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The International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

Holocaust recognition as our contemporary European entry ticket?

On the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, we reflect on the words of the historian Tony Judt who in 2005 referred to the Holocaust recognition as the contemporary European entry ticket.

Sixteen years later, in 2021, does Tony Judt’s statement still hold true?

Europe’s history has been plagued by conflict, divisions and exclusions. World War II and the Holocaust have in part led to Europe as it is known today. The events and the aftermath were a catalyst for the foundation of the EU. In 2005, Tony Judt wrote that the “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket,”[1] yet sixteen years later, with the rise of far-right radicalism and populism as well as a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, Holocaust recognition is under renewed threat. The aim of this paper will be to examine to what degree Tony Judt’s statement is valid in modern day Europe. The historical process of the European countries’ confrontation with their troubling past will be examined, followed by a discussion on Holocaust recognition in contemporary Europe.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a “universal character of neglect”[2] prevailed in European countries. The Holocaust was not discussed, but rather “shrouded in silence, or even faded into oblivion.”[3] Jewish people were not welcomed back into society[4]and in the legal context, they were not recognized for their suffering, receiving no benefits or compensations.[5] As a result, they continued their “wartime survival strategy,”[6] hiding their identity and not publicly discussing their suffering.[7] Europeans aimed to forget the Holocaust, even shielding themselves with a so-called “collective amnesia.”[8] Judt draws upon the French historian, Henry Ruosso, who describes this phenomenon as the Vichy syndrome, the “decades-long difficulty of acknowledging what had really happened during the war and the overwhelming desire to block the memory or else recast it in a usable way.”[9] Each country created its own version of the Vichy syndrome,[10] recasting certain parts of their history by implementing “self-serving local illusions”[11] and creating “compensatory national myth-making.”[12] The Netherlands, for example, recast themselves as nation that had resisted Nazism, disregarding the fact that over 20,000 Dutchmen volunteered for the SS.[13] As Ernest Renan asserts, “Forgetting….is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality.”[14] According to Judt, a certain amount of forgetting is “the necessary condition for civic health.”[15] A nation must first remember something before it is able to forget it and in order to do so, the nation must properly understand and remember something as it truly was.[16] Thus, only after Germans endured a “a sixty-year cycle of denial, education, debate, and consensus”[17] were they able to live with their past and begin to move on. In the 1960s, the Holocaust became a part of national memory in Western European countries.[18] Legal proceedings and trials against Auschwitz guards began, and the statute of limitations for murder was extended beyond 20 years.[19] A shift in the public perception of the Holocaust began to take place in Germany and it became essential to German democracy that Nazism not be forgotten.[20] Nevertheless, a distinction continued to be made between recognizing the actions of the Nazis and recognizing the “collective responsibility”[21] of the Germans. Despite the progress in the public and legal realm, integrating the Holocaust into German and European history remained a problem.[22]

By the end of the 20th century, the Holocaust was anchored in western European identity and memory, but concerns remained regarding European’s acknowledgement and recognition of this period in history.[23] In Eastern Europe, Holocaust memory did not develop to the same extent as it had in Western Europe.[24] Most of the Eastern European countries were under communist rule at the end of the 1940s and from 1989–1991, isolated by the Iron Curtain and thus unaware of the Holocaust memory underway in the West.[25] Due to the suffering endured through communism, a “comparative victimhood”[26] as well as a juxtaposition of Communism and Nazism dominated in Eastern Europe.[27] Memories of communist crimes, such as the gulag memory remained and were treated with more importance than the Holocaust memory.[28] In Western Europe, on the other hand, the Holocaust memory had become a “cornerstone of European memory and identity.”[29] The process of Europeanization[30] of Holocaust memory first began after Eastern European nations were no longer under communist rule and were seeking to become a member of the EU, European Council and NATO.[31] The post-communist Eastern European countries had to create their own Holocaust memory while at the same time accepting and joining in the European Holocaust memory.[32] However, whereas Western Europeans dealt with Europe’s past and memory by memorializing them,[33] Judt argues that the Holocaust memory was not easily integrated into memory in the former communist Eastern European countries.[34] It thus becomes clear that although Europe was united, “European memory remained deeply asymmetrical.”[35]

The Holocaust was seen as an “unquestioned moral value” [36] that everyone should be able to agree upon and so it was according to the Holocaust that international cooperation began to be reestablished in the period after the Cold War.[37] The Holocaust memory led to the establishment and development of “‘a common European cultural memory”[38] that surpassed ethnicity and nationality.[39] Resistance to German national socialism and occupation in Europe drove “European political thought towards political constructions which superseded the nation-state.”[40] European unity was thus created against the backdrop of the Nazi ideology and worldview.[41] The Holocaust is not only a part of European history – the memory of the Holocaust and of those who suffered and died have become the “definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity.”[42] It is for this reason that Judt argues that “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket.”[43]Europe became determined to define itself as a Europe that takes responsibility for crimes and genocide, as can be seen in the cases of Poland and Romania, both of which had to recognize Jewish suffering and their role in the suffering in order to be considered to become an EU member state.[44] Turkey has not yet recognized the Armenian genocide as such, which is seen as a barrier to its EU membership.[45] Crimes and genocides, whether before or after the Holocaust, are politically significant, since they are regarded as “partial instances”[46] of the Holocaust and as such Europe must take responsibility for them. Europe’s confrontation with its past and the embodiment of this past in its collective memories have been one of the main accomplishments and causes of European unity.[47] However, this accomplishment can be reversed or even overturned if it is not constantly reaffirmed.[48] Judt argues that the recent past is already becoming unknown to the young European generation[49] and as Delanty states, Europe is “under the perpetual threat of fragmentation from forces within European society.”[50] This can be observed in modern day Europe.

In the past few years, far-right radicalist and populist movements have been gaining traction throughout Europe, in part fueled by European citizens’ overall dissatisfaction with the EU.[51] Their success can also be linked to the refugee crisis in 2015, with radicals and populists playing on fears of immigrants, in particular the growing Muslim population. An extreme example of this is the populist Nigel Farage, who in part inspired the Brexit movement by denouncing the open border policy of the EU and mass immigration.[52] Huntington hypothesized over twenty years ago that immigration and thus the interaction of Western and Islamic civilization[53] would not only be a source of conflict but a “clash of civilizations,”[54] which is to a certain extent reflective of contemporary Europe. A surge in far-right radical behavior and violence has been and continues to be observed in Germany ever since the Alternative for Germany party (Afd) became the first far-right party to win seats in parliament since World War II and has become active in every German state legislature.[55] The party is known for having an anti-immigrant and nationalist agenda, even echoing neo-Nazi views.[56] The refugee crisis sparked this particularly. In June 2019, a German politician known for his pro-immigration stance was assassinated by an individual of the far-right and in October 2019, a synagogue was attacked in Germany, after which the Afd was condemned by other parties for fueling this type of violence with itshateful speech.[57] Similar trends of anti-immigrant party agendas can be observed all throughout Europe. In the summer of 2019, Italy’s former populist interior minister, Matteo Salvini, continuously fought against the arrival of refugee boats from Northern Africa and even in Sweden, a country known for neutrality and tolerance, the far-right anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party has been making gains in the polls.[58] This anti-immigrant sentiment has also spilled over into an anti-Semitism displayed through the rise in anti-Semitic crimes. In fact, Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, stated that the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe not only endangers but "’poses an existential threat to the Jewish community’"[59] and he labeled the “receding memory of the Holocaust, rising far-right sentiment and radical Islam”[60] as the root causes behind this development. According to a report published in 2019 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, in which young Jewish Europeans were questioned on their perspectives and experiences of antisemitism, out of over 2700 participants, 4 in 10 stated that they have considered emigration due to feeling unsafe as Jews and 80% of the participants reported having previously experienced anti-Semitic harassment.[61] A parallel can be drawn to European society pre and post-World War II, as, with the rise of violence and attacks against the Jewish community, Jewish people are forced to resort back to their “wartime survival strategy.”[62] Earlier this year, the anti-Semitism commissioner in Germany warned the Jewish community against wearing kippas in public.[63] In 2018, Polish legislation made it a criminal offence to accuse Poland of complying with Nazi war crimes.[64] The decision was later backtracked and made to a civil offence, yet the impact remained. [65] Poland exemplifies Eastern Europe’s persistent struggle with integrating this part of their past into their memory. In fact, one may even so go so far as to say that Poland is experiencing a relapse of the Vichy syndrome. These recent trends and developments are clear indications that Holocaust recognition no longer holds its place as the European entry ticket that Judt once professed it to be.

In conclusion, the Holocaust was initially widely ignored in many European countries in the period following World War II. Once these countries recognized and accepted their involvement, Holocaust recognition essentially became an entry ticket into the EU. However, in contemporary Europe, an anti-Semitic climate fostered by right-wing radicals and populists is endangering this long process of Holocaust recognition. This is a particularly urgent problem as the last survivors of the Holocaust are on the brink of dying out and the danger looms of the process being lost with them. All European countries must ensure that Holocaust recognition remains an intricate part of their culture. Otherwise, Europe risks losing the status and image it took so many years to achieve – Europe as the guarantor and defender of Holocaust recognition and as a progressive and democratic union.


Associated Press. “Senior Rabbi Warns About Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe.” New York Times. October 24, 2019.

Bennhold, Katrin and Eddy, Melissa. ‘‘’Hitler or Höcke?’ Germany’s Far-Right Party Radicalizes.” New York Times. Oct. 26, 2019.

Delanty, Gerard. “The Ambivalence of Europe,” In: Gerard Delanty, Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Reality, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995.

Eddy, Melissa. “Germany Moves to Tighten Gun and Hate Speech Laws After Far-Right Attacks.” New York Times. October 30, 2019.

Farage, Nigel. “Immigration will be the defining issue of this EU referendum campaign.” The Telegraph. August 21, 2015.

“German Jews warned not to wear kippas after rise in anti-Semitism.” BBC. May 26, 2019.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?,” In: Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22-49.

Judt, Tony. “From the House of the Dead: An Essay on Modern European Memory,” In: Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. London: Heinemann, 2005.

Kucia, Marek. "The Europeanization of Holocaust Memory and Eastern Europe." In: East European Politics & Societies and Cultures 30, no. 1 (2016): 97-119.

Kuttner, Robert. “Sweden Shows No Country is Immune to Far-Right, Anti-Immigrant Backlash.” The American Prospect. September 11, 2018.

Levy, Daniel and Sznaider, Natan. "Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory," In: European Journal of Social Theory 5, no. 1 (2002): 87-106.

Milward, Alan S. The European Rescue of the Nation-State. 2nd ed. London;New York: Routledge, 2000, doi:10.4324/9780203982150.

“Poland Holocaust law: Government U-turn on jail threat.” BBC News. June 27, 2018.

Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?”, text of a conference delivered at the Sorbonne on March 11 , 1882, In: Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, Paris: Presses-Pocket, 1992.

Vollaard, Hans. “How the European Union Falls Apart.” EUROPP. July 2, 2018.

“Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism.” European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. July 4, 2019.

[1] Tony Judt, From the House of the Dead: An Essay on Modern European Memory, (2005), 803. [2] Ibid., 808. [3] Marek Kucia, The Europeanization of Holocaust Memory and Eastern Europe, (2016), 97-98. [4] Judt, From the House, 804. [5] Ibid., 805. [6] Ibid., 806. [7] Ibid., 807. [8] Ibid., 808. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid., 809. [11] Ibid., 812. [12] Ibid., 809. [13] Ibid. [14] Ernest Renan, What is a Nation?, (1992), 3. [15] Judt, From the House, 829. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid., 830. [18] Kucia, The Europeanization, 97-98. [19] This change of pace was in driven in part by anti-Semitic vandalism at the end of the 1950s and the recognition that the young German generation did not know enough about the Third Reich. See Judt, From the House, 810. [20] Ibid. [21] Ibid., 811. [22] Ibid. [23] Ibid., 820. [24] Kucia, The Europeanization, 97-98. [25] Ibid., 97-98. [26] Judt, From the House, 823. [27] Ibid. [28] Kucia, The Europeanization, 114. [29] Kucia, The Europeanization, 114. [30] Kucia defines the Europeanization of Holocaust memory as the process of “construction, institutionalization, and diffusion of beliefs…as well as formal and informal norms and rules regarding Holocaust remembrance and education” that are first decided at the European level and then implemented by the European member states. Kucia, The Europeanization, 98. [31] Ibid., 99. [32] Ibid. [33] Judt, From the House, 826. [34] Ibid., 827. [35] Ibid., 826. [36] Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory, (2002), 97. [37] Ibid. [38] Kucia, The Europeanization, 100. [39] Levy and Sznaider, Memory Unbound, 88. [40] Alan S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State, (2000), 13. [41] Ibid. [42] Judt, From the House, 804. [43] Ibid., 803. [44] Ibid., 803-04. [45] Ibid. [46] Ibid., 804. [47] Ibid., 830. [48] Ibid. [49] Ibid. [50] Gerard Delanty, The Ambivalence of Europe, (1995), 3. [51] Hans Vollaard, “How the European Union Falls Apart,” EUROPP, July 2, 2018, [52] Nigel Farage, “Immigration will be the defining issue of this EU referendum campaign,” The Telegraph, August 21, 2015, [53] Huntington defines civilization as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity.” Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?, (1993), 24. [54] Ibid., 22. [55] Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Eddy, ‘‘Hitler or Höcke?’ Germany’s Far-Right Party Radicalizes,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2019, [56] At a political rally in Dresden in 2017, Hoecke, who is in charge of the party in the German state of Thuringia, called on the German people to reverse the country’s guilt in the Holocaust and in World War 2, “calling on Germans to make a ‘180 degree’ turn in the way they viewed their history.” Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Eddy, ‘‘Hitler or Höcke?,’” Oct. 26, 2019, [57] Melissa Eddy, “Germany Moves to Tighten Gun and Hate Speech Laws After Far-Right Attacks,” New York Times, October 30, 2019, [58] Robert Kuttner, “Sweden Shows No Country is Immune to Far-Right, Anti-Immigrant Backlash,” The American Prospect, September 11, 2018, [59] Associated Press, “Senior Rabbi Warns,” About Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe,” New York Times, October 24, 2019, [60] Ibid. [61] “Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism,” European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, July 4, 2019, [62] Judt, From the House, 806. [63] “German Jews warned not to wear kippas after rise in anti-Semitism,” BBC, May 26, 2019, [64] “Poland Holocaust law: Government U-turn on jail threat,” BBC News, June 27, 2018, [65] The Polish government declared that the law had fulfilled its “necessary effect” forbidding anyone from using the “defamatory phrase ‘Polish death camps’ with impunity.” “Poland Holocaust law: Government U-turn on jail threat,” BBC News, June 27, 2018,

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