Europe's soccer games have long been the preserve of boisterous fans, drunken brawls and riots. Lately, they have also become the province of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis who comfortably spew hateful epithets in the anonymity of crowded stadiums where they enjoy a troubling measure of support.
In recent years, soccer crowds have gone so far as to simulate the hissing of Nazi gas chambers, pairing the sound with Nazi salutes. In Belgium, Muslim fans at a soccer match between Israel and Belgium shouted "Jews to the gas chambers" and "strangle the Jews," while waving Hamas and Hezbollah flags. Freed from the restraints of acceptable behavior, with inhibitions loosened by alcohol consumption and the intense camaraderie of team spirit, soccer fans freely unleash anti-Semitic slurs with abandon and without fear of retribution.
This alarming behavior prompts questions as to whether anti-Semitism is becoming acceptable again in a Europe that has forgotten its Nazi past, and whether guilt has been supplanted by denial. Is the era of Nazism being re-examined and re-framed in a more positive light that contributes to such gratuitous and ugly outbursts?
Two recent disturbing incidents appear to support this idea, raising legitimate concerns that Europe is indeed repainting its Nazi past.
The first incident occurred on June 16 during the televised, Euro 2008 soccer match between Germany and Austria. The words to the nationalistic first stanza of Deutschland Uber Alles, usually avoided since the fall of the Third Reich, were displayed in subtitles on Swiss television.
Germany, Germany above everything,
Above everything in the world,
When it always for protection and defense,
Brotherly sticks together.
From the Meuse to the Neman
From the Adige to the Belt.
Responding to the controversy generated by the broadcast, SRG, the Swiss company that televised the offensive lyrics, claimed that the editors who were responsible for subtitling for the match made an innocent mistake as a result of stress and poor research. The national coordinator for subtitling, Gion Linder apologetically stated, "We are going to hold a special history lesson for all German-speaking staff to explain the issues surrounding the national anthem."
Also at the Euro 2008, the No. 4 designee on the list of most-wanted Nazi war criminals and on Interpol's Most Wanted list cheered the team from his native Croatia at the European Championship in southern Austria. Milivoj Asner, the 95-year-old former police chief and Gestapo agent who sent hundreds of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies to their deaths, lives openly in Klagenfurt, Austria, under an assumed name, although his real identity and his Nazi-affiliated past is known and in some cases, admired by locals.
Former Austrian Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider, whose party was accused of supporting an anti-Semitic platform, refers to Asner as a "treasured" neighbor and told Der Standard, the Austrian daily newspaper, "He's lived peacefully among us for years, and he should be able to live out the twilight of his life with us."
Shielding Asner from justice, the Austrian government has resisted efforts to prosecute him. When Croatia demanded his extradition in 2005, Austria initially claimed that Asner was an Austrian citizen and was thereby exempt from extradition proceedings. Later admitting that he lacked Austrian citizenship, the authorities insisted that Asner was too ill to stand trial. Recently, the Austrian government informed a group of Jewish Nazi hunters that Asner was "not capable enough to be questioned or go before a court." Yet, a fit, confident Asner was recently filmed on a three-hour outing, strolling about town, attending a soccer match and visiting local cafes.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Jerusalem-based, Simon Wiesenthal Center, which hunts Nazis and war criminals worldwide, exclaimed,
"Austria has long had a reputation as a paradise for war criminals and now they've been caught in the act. It is time for them to do what is right and help bring Nazi war criminals to justice. If this man is well enough to walk around town unaided and drink wine in bars, he's well enough to answer for his past."
Zuroff added, "This is clearly a reflection of the political atmosphere which exists in Austria and which in certain circles is extremely sympathetic to suspected Nazi war criminals."
Ironically, in March, Austria assumed the chairmanship of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. Clearly, by allowing a leading Nazi war crimes suspect to live freely in its midst, Austria demonstrates a poor commitment to Holocaust remembrance and derides the importance of seeking justice for its victims.
These two incidents, the posting of the lyrics to the Nazi anthem and the indifference to the presence of a wanted Nazi war criminal, indicate that Europeans may be beginning to rethink their Nazi past and view it in a more acceptable light. To nonchalantly dismiss the seriousness of the "mistaken" subtitles as job stress and ignorance and to shield a former member of the Gestapo from prosecution, indicates fading memories of the Nazi-era atrocities and, more seriously, a refusal to admit Europe's complicity in the greatest crime against humanity in modern times.
These incidents are not isolated. They occurred against a background of steadily increasing anti-Semitism in Europe since 1990, according to multiple country surveys conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In 2002, the ADL found that 1 in 5 Europeans harbor strong anti-Semitic views and that 49% of those surveyed believe that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In Europe, comparisons are often made between Israelis and Israeli soldiers and Nazis and the SS. These simplistic comparisons ignore the basic reality that that Israelis are fighting suicide bombers and rocket barrages in a defensive war against annihilation and the Holocaust was a premeditated genocide against an entire religious group. The insistence that Israel's current struggle to survive is on a par with the inhumanity of the Holocaust is a blatant distortion. It is fueled by an undercurrent of Jew hatred.
It has also become commonplace in Europe to hear the Holocaust downplayed as an atrocity and equated instead with current racist attitudes. This, in effect, softens the immensity and horror of the Holocaust. It becomes recast as merely a social gaffe that only occasionally is carried to extremes by small groups, rather than its reality as a systematic, mass extermination. Such soft-pedaling of the Holocaust helps engender and legitimize anti-Semitism and should be a grave cause for concern for the future of European Jewry.
Despite philosopher George Santayana's well-known warning - "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." - Europe appears today stubbornly headed down the road to forgetting its past. This bodes poorly for the future of Jews on the continent and has chilling implications for all of us worldwide.