Earlier this month in Madrid, the people of Spain witnessed something that has become all too common throughout Europe recently. In shades of a much darker time, neo-Nazis marched through the streets to “honor” the Blue Division, the Spanish troops who fought with the Nazis. Think about that for a moment. Who are these marchers really honoring?
In the long, lamentable history of Europe, with its many wars, plagues and famines, there has been nothing as barbarous and destructive as the period between 1933 and 1945, when Nazi Germany sought to spread its hatred, backed up by its bizarre racial science, to the entire continent. In just six years of war, these virulent ideas left practically every European country in ruin, its people starving and millions upon millions dead. It made the medieval period look almost tame in comparison. Spain was luckier than most, because your cities were spared and your citizens were relatively safe.
Make no mistake. Jews are always the first victims of hatred, but they are never the last
But at this recent march, various speakers stretched out their arms in the stiff Nazi salute and many in the crowd saluted in return. Some wore swastikas. One young woman, Isabel Medina Peralta, blamed all the ills of Europe today, on, of course, the Jews. There was even a priest, Javier Utrilla Avellanas, who spoke there. To the credit of Vatican, the extreme splinter group that this priest belongs to is not recognized by the Church.
All Spanish citizens should be very alarmed to see this in the streets of their capital city. Even though the numbers hardly represent a threat to your government, any signs of allegiance to Nazism or fascism are more than worrisome.
Today, 76 years later and three generations after the end of the war, we seem to have arrived at a time when people have forgotten just how dangerous these ideas really are. Shortly after the war ended in 1945, and the pictures of the piles of human bodies and the bombed-out cities were seen across the world, no one in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Nazis.
But now, decades later, people have forgotten, or they were never taught about where this kind of hatred really ends. That young woman at the rally, Ms Medina Peralta, who blamed the Jews, was following a time-honored tradition. From the Middle Ages to today, the Jewish people have always been the first ones blamed for anything that went wrong. During the Black Death, when people didn’t understand pandemics, they blamed the Jews for poisoning wells and slaughtered whole villages in response. During the Crusades, Europe’s armies stopped in various towns on the way to the Middle East to slaughter entire Jewish populations. In the 15th century, because of internal arguments within the Catholic Church, Spain promoted the Inquisition, which ended a long history of people living and thriving together in harmony and mutual benefit.
Make no mistake. Jews are always the first victims of hatred, but they are never the last. The Nazis went after the Jews first, but when it was all over, the entire continent was devastated and upwards of 60 million human beings were dead. No one wins when this kind of hatred surfaces.
After the war ended in 1945, no one in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Nazis. But now, decades later, people have forgotten where this kind of hatred really ends
Why do I come down strongly on a relatively small group of marchers with angry rhetoric, old slogans and strange haircuts? Because we all know that it can look exciting to some people who weren’t taught the truth about the past. And we all know where this ultimately leads.
We live in a time of upheaval once again. The Covid pandemic has closed down countries and put many people out of work. People who have lost their jobs are rightfully frightened. And we know that times with problems like these are fertile ground for these ancient hatreds to surface.
Several years ago, when similar neo-Nazis in Bulgaria marched, they were drowned out by a much larger crowd of Bulgarians who demonstrated against them. I joined this counter-demonstration, but I was not alone. The top leaders of the Bulgarian government were also there, making it quite clear that no one in power supported these relics of the dangerous past. I believe we can all learn from Bulgaria. This is a time for all good Spaniards to denounce these apostles of hatred and stand for what is good and right in our shared world.
Ronald S. Lauder is the president of the World Jewish Congress.