By Marvin Hier
founder and dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center
Once again, on the eve of his departure to New York to deliver a speech Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thumbed his nose at the world by declaring the Holocaust “A lie based on an improbable and mythical claim.” His remarks drew universal condemnation, led by Germany’s Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who called Iran’s President, “a disgrace to his country” and the EU, which accused him of “encouraging anti-semitism and hatred.”
Which brings us to the larger question: What kind of reception will Ahmadinejad get at the General Assembly? Will the presidents and prime ministers and their delegations inside the hall put his Holocaust denial aside and opt for the pragmatic role of just sitting and respectfully listening to his speech> Or will they find the courage to get up and walk out, demonstrating that there must be consequences for such tyranny?
Unfortunately, history is replete with examples where pragmatic reasoning prevented us from confronting tyrants and oppressors.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler already had a stained reputation. A year earlier, he had promulgated the Nuremberg Laws, which deprived Jews of their citizenship and isolated them from German society. His Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, convinced him that it was in Germany’s best interest to do everything to bring the Olympics to Berlin. This, he argued, would enable Hitler to showcase the Third Reich to an international audience. Hitler agreed and, in a few weeks in August during the games, the streets of Nazi Germany were free of anti-Semitic posters and newspapers limited their attacks on Jews.
Forty-nine countries were sold on the pragmatic approach. They overlooked Hitler’s racist crimes and rushed to the Berlin Games, bringing with them prominent businessmen from around the world, who wound up praising the accomplishments of Hitler’s Reich.
Which led Frederick Birchalls, of The New York Times, to write then that the Olympics put the Nazis “back in the fold of nations,” and even made them “more human again.” That’s what we do when we provide a platform and sit there and listen to Ahmadinejad – we bestow legitimacy on him and his regime.
Tragically, that policy of pragmatism was never available to the victims of Nazism. In 1938, a few months after Kristallnacht, the parents of Eric Lucas who lived on the border of Germany sent their young 9-year-old son to safety in England. Despite repeated attempts to get a Visa to join him there, they were unable to do so and perished in the Holocaust. Before being deported to the death camps, they wrote their son a final letter, which said in part, “We shall never see you again, was there no space in the whole wide world for us two old people…. Was there nobody who could have helped….”
The Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad are betting their future on that same pragmatism, on the unwillingness of President Obama and the Europeans to act decisively against them. On their ability to again divide the major powers by announcing, at the last minute, that they’re again open to dialogue on the nuclear issue, providing Russia and China just enough of a carrot for them to attempt to delay any crushing sanctions that would be voted against Iran.
Speaking at his swearing in ceremony Ahmadinejad said of his critics, “They said they would recognize the election but will not congratulate. Nobody in Iran is waiting for anyone’s congratulations.” Ahmadinejad is absolutely right. The regime is not looking for praise from the President of the United States – what it is counting on is his stubbornness and insistence to pursue dialogue with them at any costs.
But what would the millions who perished at Auschwitz and Maidanek say about those who flock into a hall to listen to a demagogue? They would probably paraphrase the question that Eric Lucas’ parents posed: Why was there no space in the whole wide world for us? And why is there always a place at the table for the likes of an Ahmadinejad?
Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.