Holocaust Revisionism in Europe: Three Questions for Rabbi Andrew Baker

5 min read
On April 12, GMF and American Jewish Committee (AJC) hosted a conversation focused on Holocaust revisionist history, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism within Europe.

On April 12, GMF and American Jewish Committee (AJC) hosted a conversation focused on Holocaust revisionist history, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism within Europe. Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism and Director of International Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, was one of the expert panelists at the event that examined the re-emergence of disputed Holocaust narratives and how the United States and Europe, and civil society organizations are responding to such challenges. The joint GMF-AJC event took place during the U.S. annual weeklong observance of the Holocaust, marking "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day," or Yom HaShoah Ve-Hagevurah, as it is officially called in Hebrew.   GMF Senior Fellow Jonathan Katz asked Rabbi Baker to share his thoughts on the challenging issues of Holocaust revisionist history and addressing anti-Semitism and rising illiberalism in Europe.

How alarmed should American and European officials be about this disturbing trend that is also tied to growing nationalism and democratic backsliding?

Rabbi Baker: We have seen in the last three decades a revival of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe in places where many people never imagined it would return. Numbers may be small after being decimated in the Holocaust, but today there really are thriving Jewish communities in countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and of course, Hungary, which has the largest Jewish population in Central Europe.

What their future holds and how safe and secure they feel are not so much questions of physical security. Incidents of anti-Semitism in this part of the world are still relatively few. It has more to do with the attitudes of the public and of political leaders.  Are they seen as members of a society that is open to diversity, that appreciates the Jewish contribution to life and culture in these places and that feels that their history, which is so complicated and problematic, is understood and respected? We are seeing a growing authoritarianism and with it an increase in right-wing populist extremist rhetoric, much of which is explicitly anti-Semitic. Those who hold these views have little interest in being reminded of their country’s Holocaust-era history.

Do you think the response of the United States,  European countries,  and international community have been strong enough in responding  to the significant uptick in Holocaust revisionism and rising anti-Semitism? Should more be done in Washington and in capitals across Europe to push back on these dangerous trends? 

Rabbi Baker: We really believed as far back as 20 years ago that we were making very real progress. These countries were beginning to accept the need for a critical review of their own history, particularly with regard to the Holocaust period. We saw that the work of historical commissions and other international partnerships were resulting in a critical and objective view of the past. This history would now become part of the curricula and new text books and would result in museums that would tell an engaging but accurate history. If you had asked me as recently as ten years ago, I would have said the prospects are markedly positive in all these countries, some moving more rapidly than others but all still in the same right direction.

Now, I think a lot of it is up for debate. We again see a revival of fascist-era figures that we believed were marginalized or even removed ten years ago. And sadly, these right-wing populist movements and parties are making inroads especially with young people today.

So, it is very hard to be sanguine, as we look in this region now.

You have spent decades focused on addressing anti-Semitism and Holocaust issues in Europe and the United States and working closely with governments and civil society on human rights issues writ large. You also witnessed up close the miraculous democratic transformation across Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What are the lessons learned you can share with those government officials and nongovernmental organizations like GMF as historical wounds are reopened?

Rabbi Baker: We had, at a certain point, considerable leverage, as these were countries that were seeking membership in NATO or membership in the EU. They recognized that to be accepted, they needed to address these issues. They might not have decided to do it on their own.

Civil society organizations here in America became the real partners of these governments when it came to joining NATO. We could help propose the ways they could address this problematic past, through historical commissions, through negotiating on the return of former Jewish property, through measures to combat anti-Semitism. In this way they could demonstrate that other, less quantifiable but still important measure of “readiness” for NATO—not NATO the military alliance but NATO the community of values.

The goal, of course, is to get back to this positive direction. I think to speak of it as backsliding, which it is, may even understate the challenges we have today. Twenty years ago, we were dealing with governments that might have only been ignorant or unsure of what steps they should take. But that is no longer the case. Viktor Orbán has traveled quite a distance from the inspiring young Liberal opposition leader he was when we first met. We do not need to debate whether the anti-Soros campaign which was central to his recent election victory was or was not anti-Semitic. He has always been careful in his rhetoric to avoid anything explicitly anti-Semitic while still appealing to the anti-Semitic voter.  And sadly, he is not alone today.

Of course, we will not turn our back on this. We must accept that our “success” was incomplete and short-lived and still keep working at it.