It is with enormous pride and honour that I accept the Roger E Joseph Prize on behalf of the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library. How fitting that this mark of international recognition should be bestowed upon the Library in the very year that marks the 60th anniversary of its foundation in London.
The prize established by Burton Joseph and Betty Greenberg is intended to honour both individuals and organisations who have fought to improve the moral and civic environment: and in this case it honours both. I stand here as a representative of the Library and the third director in line from Dr. Wiener himself. I feel humbled accepting a prize which celebrates 60 years of unique work in bringing the past to the service of the future.
For that is the remit of the Library. To collect documents, testimony, photographs and scholarly works that chronicle the Nazi years and the Jewish civilisation in Central Europe which the Nazis destroyed. But the Library's mission is not to acquire for the sake of preservation and conservation alone, although that is crucial at a time when memories and artefacts are becoming increasingly fragile. The Library, through the Institute, also pursues an active educational and outreach programme. The collection services students, researchers, scholars, journalists, film makers and exhibition curators who are inquiring into or documenting the Jewish experience and the Holocaust.
Nor does its work stop with the end of Nazism. Sadly the forces that produced Nazism did not perish on 30 April 1 945 in the bunker with Hitler.
For more than five decades the Wiener Library has monitored and charted the far right in Europe, the currents of racism and political intolerance that have ebbed and flowed in one country after another. It has amassed an arsenal of information on neo- Nazis, neo-Fascists, white supremacists, and anti-semites that is used daily by legal agencies and the media.
The Library has also played a part in the investigation and prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals who found refuge in Britain. This kind of activity will soon end, but the other work of the Library remains as pressing as ever. In fact it has never been more necessary. Imagine a nail bomb going off in Harlem on a busy Saturday at lunchtime.
Imagine a group of white supremacists calling the police to claim the 'credit' for this vicious attack. Imagine that a week later a similar bomb goes off in Chinatown, followed by another claim of responsibility by a group dedicated to driving Chinese and Koreans out of the USA. Imagine that, amid increasing public jumpiness, a third bomb explodes in a gay bar on Christopher Street killing three people and injuring dozens. This is what happened in London last month.
The first nail bomb was targeted at the Afro-Caribbean community in Brixton. It was followed by a detonation in Brick Lane, heartland of London's Bangladeshi population and, not incidentally, the historic matrix of London's Jewish community. Finally, a third explosion tore apart a pub in Soho, Central London, patronised by the gay community and packed with people - straight and gay - enjoying a Friday afternoon drink on the eve of a holiday weekend.
Thanks to outstanding detective work by the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorism Unit a suspect was arrested a few days later and the bombings have mercifully ceased. The police claim that the arrested man, an engineer aged 22, has no links to organized far- right groups. But was it just coincidence that he attacked Blacks, Asians and Gays? Even if he was acting alone, is it conceivable that he developed this homicidal hate-list from out of thin air? Or was he influenced bv white cower web sites. racist hate literature distributed by mail and on the streets? Was he a member of an, as yet, undisclosed far right group?
My hunch is that he was networked in some way and that he represents the future of the far right much more accurately than the image of the mindless thug giving Nazi salutes during a parade on Hitler's birthday. In most of Europe the far right knows it can never win power by the ballot box. Even in France the once vaunted Front National of Jean Marie Le Pen has collapsed. Will Jorg Hajdar's Freedom Party in Austria last much longer?
Racists know that societies all over the world are embracing multi-culturalism and pluralism with unbounded relish. One result of globalisation is the unparalleled access to the cultures and cuisine's of civilisations from around the world. Diversity has become irresistible.
The men and women who hate difference, for whom Otherness is a source of phobia, cannot stem the tide. But they can hit back. They can wound societies revelling in diversity. They can exact a price on those who respect difference and celebrate the Other. Their desperation and the modern technology of urban warfare make them even more dangerous than old-style Fascists. So how do we stop them?
At one level only police measures and public vigilance can succeed. But at another level education and information are the greatest defense we command. We need to teach young people to respect human and civil rights; to honour that which is distinct in the creed or tradition or culture of other communities; to see Otherness as a source of fascination rather than peril; to develop a curiosity about that which is different and the confidence to explore it; to share common humanity and feel relaxed with particularity.
We can do that through teaching about other countries and religions. We can explain how immigrants helped to build our nations. We can instil in the young an understanding of democracy.
But we can also show where chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and totalitarianism have led in the past.
As the Nazi era recedes and as memories of the Cold War fade, it will become increasingly easy to accept liberal democracy as the norm. There is little danger that far right mass movements or Nazi-style racism will return, but other sorts of intolerance, sometimes clad in the garb of religious fundamentalism, are waxing.
The Wiener Library exists to remind people how democracy falters and how civil society can descend into barbarism. The shocking material which we harbour is one of the strongest antidotes to intolerance which can be administered to those who have never themselves experienced it or been prone to it, but who might one day become its victims or perpetrators.
Today you have honoured an institution - along with its staff, volunteer workers and lay leaders, past and present - which has become a cornerstone of historical research and civic education in Britain. Just as importantly, through the generosity of the Joseph family, you have strengthened this resource for the defence of freedom and tolerance.
The Wiener Library stands as a memorial to the Jews of Central Europe whose lives were disrupted or destroyed by Nazism. Thanks to the wisdom of its founder and his successors it has turned memory into a powerful force for good. As we bid farewell to a century of war and genocide it is tempting to think that such things will never recur. Of course, the ghastly events in the former Yugoslavia show that they can. But there is a difference.
When the Jews were driven from their homes and massacred the free world did precious little, and what it did do was too small in measure and too late in the day. The world leaders who have sent military forces to counter and we hope reverse the 'ethnic cleansing' in Kosova are acting, I think, with the example of history before them. They are Schindler's children. One may question the strategy and the tactics of NATO, but the motives for this war are unimpeachable. NATO is giving muscle to the rhetoric 'Nie Wieder'.
For the slogan 'Never Again' to have force people must know what it was that happened that cannot be allowed to happen again, or why what is happening is an abomination and not an aberration that can be tolerated in a far away place about which we know little. This is the mission of the Wiener Library. This is what you have recognised today and in so doing you have strengthened our hand to carry it out. Thank you.
Most recent update 17 May 1999
Copyright © 1999 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion