with trying to “kill the Jews with words” in the days of the Weimar Republic. Their propaganda managed to instill a virulent anti-Semitism in much wider circles of European society than had been the case formerly. Even some of their opponents shared these attitudes toward the Jews. After the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, the verbal attacks were followed by financial despoilment and, later, by the physical destruction of the Jews. Thus, assessing moral attitudes in Europe toward the Jews in the past decades has become an important Jewish public affairs issue.

 The Main Elements of Moral Attitudes

After the Holocaust, the Jewish survivors who had been excluded from European societies wanted to be socially reintegrated. Whoever had been persecuted or tortured and had suffered, expected democratic justice to punish his persecutors for the crimes they had committed. Whoever had been robbed, wished to receive his property back or to be decently compensated for it. These issues now belong mainly to the past, although a few elderly war criminals are still facing trials and several issues of financial restitution are still being discussed.

A review of Europe’s moral attitudes toward the Jews will require a systematic analysis of the following questions:

  1. What was the nature of the Jews’ social reintegration in the various European countries after the war? How were they received back into society when they returned from concentration camps or hiding? How were their rights restored?

  2. How did European countries deal with the moral aspects of economic restitution? Did the general population show financial solidarity with those who were hardest hit? Did the Jews receive back what had been stolen? Did they receive compensation for property that was not recoverable? If there was economic restitution, how long did the process take? How bureaucratic was it, and how humane were its procedures? Did the Jews receive payment for non-material damage and suffering?

  3. Was justice done? How much of an effort was made to arrest and try criminals? How were the Jews’ persecutors punished? Were crimes committed against Jews an important factor in trials? These are not only legal issues; they also have moral aspects.

  4. How is the Holocaust remembered? Is Holocaust history recounted at all? If so, how truthfully is it told? This will become increasingly important as most Holocaust survivors pass away and the remaining witnesses are mainly child survivors. This leads to a further question: What will be the future of memory? Large parts of the battle on this issue are still before us.

  5. What, if anything, do European countries recount about postwar history? How much do politicians embellish the often problematic role of government authorities in the process of the Jews’ reintegration after the war?

  6. How is the present generation being educated about the Holocaust and its aftermath? How will Holocaust education be structured in the future? The answers to this will indicate what moral lessons have been drawn from the Holocaust era.

The Moral Restitution Debate

The general discourse concerning such moral attitudes is not entirely new, however. In the wake of the much publicized recent debate on supplementary financial restitution, the inexact phrase “moral restitution” was frequently mentioned. This concept has remained the vague, poor brother of material restitution. There was no agreement and little effort to define in detail what moral restitution means. Neither has its importance been properly assessed.

The meaning of financial or material restitution is easy to understand: it concerns the return of money, securities, buildings, works of art, and other possessions stolen during World War II. Part of these have been given back, but many still need to be returned nearly 60 years after the war.

The use of the expression “moral restitution” causes very varied reactions. It has become a dividing — rather than a uniting — term. Part of the criticism is semantic: speaking of restitution is only appropriate for financial or material issues. Money, securities, and other assets can be returned to their rightful owners, and/or compensation can be paid.

The critics claim that restitution is impossible for immoral acts. They consider, for instance, punishment of the guilty to be a legal matter only. The survivor cannot return to what he was before injustice was done to him; his murdered family members cannot be brought back to life; his suffering cannot be undone; the resulting traumas will stay with him for his entire life. The critics are thus partly right: it would have been better to find an alternative expression to describe this subject.

In this dispersed and confused discussion, others say that moral restitution is achieved when rights to financial restitution are recognized. They argue that, because a financial wrong was committed, the receipt of money simultaneously symbolizes financial and moral rehabilitation. This concerns both material restitution and payments for non-material damages, such as suffering and damage caused to health. Several survivors have even refused to ask for payments they are legally entitled to. Some argue that this is “blood money,” which would morally absolve their persecutors.

Still others claim that, if some Jews forego fighting for maximum payment, inter alia out of fear that it may create anti-Semitism, the fact that it is granted still amounts to moral restitution. To make matters even more complex, when Jews have to defend their interests, in almost every field there is a Jewish author of the Norman Finkelstein type who helps their enemies by blaming the Jews, in this specific case, by speaking about “the Holocaust industry.”3

Recognition of Guilt

Another opinion holds that it is a sign of moral restitution that the Holocaust has become a sign of unrelinquishable guilt in European history. Others, such as Professor Yehuda Bauer, consider Europe’s support for the establishment of Israel the greatest moral rehabilitation of the Jews possible.4

Various apologies for what was done to the Jews during and after the war have been made either separately or have accompanied restitution settlements. Some observers claim that many apologies do not denote moral motivation; rather, they are the result of political pressure and fear of economic boycotts in the United States, especially with regard to apologies made by the Swiss and some Eastern European states.

Similarly, it is claimed that Germany could not have reentered the family of nations without paying restitution money to the persecuted Jews. From such a perspective, these disbursements have no moral aspects. As a further proof for this thesis, it is said that Germany misrepresented this process semantically by calling it Wiedergutmachung (“making good again”).

Others state that Jews should not ask for apologies, because deciding whether to apologize should be left to the other side’s conscience. This is even more relevant since the apologies are not being made by either the criminals themselves or representatives of their generation, but by their children or grandchildren, which also makes them much less meaningful.

The opposing argument is that by obtaining apologies — even forced ones — a clear declaration of guilt from the counterpart will stand for future generations when all survivors will have passed away. There is much to be said for this, as such apologies can be quoted in future discussions with organizations with whom Jews or Israel seem to run into regular conflict, e.g., the Vatican and the Red Cross.

Psychological Rehabilitation

Should psychological rehabilitation be included in the assessment of Europe’s moral attitudes toward the Jews? Many of those who had suffered during the Holocaust were in need of psychological help. As one Swedish expert put it: “mental rehabilitation was conspicuous by its absence. No one took an interest in the traumatic experiences of the survivors, nor in their earlier history. As human beings with psychological problems they were often greeted with utter silence: people were afraid and probably also ashamed to be inquisitive and to become acquainted with them.”5

However, these problems were hardly understood by professionals — both Jewish and non-Jewish — after the war, and many of the drugs now used in treatment were unknown at that time. The Dutch psychiatrist Jan Bastiaans, an international pioneer in dealing with the psychological problems of Holocaust survivors, wrote as late as the mid-1980s: “The outside world continues to regard much psychic suffering and mental illness with little tolerance. Where today is there sufficient tolerance and understanding for mentally disturbed beings, especially for those who are victims of man-made disasters? How many get proper psychotherapeutic help after having been in isolation, in war-time or in some other traumatizing situation?”6

The arrival in Western Europe of refugees and survivors of various cases of war and persecution in recent years highlights the problematic place of psychological rehabilitation in the Western world and also raises interest again in the way in which Jewish Holocaust survivors were integrated into society. Swedish psychiatrist Lilian Levin points out that, even in modern-day Sweden, “there is no inalienable right or compelling judicial law guaranteeing the rehabilitation of children traumatized and depressed by war and persecution.”7

Levin notes that psychological assistance to survivors after the war was often a matter of intuition. She cites the case of one traumatized boy, put up at a hotel, who was unable to sleep for fear of terrifying nightmares. Each night he would speak in Polish to the Swedish night receptionist — who understood not a word. The survivor later stated that the stranger’s empathy and simple willingness to listen had saved him from insanity.8

In light of this, it seems that “psychological rehabilitation” is not a valid criterion for the analysis of postwar moral attitudes toward the Jews in Europe.

Postwar Europe: Not a Promising Setting

Pieter Lagrou,9 who has studied various aspects of the reception of the Jews after the Holocaust, writes: “Post-war Europe was not a promising setting for the emergence of a multi-cultural, tolerant and cosmopolitan society, very much to the contrary. The emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Europe during these years, including in the miserable conditions of a protracted period of transit in DP camps where emigrants constituted themselves hostage to the political arm-twisting between Britain and the United States about emigration quotas to Palestine and America respectively, are a powerful illustration of this.”10

As so little research has been done on the issue of moral restitution and even less comparative study, its specific elements cannot yet be analyzed Europe-wide. It seems thus best to look first at countries individually. As none is typical, it is difficult to achieve an overview by taking one as a paradigm. Some elements concerning specific countries do, however, give us indications of broader relevance.


Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre already wrote about the reintegration of Jews in French society in 1944:

Today those Jews whom the Germans did not deport or murder are coming back to their homes. Many were among the first members of the Resistance; others had sons or cousins in Leclerc’s army. Now all France rejoices and fraternizes in the streets; social conflict seems temporarily forgotten; the newspapers devote whole columns to stories of prisoners of war and deportees. Do we say anything about the Jews? Do we give a thought to those who died in the gas chambers at Lublin? Not a word. Not a line in the newspapers. That is because we must not irritate the anti-Semites; more than ever, we need unity. Well-meaning journalists will tell you: “In the interest of the Jews themselves, it would not do to talk too much about them just now.” For four years French society has lived without them; it is just as well not to emphasize too vigorously the fact that they have reappeared.11

Sartre adds that the Jews “have made a clandestine return, and their joy at being liberated is not part of the nation’s joy.”12 He continues: “In my Lettres Francaises without thinking about it particularly, and simply for the sake of completeness, I wrote something or other about the sufferings of the prisoners of war, the deportees, the political prisoners, and the Jews. Several Jews thanked me in a most touching manner. How completely must they have felt themselves abandoned, to think of thanking an author for merely have written the word ‘Jew’ in an article!”13

Over the past decades, France has attempted both to hide and to come to grips with its Vichy past. While this case is far too complicated to help us understand better the general complexities of moral restitution,14 it is worth noting that the French authorities were forced to acknowledge the Vichy regime’s racist actions because a few Jews continued to struggle for a public presentation of the truth. President Chirac finally admitted to this, in contrast to his predecessor Mitterrand, who had been too busy hiding the truth about himself.


Poland is an important case for study, even if few of the findings in its regard are applicable to Western European countries. The murder of more than 1,000 Jews in postwar Poland — between the end of the war and the middle of 1946 — tells us much about the way in which the returning Jews were received. More recently, a battle developed about moving the Carmelite convent which had been set up within the perimeter of the Auschwitz camp. In 2001, information about the Poles’ massacre of Jews in Jedwabne during the war was made public.15

In many Eastern European cities of which the Jews were either a substantial minority or even a majority before the war, their memory is excluded from local history. Last year, Jerusalem Post journalist Haim Shapiro visited Tarnopol in the Ukraine, where one-third of the population before the war had been Jewish: “we went to the local museum, which has a series of exhibits on the history of the city. It is well-planned and laid out, with a combination of dioramas with scenes of daily life, objects from the past, photographs, and other illustrative material….There is just one problem…there is no mention of the Jews. It is as if they had never existed.”16 This example, among many similar ones, teaches us how Jewish history in Europe will continue to be falsified if nobody fights the battle for memory.


Similarly, it was the Jewish struggle to correct history which ultimately forced Austria to change its position. Austrian Prime Minister Vranitzky was left with little choice but to admit — as late as the 1990s — that his country had promoted a false image of itself as a victim of Nazism. This was followed a few years later by a substantial resurgence of anti-Semitic propaganda in Austria in response to the international campaign against Kurt Waldheim. In his autobiography, the President of Austria had hidden the fact that, for several years, he had served as a Nazi officer in an area where crimes against the Jews had been committed.17


One of the worst cases of falsification of history concerns Latvia. The Letts played an important role in many of the anti-Jewish atrocities carried out there during the war. At the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga rejected her country’s responsibility for the fate of its Jewish citizens: “Latvia as a country having ceased to exist at the time, the Nazi German occupying powers bear the ultimate responsibility for the crimes they committed or instigated on Latvian soil.” If Jews give up the battle for memory, Latvia will be able to get away with its lies forever.


The Croatian case illustrates particularly well that, by not giving up, the truth may be admitted, even if half a century has passed. Croatia was the only country in which a local government — that of the Ustasha — operated a concentration camp independent of German assistance. Jasenovac has been called “one of the lesser-known but most brutal concentration camps of World War II.”18 Close to 100,000 Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies are estimated to have been murdered there.19

In late 2001, 56 years after the end of the war, President Stipe Mesic told President Katzav and the Knesset: “I profoundly and sincerely deplore the crimes committed against the Jews in the area controlled during Second World War by the collaborationist regime which, unfortunately, carried the Croatian name….I take every opportunity to ask forgiveness from those who were hurt by Croatians any time and any place, but first of all from the Jews.” Croatia has also helped to open the archives which provide information on its criminal past.

Also in late 2001, the United States Holocaust Museum announced its discovery and preservation of decaying documents and artifacts from Jasenovac. Peter Black, the chief historian of the museum, stated there were neither gas chambers nor crematoria in the camp; rather, the inmates were “murdered one by one with axes, guns, knives or prolonged torture. Bodies were buried or thrown into the adjacent Sava River.”20 Mate Maras, a Croatian diplomat, objected to some of the assertions made by the museum staff, but agreed that it was “a good day for Croatia to open up these sad pages of our history.”21

The Vatican

The wartime and immediate postwar history of the Vatican’s attitude toward the Jews is similarly very specific. The Vatican’s position is very ambivalent. The British historian John Cornwell, himself a Catholic, began to research Pius XII’s pontificate with the conviction that the late pope would be vindicated. He experienced deep moral shock when he found that the material he had uncovered should lead to a wider indictment — rather than exoneration — of Pius XII.

Against this background, one understands why Prof. Robert Wistrich and Prof. Bernard Suchecky have resigned from the Catholic-Jewish commission studying the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust. The commission suspended its activities in July 2001, after the Vatican failed to answer several dozen preliminary questions, and refused to allow the scholars access to unpublished materials in its archives.22

Under public pressure the Vatican has recently announced that it will gradually open its secret archives from before, during, and after the war; this is in order to confront the accusations about the role of Pope Pius XII. It has been promised that archives covering the period to 1939, when he was still Vatican ambassador to Germany, will become accessible in 2003.23 As far as the postwar period is concerned, it would be very interesting, for instance, to have more detailed information about the way in which high-ranking Vatican officials helped Croatian war criminals to flee through Italy after the war and thus escape punishment.

Denmark, Sweden, Iceland

Even Denmark has a more checkered Holocaust history toward the Jews than many believe. Only two years ago, it was revealed by historian Vilhjalmur Orn Vilhjamsson that Denmark had deported 21 German Jews back to Nazi Germany, where they perished or disappeared. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israel Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote in the daily Berlingske Tidende: “The articles published recently in this paper reveal that Denmark implemented a restrictive anti-Jewish refugee policy in the 30s and in the 40s and, on its own initiative, sent German Jewish refugees back into the Nazi inferno. We also know now that at least one Danish company exploited slave labor in Estonia and that the negative attitude toward stateless Jews persisted even after World War II. If we add the decades-long cover-up of these issues, the refusal of some agencies to allow research into these questions, and the failure of the Danish authorities to prosecute Danes who committed Nazi war crimes, the picture is far bleaker than we ever imagined.”24

Zuroff mentions that Sweden did not investigate Swedish war criminals and that Baltic war criminals found refuge there from 1944 onward, with the knowledge of the Swedish government. Swedish archives on these matters remain closed.25 He adds that Iceland’s national soccer coach Atli Edvaldsson is “using his prominence as a sports hero to rewrite the history of his Estonian Nazi war criminal father.”26

The Netherlands

Although all national cases are atypical with regard to the general European situation, studying the moral restitution process in The Netherlands is among the more meaningful. There is substantial information available on several elements of moral restitution, although no full overview can yet be given. Before the war, public anti-Semitism was limited there and its violent form was absent. Yet, after the occupation, while it was the Germans who ordered the deportation of the Jewish population, this was mainly carried out by the Dutch authorities. The percentage of Jews from The Netherlands killed during the war was higher than for any other Western European country: of approximately 140,000, about 35,000 survived.

One reason why The Netherlands is so apt a case study is that Dutch wartime history is particularly well-documented. There is a persistent myth that the Dutch generally behaved courageously and helped Jews during the war. The main contributing factor to this is Anne Frank’s diary, which ended before she could mention that, while she and her family were hidden by good Dutchmen, they were probably betrayed by bad ones.

This myth seems to be indestructible. For instance, in early 1986, Claude Lanzmann visited The Netherlands for the television screening of his film Shoah. He stated that, while he was not doing that for other countries, he was coming to The Netherlands in view of “the impeccable wartime record of the Dutch toward the Jews.”27 Even as recently as 2001, the Jewish Travel Guide wrote in its introduction to The Netherlands: “the Germans transported 100,000 to various death camps in Poland, but the local Dutch population tended to behave sympathetically toward their Jewish neighbors, hiding many.”28 The discrepancy between the wartime image and reality is probably still greater for The Netherlands than for any other country.

Negative Attitudes toward Returning Dutch Jews

It is not the fault of Dutch historians that the myth persists. The government institute NIOD has researched the country’s wartime history in great detail. Prof. Hans Blom, its present director, described in 1986 the Dutch wartime attitude towards the Jews: “The population and the bureaucracy were equally cooperative and deferential, especially in the first years of the occupation. The immediate and strictly enforced segregation policies of the Germans were not only accepted but even willingly and efficiently assisted. With few exceptions, opposition to the occupation and sabotage of the Germans’ measures came relatively late and had little to do with the persecution of the Jews. By the time there was a large-scale underground, it was too late for the Jews.”

Another motif that merits study is how the present Dutch government skillfully embellishes history with respect to postwar attitudes toward the Jews in their country. The way in which the Jews were received after the war was given attention by the Jewish historian Jacques Presser: “There is little doubt that, certainly in the initial period after the liberation in The Netherlands — and not only in The Netherlands — there have been significant phenomena of — let’s put it neutrally — a negative attitude towards the returning Jews.”29

Among other examples, Presser relates the experience of a Jewish school teacher returning to Dutch society: “‘The good Jews are dead. The bad Jews have returned.’ That’s what a colleague of mine, a teacher, had to listen to from his boss in front of a full hall, when he returned from horrible experiences.” The boss in question was a generally respected personality.30 Later analyses of anti-Semitism in The Netherlands after liberation were carried out by historians Dienke Hondius31 and Michal Citroen.32

One of the most painful elements of the period immediately after the war was the Dutch authorities’ attitude toward Jewish children, and particularly orphans. A struggle for custody of these children ensued between the remnants of the Jewish community and Christian members of the committee dealing with the issue. Israeli historian Joel Fishman states: “Upon examining the administrative development and ideological basis of the Commission for War Foster Children, one may observe that, from its inception, its spirit and structure were inherently offensive to the Jewish minority, and, of necessity, predicated an adversary relationship.”33

The most poignant definition of the Jews’ position in postwar Holland has been given by the contemporary historian Isaac Lipschits, who called his book about that period The Little Shoah. He explains its title by saying: “In the liberated Netherlands, the Jews were not physically threatened. However, we do find other symptoms of the Shoah. Verbal anti-Semitism became sharper; the despoilment of the Jews continued….Deportation and extermination had come to an end, but the…isolation of Jews continued….The [postwar] reception was so cold, bureaucratic, hostile, humiliating, so disappointing that I call the post-war period ‘the time of the Little Shoah.'”34

One example: Th.S.G.J.M.van Schaik, the Catholic Minister of Transport and Energy, praised railway men who went on strike toward the end of the war, because they had not gone on strike while transporting the Jews: that would have been bad for the economy.35

Embellishing the Past

The report of the main Dutch commission of inquiry into supplementary financial restitution — named after its chairman, van Kemenade — was published immediately after the Stockholm Forum in 2000. In anticipation of this document, Prime Minister Kok’s speech at that gathering was submitted to more than usual scrutiny. One of his claims was that “the restoration of legal rights in the impoverished postwar Netherlands was basically correct from a legal and formal point of view.”36

Kok, the leader of the Labor party, should have known that even the van Kemenade report would hardly support this conclusion. The commission writes: “In retrospect, a special arrangement for the Jewish victims of persecution would have been justified.”37

Embellishment of the past is not an isolated phenomenon. The present Dutch government does not want its political predecessors to be judged according to their deeds. Distortion of history is a moral, not a financial, matter. The Dutch Jewish community is too weak, too indifferent, too ignorant, and probably also too frightened to fight against this.

Moral Aspects of Financial Restitution

The debate over financial restitution also has other important moral aspects. Should a society share the burden which has hit some of its members particularly hard? In 2001, the Dutch state paid compensation to those farmers whose animals had to be burned because they were — or might be — infected with foot-and-mouth disease. In times of serious floods after the war, the burden was usually not left to be shouldered alone by those who had irretrievably lost possessions. Already in 1953 large amounts of Dutch government money were paid to victims of a flood. Showing solidarity is a moral choice, of which laws are only an expression.

The democratic Dutch government made a different moral choice after the Second World War: Jews had been unfairly discriminated against and exc