Editor’s Note: Heiko Maas is the German foreign minister. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
This year, Germany celebrates a special anniversary: Ancient documents have found that people of Jewish faith have been living in today’s Germany since the year 321.
This anniversary reminds us how deep our Jewish roots run, and of the great extent to which they shape who we are in Germany to this very day. What would our philosophy be without the thinking of Moses Mendelssohn or Hannah Arendt? What would the natural sciences be without Albert Einstein? How much poorer would our lives and our culture be without the music of Gustav Mahler, the poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler or the stories of Heinrich Heine or Franz Kafka?
Yet the 1,700-year-old history of Judaism in Germany can unfortunately not be told without also speaking about persecution, genocide and hatred of Jews. Hence, we are humbled and grateful that, today, once again some 200,000 Jews are a part of German society.
However, to this day, anti-Semitism has not disappeared. It just keeps shape-shifting. This is becoming evident in the wild conspiracy theories surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Anyone who marches through the streets of Berlin alongside right-wing extremists bearing a sign that reads “Impfen macht frei” (“vaccinations set you free,” referencing the quote “Arbeit macht frei,” or “work makes you free,” on the gates of Auschwitz), or storms the US Capitol wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, is not a peaceful protester but an anti-Semite. He or she mocks the victims of National Socialism, or Nazism, plays down its horrific brutality and destroys civilized values that are fundamental to our coexistence and our democracy.
All democrats have a duty to clearly call this out. As the current chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), Germany therefore wants to move forward the fight against such dangerous lies, the distortion of facts and the trivialization of the Holocaust, also at a global level. We have therefore initiated a Global Task Force Against Holocaust Distortion so that, together with our partners, we can defend these universal values. This week, leading international researchers have presented to us their recommendations for countering Holocaust distortion. These indicate there is an urgent need for action, and four main ones can help ensure that we tackle this problem efficiently.
First, the current digital nature of anti-Semitism means that it knows no borders. That is why, now more than ever, we must combat it globally, in a coordinated way. It may not always be easy to draw a line between freedom of opinion and hate speech, between ignorance and the deliberate distortion of facts.
So, as a first step, it is important for us and our global partners to develop a common understanding of what we consider as Holocaust distortion, and how to combat it. We are working on this together with our partners in the IHRA, the European Union, UNESCO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). However, domestic authorities, too, must be part of the effort. A recent study shows how, already today, right-wing terrorists and conspiracy theorists are forging close networks online. Our security authorities must counter them by working in even closer coordination.
Second, education is the best way to overcome prejudice and a superficial knowledge of history. During our presidency, we have ensured that the IHRA Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust were disseminated to be widely used around the world. Already in 2019, Germany launched a European network focused on using education as a tool to combat antisemitic stereotypes. Yet the question of how to identify Holocaust distortion and what we can do about it must become a fixture of the curricula at our schools and universities globally, and of the material we use in our police and judicial training programs.
Third, memorials, museums and educational institutions that deal with Holocaust-related issues require solid political and financial support. Last year, we made a multi-year funding pledge for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and the World Holocaust Remembrance Center at Yad Vashem. Even during the trying times and budgetary constraints of this pandemic, Germany must and will live up to its special responsibility.
Lastly, we must finally get a grip on anti-Semitism and hate-mongering on the internet. It is a good thing that companies such as Facebook are no longer denying that they hold great responsibility in this regard. However, while the lies of former President Donald Trump about alleged election fraud in the United States are clearly labeled as such by Twitter, lies about humanity’s worst crime, the Holocaust, are all too often not called out.
The key to doing so is closer cooperation between platform operators, researchers and civil society organizations, which are best placed to distinguish between facts and false claims. Much remains to be done in this regard – as violent protests in front of the Reichstag in Berlin last summer, or on the steps of the US Capitol have taught us in recent weeks.
What is absolutely essential, however, is that society must not stay silent when these attacks on truth, our democracies or our fellow citizens happen. What we across the world truly need is greater vigilance when facing such abominations, greater civic courage and greater solidarity.