It is essential to draw a sharp distinction between the remembrance of the Holocaust itself and the political lessons frequently drawn from it.
The Holocaust was without doubt one of the greatest tragedies in human history. It is completely right and proper it should be remembered.
On the other hand, the political conclusions drawn from it are often, to put it mildly, contestable. They frequently include arguments for the curbing of both democracy and political freedoms.
There are many examples but let’s just focus on one here. David Harris, the chief executive of American Jewish Committee, had an opinion piece for Fox News published yesterday entitled “Holocaust Remembrance Day – why we must never forget”. It gave four reasons why the Holocaust was of historical importance including: “prior to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, Germany had experienced 14 years of democracy in a country widely viewed as among the most educated, cultured, and developed. But democracy proved fragile, culture did not stop savagery and education proved no deterrent to brutality. Those sobering lessons mustn’t be forgotten.”
Although this is more-or-less true it gives a misleading impression. It is certainly the case that the Weimar republic (1919-33) preceded the Nazi period in Germany. It is also the case that Weimar Germany was one of the most educated, cultured and developed nations in Europe at the time.
The problem comes in relation to the reference to the fragility of democracy. Although Harris does not say so explicitly it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the problem with Weimar Germany was that it was too democratic. From there the next step could be to argued that democracy needs to be limited to protect itself against extreme movements such as Nazism.
This is of course not an academic question. I chose the Harris quote not because it was extreme but, on the contrary, it illustrates what is a common assumption in European political circles and beyond.
For example, the need to curb popular sovereignty was a central to the foundation of Germany’s Federal Republic (initially West Germany) after the second world war. This notion was embedded in what is sometimes known as wehrhafte Demokratie (defensive democracy). It is also referred to by the slightly odd-sounding term “militant democracy”: meaning that democracies must be prepared to defend themselves militantly against extreme threats. In my view “insulated democracy” is the most accurate term in that it encapsulates the idea of protecting democracy against what is regarded as the excessive influence of the demos (the general public).
For example, the German basic law (das Grundgesetz) gives the constitutional court (das Bundesverfassungsgericht) sweeping powers to override the elected legislature (der Bundestag). It has the power to enforce fundamental rights and declare statutes void.
The assumption that democracy must be constrained is also pervasive in the discussion of the Holocaust outside Germany. All too often the democratic nature of the Weimar republic is seen as opening the way for Nazis.
The problem with this claim is that it is untrue. Democracy in the Weimar republic was severely curtailed. As in fact were many individual rights.
Although the Weimar constitution of 1919 declared many sweeping sounding rights these were quickly qualified. In particular, its infamous article 48 gave the president extensive powers to rule by decree and declare laws and civil rights void, in ‘the state of an emergency’.
There were many other ways in which both democracy and individual liberties were constrained in Weimar Germany but I will not go into then here. For more details on some of these themes see my spiked long read on “The strangling of European democracy”.
If there was a problem with the Weimar republic it was not too much democracy and too much freedom but, on the contrary, too little.
It is a tragedy that the memory of the Holocaust if often used to justify curbs on democracy and liberties today.
Photo: By Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F083314-0010 / Schaack, Lothar / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5473101