This year, International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place just weeks after right-wing extremists stormed the United States Capitol. It is now our duty to reflect on this event and act on history’s lessons from 1930s Europe, when the world failed to prevent extremist groups from rising to power – with disastrous effects.
Today, in addition to the storming of Parliaments and Capitols from Germany to the United States, we see the hate-fuelled tactics of right-wing extremist groups becoming more violent, and distrust of democratic institutions becoming more mainstream. Failure to understand the urgency of this moment could have catastrophic consequences; there is now a fierce necessity for us to confront the anti-democratic forces of today.
The Holocaust demonstrated what can happen when a dangerous ideology is coupled with extreme power and left unchecked. At the same time, however, the Holocaust’s devastation showed the world the value of democratic principles, which encourage the development of informed and engaged communities centred around cooperation, transparency, and honesty.
With these values in mind, after the Second World War, the international community tried to develop institutions and mechanisms to mitigate the chance that conditions like those that led to the rise of Nazism would occur again. Though these institutions have not always succeeded, the value of the universalist principles that form their foundation endures, representing an ideal for all societies to strive for.
Today, the rise of anti-democratic populist movements gravely threatens this value system and the fundamental freedoms that flow from it.
The threat of anti-democratic movements
Experts have long understood that there is a strong relationship between an honest sense of history and healthy democracies. When one is put in peril, declines can be seen in both. The frequent use of Holocaust imagery and symbolism at rallies is therefore more than just offensive. Whether in the form of a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, yellow stars pinned to the shirts of people demonstrating against coronavirus measures, or comparisons to Sophie Scholl and Anne Frank, they represent attempts to desensitize people to the history of the Holocaust – to its facts. They symbolize the rejection of the lessons of this history and the value system built in its wake.
Taking inspiration from their 1930s counterparts, today’s anti-democratic movements seek to advance a world based on white supremacy, racism, antisemitism, and discrimination. And, much like the toxic media landscape of the 1930s, which trafficked in rumours and opinion, today’s social media platforms often act as an artery through which anti-democratic propaganda is pumped, breeding an environment where facts are habitually undermined and hate speech, disinformation and outright lies find fertile ground.
Anti-democratic movements seek to advance a world steeped in division. This is one which can easily slip into war and genocide. The mainstream political parties of late-1920s and 1930s Germany were only too willing to make concessions to the extreme right. We cannot repeat this fatal mistake.
The task ahead of us
Though the historical parallels are cause for alarm, those of us who value democracy, freedom and equal rights for all have a tool in our arsenal that our counterparts did not: the lessons of history. We must ensure that the extremist positions of today do not gain traction across society.
Social media companies can be part of our movement to tackle the enemy. We must engage them and provide them with the support to help in this effort. Further, co-operation with Holocaust-focused institutions, such as museums, memorials, and those authentic sites where the Holocaust occurred is essential. Together we must ensure the world is equipped to recognise and push back against dangerous content, and to counter it by spreading positive fact-based content instead.
Such steps will help upgrade our ability to work against the dangers of fascist, populist, racist, and antisemitic ideologies that threaten our shared democratic values. This will form the required foundation to fight back against disinformation and extreme right-wing forces.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a moment to remember the atrocities and facts of the Holocaust and to commemorate its millions of victims and survivors. It is in honour of their legacy, in honour of the value system they helped to build, that we must appreciate the urgency of countering the anti-democratic populist movements of today.
Governments and citizens around the world must build a united front and assemble a choir of voices to counter this evil. As stated recently by Ambassador Michaela Küchler, Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), “Our freedoms, our lives and the viability of our democracies depends on it.”
Dr. Kathrin Meyer is the Secretary General of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.