European values after Auschwitz

Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany has constructed the first monument honoring the half million gypsies murdered in the Holocaust.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung  reported the news with a photo of the memorial above the fold in Wednesday’s edition along with an inside story entitled “Denkmal für die ermordeten Sinti und Roma wird eingeweiht”.

Published from Munich, the Süddeutsche Zeitung or SZ is Germany’s largest circulation daily newspaper and follows a centre-left editorial line. The SZ story reports the facts of inauguration of the monument in Berlin — and also takes a few shots at the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel for its asylum policies. The thwack it gives Germany’s interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU party (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern) — a local boy from Bavaria — is not unexpected. Yet its attack, voiced through the mouth of Mr. Romani Rose, the leader of Germany’s Central Council of Sinti and Roma, is expressed on the moral grounds of not being in accordance with European values.

I am sympathetic to the gypsy spokesman, Mr. Rose’s, denunciation of German attitudes and government policies towards gypsies. But what exactly are European values? Once upon a time they were Christian values, albeit imperfectly followed but piously espoused. In a post-Christian, post-Auschwitz  Europe what exactly underlies the concept of moral value?

The SZ story begins by recounting the ceremony in Berlin that marked the opening of the monument to the gypsies murdered between 1933 to 1945. The monument had been planned for almost 20 years, but disagreements with the Central Council of Sinti and Roma led to the delay in its construction. The importance of the ceremony was underscored by the presence of Germany’s chancellor, president and political leaders — a point made by Berlin’s Die Tageszeitung. The top half of the SZ story closes with this paragraph:

Mit dem Denkmal setze die Bundesregierung ein Zeichen, “das nicht allein in die Vergangenheit weist, sondern vor allem Verantwortung für Gegenwart und Zukunft symbolisiert”, betonte das Dokumentations- und Kulturzentrum Deutscher Sinti und Roma. Die zwölf Millionen Sinti und Roma in Europa seien “noch heute täglicher Diskriminierung ausgesetzt”. Der “zunehmende Rassismus in Europa” bedrohe nicht nur die Minderheiten, “sondern die europäischen Werte an sich, deren Kern die Menschenrechte und die Menschenwürde sind”.

Which roughly and imperfectly translated means:

With this monument the Federal Government has put up a sign “that points not only to the past, but is symbolic above all of its responsibility for the present and future” said the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma. Europe’s twelve million Sinti and Roma are “still exposed to daily discrimination”. The “rise of racism in Europe” threatens not only minorities, “but the core European values of human rights and human dignity.”

The SZ then has fun and gives Mr. Rose the opportunity to chastise the interior minister for the government’s “discriminatory” and racist asylum policy, which he charges prevents gypsies from escaping to Germany from the Balkans. The quote provided by the minister is wonderfully pompous and bureaucratic, essentially saying that gypsies do not meet the criteria of a persecuted people in Serbia and Macedonia. In giving the minister equal space, the SZ has allowed him to make a fool of himself. The exchange is framed in such a way as to make the interior minister seem heartless — lacking in the European values of die Menschenrechte und die Menschenwürde (human rights and human dignity).

Where is the God-shaped hole in this story you ask? It is in the claim that Europe’s core values are human rights and human dignity. What does that mean?

Whose conception of rights? What understanding of dignity?

The ghosts I see hovering in the background of this story are the continuing shadow the Nazi era casts over Germany and the debate over the place of Christianity in the European identity. The place of Christianity — including the concept as to whether human rights and human dignity are innate as they are God-given, or constructs of the secular state — has animated debates over the place of God in the EU constitution.

The post-Nazi era treatment of the gypsies reflects this grappling with morality without grounding in God. The Nazis exterminated the gypsies — why? One Romani scholar noted that some histories of the Holocaust failed to understand that the “criminality” associated with gypsies

was attributed by the Nazis to a genetically transmitted and incurable disease, and was therefore ideologically racial; instead, writers focused only on the “antisocial” label resulting from it and failed to acknowledge the genetic connection made by the Nazi race scientists themselves.  In 1950 the Württemburg Ministry of the Interior issued a statement to the judges hearing war crimes restitution claims that they should keep in mind that “the Gypsies were persecuted under the National Socialist regime not for any racial reason, but because of their criminal and antisocial record,” and twenty-one years later the Bonn Convention took advantage of this as justification for not paying reparations to Romanies, claiming that the reasons for their victimization during the Nazi period were for reasons  of  security  only. Not one person spoke out to challenge that position, the consequences of which have hurt the survivors and their descendants beyond measure, though at that time the French genealogist Montandon did however observe that “everyone despises Gypsies, so why exercise restraint?  Who will avenge them? Who will complain? Who will bear witness?”

Am I a cynic, or overly fussy, when I hear newspaper talk of European values and the European ideal? How should a thoughtful journalist handle this issue? There is a danger of entering a suffering Olympics — ranking the sufferings of Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Catholics, socialists/conservatives/communists at the hands of the Nazis. I am not speaking here about special pleading for one group, but asking how a reporter can report on the language of European morals in a post-Auschwitz world?

Or, is this a loaded question? When did you Germans stop beating your wives? Is it time to forget and move on? What say you GetReligion readers?

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    A couple thoughts. Given how “imperfectly followed” those Christian values were – and how Christian anti-Semitism fed into the Holocaust – “Am I a cynic, or overly fussy, when I hear” talk of Christian values? I mean, Hitler explicitly grounded his racism in the idea that the various ‘races’ had been created separately by God. (Hitler wasn’t a Christian, but neither was he an atheist – he was a quasi-Christian semi-Pagan syncretist who thought Jesus had been Aryan.)

    And if you’re bringing up racism – is there ever room in such coverage to report what scientists say about ‘race’ and ‘eugenics’? (For example, from a genetic perspective human ‘races’ are indistinguishable – given person A and B of the same ‘race’, and person C of a ‘different’ one, you’re just as likely to find that A and C are gentically closer overall than A and B.)

    I am not speaking here about special pleading for one group, but asking how a reporter can report on the language of European morals in a post-Auschwitz world?

    Are you asking for the same scrutiny everywhere, though? If someone uses the word ‘morals’, must they immediately identify a particular philosophical framework they are referring to? Was even, say, Chik-Fil-A’s president Dan Cathy meeting this standard when he said they supported “the” “Biblical” definition of marriage? Is that specific enough, given that there are Christian denominations willing to solemnize same-sex marriages?

    • geoconger

      Please note this blog is not the place to debate the underlying issues that you have raised, e.g., the source of Hitler’s racism, the biological roots of racism, etc.

      The question present is the reporting, not the underlying issues. Thank you, George Conger

  • sari

    “Where is the God-shaped hole in this story you ask? It is in the claim that Europe’s core values are human rights and human dignity. What does that mean?”

    They mean whatever the writers of such documents want them to mean. We’ve seen how the original meaning and intent of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution have changed over the centuries. As with the Bible, the more time that passes, the less we really know about the individuals involved and their intent .

    “Whose conception of rights? What understanding of dignity?

    The ghosts I see hovering in the background of this story are the continuing shadow the Nazi era casts over Germany and the debate over the place of Christianity in the European identity. The place of Christianity — including the concept as to whether human rights and human dignity are innate as they are God-given, or constructs of the secular state — has animated debates over the place of God in the EU constitution.”

    I think you are asking for a different article, one which examines whether or not Christian “values” underlie current European “values” and which portrays Christian values in a positive light. Like Ray, I believe that the history of Europe’s Christian institutions, leaders and followers cannot be divorced from the discussion, particularly the very big divide between these “values” (quotes are deliberate) and actual behavior. We speak here of collective sins rather than those of the individual, similar to the fine line between sociopaths, who commit heinous crimes only with the support of and in the company of a group, and psychopaths, who fly solo. The Nazi era rightly casts a pall over Europe; it serves as a constant reminder of how base people can become when they follow any leader blindly -and- the complicity of many churches in the atrocities that were committed. *That* discussion will be possible only if people are willing to make an honest assessment of how Christian influence, values and morality influenced European history for both good and bad.

    Did the article include any discussion of the Gypsy’s religion and language, the cultural differences that set them apart from other Europeans, particularly those of Western Europe?

    It would really, really be nice to have the block quote, italics, etc. functions back.

    • suburbanbanshee

      Religions. The Rom/Sinti generally share cultural beliefs which in some cases include religious beliefs, but the religions followed by individuals and groups of Rom/Sinti generally mirror the majority or most friendly religion of the areas where the individuals/groups live or used to live. Sometimes things get syncretistic.

  • Pingback: European values after Auschwitz: Get Religion, October 26, 2012 « Conger


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