Yes, apologies for Shoah behavior still matter
More than 60 years after the Shoah official apologies from countries and institutions which collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust still trickle in. Eastern European heads of state have almost turned these into a ritual when they visit Israel. But also in Western Europe the apology phenomenon continues. Last autumn, entirely unexpectedly, Aad Veenman, president of the Dutch Railways, offered an apology to the Jewish community of the Netherlands for his company’s behavior during the Second World War. The railways transported, on German orders, Dutch Jews to the transit camp Westerbork and from there to the German border on their way to extermination. By contrast, in 1945, a few months after the war ended, Th. S.G.J.M. van Schaik, the minister of transport and energy in the first postwar democratic government in The Netherlands, expressed the opposite view. He publicly praised the Dutch railway workers for not going on strike rather than transport the Jews, saying: “It was the duty the Dutch government asked of you, because the railways are one of the pillars on which the economic life of the Netherlands rests, and that should not be put at risk too early.” On the occasion of the railways’ recent apology Frans Peeters, an editor of the Amsterdam daily Het Parool, called Van Schaik’s remarks “the most cruel sentence ever pronounced by a Dutch minister.” THE DUTCH government has still not offered its apologies for the misbehavior of its wartime predecessors. The Dutch authorities in The Netherlands collaborated with the German occupiers in many illegal measures against the Jews without the government in exile in London reacting. There are many proofs that that government had hardly any interest in the fate of the Dutch Jews. When Queen Beatrix visited Israel in 1995, she said in the Knesset: “The people of The Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow-citizens.” She admitted there that the minority of Dutchmen who had resisted the Germans behaved exceptionally compared to their fellow-citizens. At the major Stockholm Holocaust conference in January 2000, Swedish Prime Minister G ran Persson apologized for his country’s attitude toward the Jews during the Second World War. There, on the same day the then Dutch prime minister, Wim Kok of the Labor Party, spoke and did not offer any apologies. A few days later, he apologized under pressure, but only for the behavior of the postwar Dutch democratic governments mainly concerning the failures of the restitution process. A FURTHER development came when, in March 2005, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, a Christian Democrat, visited Jerusalem on the occasion of the opening of Yad Vashem’s Holocaust museum. He called the deportation of the greater part of Dutch Jewry “a pitch-black” chapter in Dutch history. Balkenende was criticized by several major Dutch papers for not apologizing for the government’s failure, and was compared unfavorably with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who at the same event said: “Two years ago I recalled the share of responsibility of my country by mentioning the role that some Belgian civil servants and administrations have played in this tragedy. I want to repeat these apologies today.” One month later, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary symposium of the Dutch Center for Documentation and Information on Israel, Balkenende became, after 60 years, the first Dutch prime minister to mention finally the collaboration of the Dutch authorities during the war with Nazi Germany, again without apologizing for it. WHY ARE formal apologies for misbehavior during the Holocaust so important? Some critics stress that those who apologize are not the ones who misbehaved. While that is true, they do represent the same institutions. Other critics say that many of the apologies made – for instance those during the restitution negotiations – were not morally motivated, but rather represented political pressure or fear of economic boycotts in the United States. Yet other critics of apologies say that the main thing is to tell the history as it was. Stressing the painful truth once again – earlier this month – Austrian President Heinz Fischer said that the 1955 Declaration of Independence of his country falsely represented Austria as a victim of the Nazis rather than as a co-perpetrator of crimes. Despite all criticism apologies by governments, institutions and companies for their wartime behavior remain extremely important. Once these have not only recognized their guilt, but have also offered apologies, a common basis of what is normative has been established. They constitute a clear declaration of irrevocable guilt toward their Jewish counterparts. These apologies will remain well-documented for future generations, after all Holocaust survivors have passed away. At a time when the president of Iran and others, not only in the Arab and Muslim world, unashamedly deny the Holocaust while at the same time promoting a new one, official apologies – and the historic mark they make – assume an even greater importance than in the past. The writer is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Several of his books analyze European anti-Semitism and post-Holocaust issues.