Remembrance Day isn’t observed here in the country that started and lost two World Wars.
But Berlin is filled with memorials which commemorate the Twentieth Century’s darkest events.
I normally stand alone in my study for the 11am moment of silence. But this year I decided to observe Remembrance Day by visiting the Wannsee villa where Nazi bureaucrats met to work out the details of their “final solution to the Jewish problem”.
It felt especially important to go there because this is the first Remembrance Day in my 51 years that I’ve seen antisemitism openly rallying in the cities of Europe, England and Canada — the cities whose very same citizens gave their lives by the hundreds of thousands to defeat it in 1945.
Wannsee is a beautiful suburb set in forest on a broad bight of the Havel River. This popular summer swimming spot has one of Europe’s longest inland beaches. Its shores are lined with villas and yacht clubs, and the scent of money hovers in the air.
One of those villas was owned by the Nazi SD in 1940, the intelligence arm of the SS.
Chief of Reich Security SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich invited representatives from several government ministries to a meeting there on 20 January 1942. The murder of Jews had already been underway for several months, but Heydrich wanted the participants to agree on a common approach, and to work under his leadership.
He also explained that the objectives had changed. Their initial plan was to expropriate all property and wealth owned by Jews, and to drive them out of Germany. Now, rather than forced emigration, Jews were to be rounded up and taken to Eastern Europe to be killed there by forced labour. Those unable to work, and those who survived, would also be killed.
The meeting didn’t take much longer than 90 minutes. They discussed the murder of all Jewish men, women and children, not just in Germany but in all of Europe. And no one objected.
The sun sparkled on the Wannsee outside the room’s three tall windows, and the smell of breakfast bread wafted in from the kitchen.
Several things struck me about the details of this meeting, and each has parallels today.
One was the nature of the discussion. Mass murder wasn’t mentioned explicitly, at least not in the minutes of the meeting. The terminology is bureaucratic, procedural, systematic, and antiseptic in a way that a bullet to the back of the head or asphyxiation never are.
One section, underlined in pencil, says that the goal was to cleanse German living space of Jews “auf legale Weise” — “by legal means”.
SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, Head of Section IV Jewish Affairs and Evacuation, would say at his 1961 trial that he was told to make sure nothing too explicit appeared in the official minutes. “How shall I put it,” he said, “certain over-plain talk and jargon expressions had to be rendered into office language by me”.
When I read those 15 closely typed pages, I saw how they focused on the minutiae of procedures and definitions, and avoided the inhumanity of what they were planning.
They ‘problematized’ the Jews and obscured their own actions in academic-sounding jargon. They also created elaborate charts to determine what degree of ancestry made someone a Jew, an unwanted parasite to be purged.
Their methods reminded me of today’s ‘compassionate’ professors and activists, who preach anti-racism while slotting individuals into deterministic racial categories that label them as ‘oppressor’ to be purged or ‘oppressed’ to be given all power as some sort of correction of history.
They hide their antisemitism behind academic concepts like ‘decolonization’, which they claim will be bloody but necessary. Ethnic cleansing always is.
More often than not, the professors and activists themselves fall into the ‘problematic’ racial category of ‘whiteness’, but they give themselves a pass for being the architects of this power hungry ideology.
The other thing that struck me about the Wannsee conference was the normality of the participants.
History regards them as monsters, but Reinhard Heydrich’s father was a composer and director of a conservatoire. Adolph Eichmann’s father was an accountant. Heinrich Müller, head of Gestapo Section IV, only had a high school education, unlike the others, but his father was a gardener.
Of the 15 men who met in Wannsee to plot the eradication of European Jewry, nine were lawyers and over half had earned doctorates. Education didn’t protect them from the poisonous ideology they acted out.
Today, education positively encourages race-obsession, antisemitism and the hatred of our own cultural legacy.
The third thing that struck me about the Wannsee conference was that the participants were aware of the monstrous nature of what they were doing, and of how the world would judge them.
Martin Luther, secretary of Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, pointed out that rounding up Jews would cause difficulties in some countries, notably the Nordic states, and that it was therefore advisable to defer action in those countries. In South-Eastern and Western Europe, however, he didn’t foresee any major difficulties.
The Nazis knew they would be held accountable for their crimes, and when the tide of war turned against them, they tried to destroy the evidence.
That isn’t the case with the terrorists of Hamas who butchered unarmed Jews on 7 October. They filmed their gang rapes, brutal murders and cruel beheadings and proudly showed them to the world.
One butcher called his parents using the phone of a woman he had just slaughtered, saying over and over, “Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews! I killed 10 with my own hands! Dad, 10 with my own hands!” His mother takes the phone and replies, “I wish I was with you.”
Journalists across the world have watched graphic videos of this butchery. What shocked them most wasn’t the barbarity of it, but the glee with which it was carried out. Unlike the Nazis, these killers were positively ecstatic. They wanted the world to see what they’d done while shouting “Allahu akbar!” (“god is great”).
Hamas leaders have said on camera that, if given the chance, they will repeat October 7th over and over and over again until there are no Jews left.
It was heartbreaking to read the farewell letters of Jews about to be taken and killed. But more than anything, what I felt when looking at photos of the men who attended the Wannsee conference was anger — anger at the weak hate-filled men who drove ‘the final solution’, at the millions who collaborated with them, and at the many more who enabled them by doing nothing to stop it.
The writer Douglas Murray describes antisemitism as a shapeshifting virus. In the past, he says, Jews were hated for their religion. After Europe’s wars of religion, you couldn’t hate them for that anymore, so people started hating them for their race. After the Holocaust, you couldn’t hate them for their race, so people started hating them for their nation. And so it goes on.
The villa of the Wannsee conference was turned into a documentation centre so we would remember what was done there during the Second World War — and so that we would never go down that horrible road again.
Eighty-one years have passed since 20 January 1942, and we have failed to keep the promise our forefathers made when they said “Never again.”
October 7th was the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. The bodies hadn’t even been counted when huge groups of people took to the streets of Canada to celebrate, and to demand that Israel not strike back. They did this having seen footage of Hamas terrorists hunting down unarmed kids at a music festival, shooting unarmed civilians in cars, and murdering entire families in their homes.
The colossally stupid or badly educated Western students who joined them may be too ignorant to know that the river in “From the river to the sea” is the Jordan, and the territory to be cleansed of Jews is the entire area of modern Israel.
Far worse footage has been released since that day, revealing a level of depravity that exceeds even that of the Nazis. And yet, antisemitism grows in virulence unopposed on our streets.
To hold pro-Hamas rallies on Remembrance Day of all days was a deliberate affront to the sacrifices made by our grandparents and great grandparents. A line was crossed that we cannot accept.
The men and women whose deaths we commemorate on November 11th knew how quickly civilization can turn into barbarism.
They saw in the ruins of Berlin and Dresden how easy it is to tear something down — and how difficult it is to build it back up.
They knew that sometimes a country can tear itself apart and descend into the sort of anarchy there’s no coming back from.
And they knew that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
The past few weeks have made it clear we’re headed down the same ugly road again. Those calling for “death to all Jews” and “decolonization by any means necessary” are not advocating for an end to war on behalf of Gaza’s innocent noncombatants who live under the brutal rule of terrorists that use them as human shields, and that divert humanitarian aid money to building underground fortifications and missiles.
It is no longer safe to be a Jew on the streets of Montreal, Toronto, London or Berlin.
A Christian can walk through any of these cities wearing a crucifix. A Buddhist monk can stroll freely in his robes. A Muslim can wear an Islamic beard and taqiyah (cap), and even a burqa in our self-professed bastions of feminism. Can the same be said of a Jew with a kippa?
The willingness of our countries to defend Western values is being probed and tested and pushed.
When a synagogue is firebombed and a Jewish school peppered with bullets twice in one week in Montreal, when Jewish students are attacked by pro-Hamas students and a teacher at Concordia University, when Jewish shops are targeted in Toronto, when supporters of a banned terrorist organization fill our streets to advocate the eradication of Israel and shout ‘death to all Jews’, when they take over our sacred days and our sacred spaces —Remembrance Day and our cenotaphs — and our governments and police do nothing, it sends a very clear message that we are no longer willing to defend and uphold the values our forebears fought so hard to secure.
This situation can quickly spiral out of control.
The latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East is a turning point. It isn’t yet another skirmish in an endless regional conflict. It is quickly becoming civilizational.
We are standing on the edge of a precipice, and I don’t know whether we’ll step back and stand up for our values or tip into the abyss once again.