Explore More »

Sixty-Five Years Later: The Meaning of Humanity in Action

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010.


My involvement with HIA is informed by my story as a child. I hid from German occupiers and their Dutch collaborators, fled from one place to another, and lived at 18 different addresses. I was betrayed, arrested, I spent time in a prison cell with three adults before arriving at the camp where it all began in the summer of 1943. I remember the horrifying deportation train that I had seen with my own eyes. As a child-survivor, I was fortunate. I was rescued by a number of people: resistance workers, ordinary families, and, last but not least, by my own father, who jumped from the train, and managed to help my mother and me escape from the camp in 1943, the very day our name was on the deportation list.

This experience became my source of inspiration. It marked the beginning of my involvement in the fight against racism and discrimination and the violation of human rights and human dignity. From the beginning, I considered discrimination a universal problem, not a Jewish problem, but a matter that concerns all minority groups, worldwide. A nation’s degree of civilization is measured by the way majorities treat their minorities. A decent society is a society without first-and second-class citizens, without Ubermenschen and Untermenschen. This is key.

For many reasons, it has been difficult for me to discuss my childhood experiences. First of all, I was a child. How relevant is a child’s memory? Second, I survived. Shouldn’t I just be grateful, since so many were less fortunate? Third, I talked of facts and figures beyond human imagination. People had no idea how to respond and often preferred to change the subject. A conspiracy of silence began. We should be future oriented, people said. Fourth, as a child survivor, I feared I was being too subjective, too emotional and that I had no right to speak out, certainly not about related, present-day issues. Yes, I could speak up once a year, on Commemoration Day, but that is it. Enough is enough. We shouldn’t live in the past. Finally, people like me who are obsessed by moral issues and consider WWII as an ethical compass always see things in terms of Good or Evil. We are politically correct, and as the years passed, political correctness became a term of abuse. We became responsible for introducing taboos, preventing people from speaking, calling them racists when they just wanted to express their worries about foreigners, immigration and multicultural society. (Could this be the blackmail of history?)

The core question for me is: should the Holocaust still be seen as an ethical compass and the spiritual foundation of a contemporary democratic civilisation? Are there any lessons to be drawn from this blackest page in history? The answer is not straightforward. First of all, in order to learn, one requires an explanation; however, many authors, including Primo Levi, tell us there are no explanations: Hier gibt es kein Warum – here, there is no why. Second, the explanations we had been able to come up with are no longer relevant. The Holocaust is a unique phenomenon, and by unique, I mean incomparable. Each comparison with contemporary atrocities, ethnic cleansing, genocide, or what have you, is false.

Peter Hayes, the editor of the reader Lessons and Legacy asks valid question: “Can we afford to be empty-handed when future generations ask painful and relevant questions?” Even when the Holocaust as a conglomerate of events is incomprehensible and unique in itself, we still have a duty to unravel the clues and figure out where each of the threads stem from. The  clues and threads are abundant: the flare up of nationalism after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, huge mass-unemployment and unbridled inflation during the 1930s, fascination with German mythology, Sturm-und-Drang  magic  among  artists  and intellectuals, institutional weakness of the Weimar Republic, incompetence of the ruling parties and above all, as Daniel Goldhagen has pointed out, virulent anti-Semitism, deeply rooted in the German-Christian traditions. Terror in the streets increases, mainly directed against Jews, fellow citizens were silent, felt intimidated, looked away. In his controversial book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen stressed an important point: It was not Hitler who invented anti-Semitism, it was anti-Semitism that invented  Hitler. Though this does not explain the Holocaust as such, it explains why so many people, ordinary citizens in Germany and all over Europe, were willing to undertake the job of annihilating an entire people, killing with pleasure, as a daily routine. Hannah Arendt has described the workings behind the mechanism: Once you dehumanise people and turn them into inferior beings, the next step of killing them does not seem so atrocious.

This is, of course, a very confrontational explanation because the mechanism of dehumanisation is still at work in many parts of the world today. Racism, xenophobia, and human degradation are the order of the day and have intensified since  9/11. Though the Holocaust remains unique, the ultimate evil, and resists comparison with other genocides, we continue to search for comparable trends, traces, root causes, and mechanisms: degrading people, violating human  dignity, creating racial policies are such mechanisms.

Here we are: the main lesson to be learned from the Holocaust  is that we should fight any form of racism. Because it should never happen again. However, things are not as simple as  that. Sixty-five years later, three generations after the Holocaust, mainstream thinking and the definition of racism have changed drastically. What was seen as racism in the 60s was defined as xenophobia (or even Fremdenangst) in the 80s and populism today. What is wrong with populism? Shouldn’t politicians grant a voice to the men  in the  street? Shouldn’t we  get rid of all these taboos of former  generations? This logic has resulted in the emergence of a new taboo: racism.

Historical comparisons, historical parallels are now highly controversial and elicit a great deal of anger. A famous Dutch novelist, Joost Zwagerman, wrote a booklet titled “Hitler in Holland” and quoted a number of striking examples of abuse of the Holocaust in politics today. At the extreme right end of the political spectrum, Geert Widers compared the Koran to Mein Kampf in his short film, Fitna (2008); the extreme left used the slogan Hamas, Hamas, Joden aan het gas (Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas). Another controversial event was Mark Rutte’s proposal, as leader of the liberal party, to remove all judicial restrictions from freedom of expression. Asked during his press conference whether this means that the denial of the Holocaust from now on will not be a penal offense anymore he answered, “Yes,” upsetting his rank and file. Obsessive defenders of the freedom of expression as a fundamental right without  any restriction should be aware of the fact that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are given free hand. One of the main issues today is the question: is it correct to compare Islamophobia with anti-Semitism? I do think that both phenomena are varieties of the same kind of mechanism, putting one group of citizens in one basket as a whole and accusing each of them being inferior because they belong to that group. But that is, certainly within the Jewish community, a controversial opinion. And to make things even more complicated: Mr. Wilders, our champion in Muslim-bashing, is a close friend of Israel. Maybe it is time to listen to the advice of the well-respected former left-wing politician, Abram Burg, who wrote a sensational book, concluding that his countrymen are kept hostage by their trauma. The book is titled: The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes.

It is now sixty-five years after the Holocaust. The child I was in those years is now 75. And I tell you: If we really do want to keep the message behind WWII alive, we have to admit that the world has changed enormously since 1945. We cannot afford to live in the past, even not when the past lives in us (as in my case). For most people today, WWII is just a page in a history book, assuming that they have ever seen one. The present generation cannot be held responsible for what happened then. Apart from the question if it has been fair to speak of a collective guilt in the past, it would certainly be unfair to blame Germany today.

Today, Germany belongs to the most decent countries in Europe. Later generations invested a great deal in coping with the past (Vergängenheits- bewaltigung), more than any other country (including the Netherlands). In recent days, Germany has even become a pacifist country and voted against the war in Iraq, an action that received unjust criticism  from former allies. On the other side of the spectrum, we are confused by the fact of former victims waging war in the Middle East, suppressing the rights of the Palestinians, occupying part of their territories and violating human rights. Although we are all shocked by the fact that anti-Semitism (especially the new anti-Semitism, as it is called) has resurfaced, this phenomenon is overshadowed by a new kind of racism: Islamophobia. This phantom has dominated the scene since September 11, and Islamophobia reached new heights after the assassination of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004. The Netherlands became the most intolerant country in Europe as far as Islam is concerned. It looks as if the clash between civilisations, predicted by Huntington, is overmastering us, based on stereotypes and prejudices from both sides.

Some believe that freedom of expression includes the right to insult and that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are part of the game. On the other hand, a university professor’s farewell speech was censored recently because he claimed that there is a direct link between anti-Semitism in the 1930s (all Jews are cannibals) in the Third Reich and anti-Semitism in the Arab world today. Fortunately President Obama introduced a new age in Western-Muslim relations on the same day that Wilders’ party became second in the Netherlands at the European elections.

Times have changed, but history has not. There are lessons to be learned which are relevant today. A scary tendency exists among modern historians to change history, when they write about the need to “normalize” WWII. They are looking at the facts and figures without a moral imperative, abstracting themselves from the notions of good and bad; they write history without emotion and without moral judgment. “This quest for scientific knowledge without the compass of morality and the rudder of ethics may be a deadly passion,” writes Franklin H. Littell in Lessons and Legacies. Story-telling is not enough. “We reach for lessons that will help the next generations to find their way to better years than we in our generation have lived through in this century of genocide.” I agree with this warning.

The only logic behind commemorating the Holocaust, year after year, is to provide insight into the ethical choices that were made under those circumstances by all the main actors: by perpetrators, by collaborators, by victims, by resistance workers, by rescuers and by–the large majority of–bystanders. Facing history and ourselves. What would we have done under those circumstances? And what are we doing today, when new forms of genocide are on the rise? And, most importantly, what do we do with the mechanism that preceded this human catastrophe: the mechanism of dehumanisation, of degrading people, of racism and discrimination, of dividing the world into superior and inferior people, superior and inferior races, superior and inferior  civilisations?

The Holocaust was a breaking point in the history of humanity. Some pessimistic voices declared the Holocaust as the end of civilisation. I have a more optimistic view. For me, the end is the beginning of civilisation, for two reasons. First of all, immediately after WWII, humankind became aware of the crucial importance of a number of basic values. They were codified in several international treaties, ratified by most of the nation-states all over the world: the Universal Declaration of Fundamental Human Rights, the treaty to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination, the Convention on Refugees, the Charter of the United Nations, the Treaty against Genocide, the European Convention of Human Rights, the brand new European Charter, and so on and so forth. Together, they form the basis of the acquis humanitiare–the humanitarian legacy–the corner-stone of the beginning of an international order, which we have to respect. The process of implementation is far from perfect. But the norms are there. The ethical compass is available and cannot be ignored. Second, the implementation of these norms asks for a permanent fight. An uphill battle, when positions have to be taken, sometimes against the mainstream of public opinion. This is certainly true today. Taking a stand against the mainstream demands civil courage. The easiest way to behave is standing by, looking away. But, as George Bernard Shaw once said, the worst sin against humanity is not hatred, but indifference. Of course, any comparison with resistance workers during WWII is false, because they risked their life in the middle of terror and oppression, as did my many rescuers, some of them paying with their life. They died while I survived. It is not easy to live with that idea sixty-five years later. The best we can do to honour them is to identify ourselves with the ethical compass they were bearing, and pass it on from one generation to the next. This is what Humanity in Action is about.

 •     •     • 

About the Author

Ed van Thijn is the founder and former chair of HIA Netherlands. He is the former mayor of Amsterdam. He entered politics in 1962 (Amsterdam City Council], became a Member of Parliament in 1967 (Labor party], and Minister for the Interior in 1981. In addition, he is the author of several books, including Memories of a Child Survivor.


Van Thijn, Ed. "Sixty-Five Years Later: The Meaning of Humanity in Action." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 120-131. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.
Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands


    Ed van Thijn
    Ed van Thijn
    Board Member
Browse all content