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Op-Ed: Europeans still need Holocaust lessons

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — A man convicted of Holocaust denial in Germany and France was scheduled to become president of the European Parliament this summer. It is only a ceremonial post, one awarded to the oldest European parliamentarian, but it is an honor nonetheless — and the honor was to go to French racist Jean-Marie Le Pen. His fellow parliamentarians changed the rules last week to deny him the post.

But it says something that a known Holocaust denier, particularly one who continues to publicize his historical lies, was even in a position to become president of the European Parliament. While it reflects badly on his French constituents, it also says that there is still much work to do to sensitize and educate Europeans about the Holocaust and the moral imperative it teaches.

And make no mistake about it, Le Pen is hardly the only well-known person minimizing the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Dadeus Grings, who leads a diocese of nearly 1 million Catholics in Brazil, claimed that “more Catholics than Jews died in the Holocaust, but this isn’t known because the Jews control the world’s media.” Before that, controversial British bishop Richard Williamson said, “There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies!” The president of Iran, the leader of Hamas and others proclaim that the Holocaust is a myth or exaggerated.

Why, some might ask, should we care about this right now, given all the very real problems we are facing at home and abroad? The answer is simple: The way in which the Holocaust is remembered is a good indicator of the health of a society.  Where the Holocaust is denied and the truth is under assault, freedom and humanity often suffer as well.

For those of us in America and elsewhere in the free world, it may be hard to believe that such blatantly untrue rantings can find a receptive audience except by Jew haters and lunatics. A quick Google search produces a massive amount of irrefutable evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities, but those who spread vile lies about the Holocaust often are not shamed into silence.

Holocaust deniers’ insidious words are dangerous because one of the lessons of the Holocaust is that civilization is fragile and the descent into barbarism can be shockingly quick. Without moral leadership and strong public rejection of intolerance, free people can quickly become slaves, ordinary people executioners.

Since the word genocide was created in 1944, the world has witnessed the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia, the Hutus’ slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda and the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. These horrors transpired after the world vowed “Never Again.” It is the memories of all those tragedies that Jean-Marie Le Pen, Dadeus Grings and Richard Williamson also desecrate when they deny the Holocaust.

While words will not kill, verbal assaults on history are dangerous nonetheless, for they give support to those who would act on their evil intentions if given the chance.

One such man is Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has threatened to destroy Israel. He believes, as do many in the Middle East, that if the Holocaust is questioned, so too is Israel’s legitimacy. As stated by Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, at a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran: “If the official version of the Holocaust is thrown into doubt, then the identity and nature of Israel will be thrown into doubt.”

When evil men state their intentions to destroy those who stand in their way, we must take them seriously because history has shown — and in Europe, the reminders are everywhere — that evil men will try, and can succeed.

(Warren L. Miller is chairman of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a federal government agency that works with foreign governments to preserve endangered sites of cultural and historical significance.)

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