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Painful debate on Holocaust draws Ireland closer to Europe

The Czech experience shows that wrestling with the horrors of the past is enlightening, writes Tomas Kafka

The recent remarks by Justice Minister Alan Shatter on Irish neutrality in World War Two and the ongoing discussion of the European fiscal treaty offer food for thought to friendly outsiders. As someone who has lived in this country for three-and-a-half years -- but has lived in spirit with Irish writers for many more years -- I hope I can contribute some constructive thoughts.

If I were asked what makes up the spirit of Europe today, I would point to two different, but simultaneously important, debates. The first is about the sustainability of the social market economy, and the second is about the involvement of each state in the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish population on the old continent.

Both debates have a lot in common -- but the questions are much easier to ask than to answer and could be seen as an ongoing German historical legacy which benefits any society which decides to engage with them.

A debate about the pros and cons of the social market economy is not really new in Ireland. It entered the public space as a fight between "Berlin" and "Boston" some years ago. Who is winning at the moment is relatively certain. Yet will it remain this way? That , I suppose, is the charm of this debate.

The other debate focuses less on the future and more on the painful past. Its purpose does not consist of searching for best practice but of considering what humankind is capable of when it effectively switches off its controlling system, and loses its general humanity.

The Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, Karel Schwarzenberg, spoke once in this regard about human nature, which cannot deny its origins in the "malevolent carnivorous ape". We may or may not agree with him -- but we should bear in mind that if we neglect our vigilance, someday we could switch off our humanity again.

It is important to underline that a Holocaust debate should not be seen as a tool to support our humanistic self-awareness. Despite the existence of a lot of academic courses and very valuable testimonies, it is impossible for any society to fully comprehend the extent of the Holocaust. It does not have anything to do with our intellectual capacities.

If we are honest, we who hail from the European Continent somehow know that in the context of the Holocaust we internalised the following rule: if you are not guilty it does not mean that you are automatically innocent.

Czech society began debating its collaboration with the Nazi plan for the extermination of the Jews for the first time in the 1960s, when during the Prague Spring novelists such as Arnost Lustig confronted their stunned readers with the tragic fate of their neighbours.

However, the resulting sentiment which the literature stirred up, felt more akin to pain than to self-criticism. It was perhaps too early to think along that line, as Czech society at that time was still prone to regard itself as a victim, and therefore not inclined to confront its own record as perpetrator.

For a more complex debate we had to wait another 20 years for the collapse of the communist system. Finally we could replace a relativising self-reflection, which refused to admit anything until the other side did the same.

This autonomous approach in the 1990s bore its own fruits: the increasingly sincere dealing with the Holocaust not only helped fill gaps in our history, but also let us realise that the real task for any enlightened society is to take care of its living victims.

This kind of "multiple" catharsis is something that I dare to characterise as the European dimension of this debate. It lets us accept our history as well as the history of our peers who are also struggling with the heritage of our continent.

This recollection of our Czech historical self-reflection is not, however, an end in itself.

Mr Shatter mentioned some examples of the Irish authorities not living up to the highest virtues of humanity at the recent opening of an exhibition on the Holocaust. He maintained that Irish neutrality in 1933-1945 could be seen, in the context of the Holocaust, as a principle of moral bankruptcy.

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It is not up to me to give any sort of assessment on this claim -- any eventual debate must be an Irish one. My intent is far from teaching anybody anything.

On the contrary. The recently deceased Czech President Vaclav Havel once stated that Germany means both pain and inspiration for us in the Czech Republic -- yet the sentiment could also apply to the whole continent.

Simply put, what I wish to say is: Irish friends, welcome to continental Europe.

Tomas Kafka is Czech ambassador to Ireland


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