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News Analysis: Sweden Fights Holocaust Ignorance by Hosting Forum, Sparking Education

January 31, 2000
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One of the first international political meetings of the new century dealt with ethics and values, rather than issues of war and money.

That’s what French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin pointed out as the most significant legacy of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, which closed last Friday.

Previous Holocaust-related conferences have dealt with restitution of Nazi-era assets, but this gathering of representatives from 46 countries focused on education, remembrance and research. The forum ended in declarations that nations must open their World War II-era archives, war criminals must be prosecuted, Holocaust education must be promoted and future attempts at genocide must be prevented.

“The world community should be tremendously grateful to Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson,” said Yehuda Bauer of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. “This is the first time in history that heads of states and top politicians met to discuss educational issues. It has never happened before.”

But while Persson won high praise from conference participants, some of his fellow Swedes believe he had political motives in organizing the conference. They suspect Persson mainly wants exposure on the international political scene.

Once looked upon with worldwide approval for its extensive welfare system, the “Swedish model” has been on the retreat in recent years. The Holocaust education project offers a new platform for Sweden to regain its status as a great moral power in the world.

“Persson’s action is opportune and well timed, and completely uncontroversial,” said Swedish historian Kim Salomon.

Others dismiss such arguments as cheap shots.

“Without obvious indicators that it’s all tactics, one should actually believe in him,” said Swedish author and former Deputy Prime Minister Per Ahlmark.

Other critics said Sweden has not yet come to terms with its own actions during World War II. It is not a secret that Swedish neutrality carried a high moral price.

A few examples: The Swedish government allowed German forces to pass through the country on their way to occupied Norway. Not until the end of the war, when it was clear the Allies would win, did Sweden actively start its refugee aid.

Sweden was one of the countries that asked the Germans to put a “J” in the passport of Jews to be able to sort out those refugees.

Before the conference, Persson declared that his government will promote and support research on this era in Swedish history.

He also dedicated about $5 million to promote Jewish culture, identity and history. The money will be used for a Jewish college in Stockholm.

Many speakers during the conference stressed the importance of learning from the Holocaust to prevent other attempts at “ethnic cleansing,” referring to what happened in Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia in recent years.

“I am absolutely convinced that continued Holocaust education and awareness will continue to raise our sensitivity and consciousness to mass slaughters and genocide, and impel us to prevent them or try to stop them as early as possible,” said Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. deputy treasury secretary, who represented the United States in the negotiations leading up to a $5.2 billion German compensation fund for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers.

Eizenstat also emphasized the importance of nations opening up their Nazi-era archives to scrutiny.

“There is simply no excuse for any country or institution at this point not fully declassifying their archives and their documentation,” Eizenstat said.

Conference participants discussed not only the prosecution of aging Nazis and their collaborators, but also those who deny the genocide ever occurred. Irvin Cotler, an expert in human rights law, said Holocaust deniers should be brought to justice.

“This is not a matter of free speech. They are engaged in an international criminal conspiracy to cover up the biggest crime in history. They are undermining the very values of free speech,” Cotler said.

Neo-Nazi activity in Sweden, once considered a problem mainly for the Jewish community, has gotten a lot of attention in the past 12 months.

Last spring theater director Lars Noren caused a huge debate when he used convicted neo-Nazis as amateur actors in a play in which they were allowed to express their racist ideology on stage. The story took an ironic but tragic twist when the actors used their rehearsals outside a jail as an opportunity to plan a robbery, which resulted in a police officer’s death.

Also, there was a bomb attack on a journalist covering neo-Nazis in Sweden, and a union member in Stockholm was shot to death after he had publicly opposed the possible membership of a neo-Nazi.

Lack of knowledge among Swedes about the Holocaust was what Persson said had spurred the Stockholm conference, along with his “Living History” project, a national campaign to enlighten people about the Holocaust.

Persson had cited a survey that showed every third high school student in Sweden wasn’t sure whether the Holocaust had taken place. Soon afterward, a booklet about the history of the Holocaust was distributed free to anyone interested. Schools were provided with extensive educational material.

A short time later, however, it was revealed that the survey’s numbers had been misinterpreted and lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among schoolchildren was not so widespread. But by then the project was already under way.

It lead to the creation of a nine-country Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research that helps train teachers how to teach about the Holocaust.

At the suggestion of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, there will be an annual conference on “Conscience and Humanism” in Stockholm.

“I don’t know what your role will be in Swedish history, but I know what it will be in Jewish history, Wiesel told Persson in his opening remarks at the conference. “It will be glorious.”

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