Europe and its victims | Eurozine

When I was invited to give this ‘Speech to Europe’ on Judenplatz, there was a personal reason why I was delighted to accept. That is my own family’s history. My son and wife had just received their Austrian citizenship, and they had received it because my wife’s family had escaped Austria, or at least some of them escaped, including my wife’s grandmother, Malita (Miriam) Schertzer. She was driven out of Vienna to Palestine in 1938, on the same Youth Aliyah with which my own grandmother had escaped Germany. For us, this ‘Speech to Europe’ was also planned as a private visit to Miriam’s city, and to her school, the Brigittenauer Gymnasium, now the Gymnasium am Augarten, where there is a familiar memorial commemorating Miriam’s Jewish classmates who did not escape, and were eventually deported to Auschwitz. Miriam’s parents were also sent from Vienna to Dachau and Auschwitz, and survived it – eventually reuniting with their daughter in Israel. I still remember meeting Miriam, trying to impress her with my German, and with stories about the Europe to which she never returned. How shy, surprised and happy she was, that elderly lady from the small Moshav in Israel, who had started her life as Malita in Vienna.

Long before rumors of a controversy about this talk started, I knew that we were coming here not just with an understanding, but with a very personal knowledge, by acquaintance, of the significance of this place – and with a very immediate feeling that personal, unbearable memories have immense public significance here. We know as well as anybody the deep roots that this location, Judenplatz, has to this city, to this continent – and we also know as well as anybody can that the roots of this place’s reach into our own country, Israel. That is also why I refuse to dishonor this place – not by anything that I will say or could have said, and even less so by reacting to attempts to turn a discussion that should be about substance, argument, and respectful disagreement into an artificial scandal.

It is very significant to have Lessing’s statue here on Judenplatz before me, looking at me, at all of us, and directly at the Holocaust memorial behind me. Lessing. Mendelssohn’s friend, was the one to establish the essential connection between enlightenment and friendship. The liberal-democratic friends of Judenplatz and the friends of Europe discuss their disagreements, the qualms and worries they may have, amicably. Reason goes hand in hand with friendship; populism and nationalism – with eggs and with shouting. Make no mistake: eggs are meant to humiliate, and for that reason they are dangerous. Choosing the former, reason, over the latter is to put the clamour aside, to stretch the hand to those who have criticized this talk and attempted to disrupt rather than protest against it, and to move on.


‘You are more than your myths.’

When, in 2019, Timothy Snyder inaugurated the ‘Speech to Europe’ on Judenplatz, he coined this message as its motto. ‘You are more than your myths.’

I want to join that message but ask again what it means for Europe to be more than its myth?

One way to think about it is to say that Europe must confront myth with history. That was Snyder’s suggestion; he claimed that if Europe was to fulfil its role as a symbol of hope – and it is a symbol of hope – then Europeans must choose history as the opposite of myth. There are two ways to remember, Snyder argued: one is through the myths that ‘lead you back to the story of how you were always right’ – and that’s why myths are always national, not to say nationalistic. Another way to remember is history, which allows you to ‘take what you remember, add it to other critical perspectives, to recognize your responsibility’ as a crumbling empire.

I agree with Snyder that Europe must be more than its myths; agree also that history is important, even necessary. But I add that it is not enough. To be more than its myths, Europe will have to insist on the reality of ideals. For in fact, history isn’t the opposite of myths. Reason is – if it can take the authority of its own ideals seriously. And the authority of history, also the type that makes us recognize our responsibility for the past, can sometimes serve to undermine our ideals.

Here is another way to put it: history ought to be respected because of our commitment to ideals. But if the ideals themselves are respected because of our commitment to history, then this commitment threatens to render our ideals into myths – national myths. This threat now confronts Europe. It confronts European politics, and it confronts European intellectual life, as the populist right is on the rise, abusing historical responsibility. This challenge should now be dealt with. Not by denying the authority of history, but by protecting it – protecting it by insisting on the reality of ideals.

That’s what I’m going to talk about, but I will have to begin at the start.

When the United States severed its ties from Europe and asserted its independence from European sovereignty, it did so by invoking the authority of truth, not history: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Can we stand by the authority of these self-evident truths, asserted by the American Declaration of Independence, today? It seems to me that many people, from so-called post-colonial critics to centrist liberal theorists, in fact tend to reject this proposition.

At one end of the spectrum, people complain that the founding fathers were themselves slave holders. That the statement ‘all men are created equal’ literally means men, and exclusively white men. That is, that Enlightenment universalism as it is expressed in this famous sentence is, at best, a mask that allows European men to discriminate, while congratulating themselves on holding fast to universalist ideals. At worst: that these ideals are in fact the ideology that causes Europeans to discriminate, exterminate and enslave.

The argument goes as follows: the cosmopolitan tradition, which makes man, or humanity, the measure of all things – the origin of value – is indistinguishable from the tradition that makes man ‘the master and possessor of nature’. And since this is so, the cosmopolitan tradition that begins with the theory of the dignity of humanity, ends up, in practice, as the history that made Europeans into the colonizers of continents, the abusers of nature (now causing nature’s death), and the owners of other human beings as slaves. The Declaration of Independence asserts not self-evident truth, but myth, since it is the story that sells us the national illusion that ‘we were always right’.

At the other end of the spectrum, among liberal thinkers of the political center, people often pretend to shake their heads at the denial of European Enlightenment universalism. But in fact, post-war liberal thinking consists in a very similar denial. When John Rawls, the father of American liberalism, says that justice is ‘political, not metaphysical’, he means just that: self-evident truths like the ones asserted in the Declaration of Independence can have no authority in modern democratic societies.

‘Truth about an independent metaphysical and moral order’, Rawls argues, cannot ‘provide the basis for a political conception of justice in a democratic society.’ This is a dramatic rejection of the Declaration of Independence: its self-evident truths need to be treated like religion: tolerated, respected as people’s private faith, precisely not recognized as the foundation of law. It is therefore not just the postcolonial or identitarian left that rejects the universalist ideal of the European Enlightenment; in fact, there is a broad consensus about this rejection between the left and the liberal center. That it is rejected by the growing identitarian populist right does not require much of an argument.

I deliberately went to questions imported from 1776 America because it is easier to pretend that they are far away. But now I’d like to bring them back to the heart of contemporary European reality. Whereas the Americans never gave the self-evident truths asserted in the Declaration of Independence any legal significance – never integrated them into the constitution – post-war Europe did take that step, and it took it with this statement:

‘Human dignity in inviolable.’

Holocaust memorial by Rachel Whiteread, Judenplatz, Vienna. Image by Diana Ringo via Wikimedia Commons

This is of course the opening sentence of Germany’s Basic Law, but it is more than just that. The exact same sentence is also the first article of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. And the ideal of human dignity is also the anchor of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the model for numerous post-war European constitutions. (Though not the Austrian! Not for Hans Kelsen. Though if you ask me, it is never too late.) The assertion that human dignity is ‘inviolable’, as the origin of law, posits an ideal of Enlightenment universalism that for our purposes is identical with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. It affirms that human dignity is inalienable, and that the authority of law is relative to it. This places the universalist or cosmopolitan tradition much closer to a radical, abolitionist democracy than is commonly recognized, but I’ll put this fact aside and instead ask two questions:

First, is this principle, expressing the ideal of Enlightenment Universalism, in fact an expression of Europe’s racism and colonialism? Should we defend and reenact the ideal of human dignity as the answer to Europe’s past monumental crimes during the period of Empire – from the crimes of the Holocaust to those of colonialism? Or is such humanism in fact the cause of these crimes? Must the German Grundgesetz, like the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, be ‘decolonized’?

Second, if we do stand by the principle, do European liberal thinkers genuinely stand by it – and by genuinely I mean: even when that principle challenges their interest, their identity, their innermost commitments? Or does the wish to ground our commitment to human dignity in historical responsibility also mark the limits of this ideal – thereby threatening to render it to myth?

I want to deal with the question slowly.

Take another look at this sentence: Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. At first glance, it looks less like myth than a straightforward falsity. Human dignity is violable, and it is being violated as we speak. But if it is not a false proposition, what might make it seem like one is also what makes it so poetic, even prophetic. One of the great innovations of the biblical Hebrew prophets was a stylistic one (it sounds like I’m drifting, but I’m not): they used to state the counterfactual, even the impossible, as actually true.

This stylistic innovation had everything to do with their humanistic discovery. A proposition that asserts descriptively something that at best seems prescriptive (‘human dignity is inviolable’) not as an imperative, but as a truth, is strictly speaking either false, or reaching out to describe a higher reality. When you understand that, you understand something very deep in the Hebrew Prophets, in Plato and in Kant, which gives the laconic sentence, ‘Human dignity is inviolable’ the aesthetics of the sublime. The being that is capable of making that statement – and experience the feeling that its poetic gesture creates – has dignity, and commands respect.

You might think that what we sometimes call reality – the one in which we buy milk in the supermarket, in which Jewish families are massacred and burnt on the border of Gaza, in which a whole Palestinian population is being starved and bombed – that this reality renders this ideal a myth, and its poetics to populist kitsch. The decision which it is depends on us.

Now we might ask ourselves: if the ideal of human dignity is valid, what makes it so? I will not address that here but instead ask what cannot make it valid. If the idea that human dignity is inviolable is grounded in the decision of Europeans, Germans, Italians, Austrians to live by that principle, then that explains precisely why human dignity is actually violable. An unconditional claim cannot depend on anybody’s decision: it’s all very well that, say, the German people have decided to treat human dignity as inviolable; but we know that they can also decide otherwise.

This realization brings us to an important point: that the principle of inviolable human dignity cannot depend on national sovereignty, on the decision or the will of a people. On the contrary: human dignity marks the limit of national sovereignty. This point is important because it shows the continuity between abstract talk of dignity and two very concrete European tendencies.

The first of these is for states to self-restrict their sovereignty through their own prerogatives – by entering federative constellations, for example, or by submitting to international law or international and European courts. In line with its recognition of human dignity, Europe has moved from national to international to cosmopolitan law – that is, from a form of law founded on states’ ultimate national sovereignty, to a form of law that respects it, to one that questions it.

The second tendency is for constitutional patriotism, by which I mean here a very broad idea: the recognition that belonging to a sovereign nation requires neither the right blood nor the right language, history or culture: you belong to the German, Austrian or Italian people by virtue of having German or Italian or Austrian citizenship.

When, in 2019, Timothy Snyder stood here and called on Europe to be more than its myths, he warned Europeans that ‘your little, implausible national myths’ allow you ‘not to see’ what was so unique about Europe, namely ‘that the European Union is the one successful answer to the most important question in the history of the modern world.’ That question is: ‘What to do after empire? What to do with empire?’

There are, Snyder said, two bad answers – make nation states, or have more empire. ‘The European Union is the only new fruitful, productive answer to that question.’ I repeat that, because to respect human dignity by checking national sovereignty, and to replace the nation with a strong concept of citizenship, are the two essential, innovative ingredients of Europe’s answer to that monumental question.

This answer replaced the Hobbes-Schmittean attachment to a sovereign Leviathan as the answer to “war of all against all”, and asserted that dignity and not fear must be the foundation of human polity. To protect dignity through the rule of law, sovereignty has to be questioned, criticized, even deconstructed – not asserted through sovereign national Leviathans. When Hobbes spoke of the Leviathan, that symbol of a mighty mythical monster, he knew why: because sovereignty requires the idolization of myth. The most important inheritance of Jewish thinking in this continent, ethical monotheism, was always tied to the critique of myth and its idolization: it is worth remembering this tradition that was living in Europe before the war, before its empire crumbled, and worked against the myth of soveregnity in Cohen, Cassirer, Buber and Arendt.

But note: whereas here lies the essential expression of Europe’s successful answer to its past – the ‘most important question of the modern world’ – namely the replacement of national mythical Leviathans – European thinkers actually embraced the exact opposite of these principles insofar as Europe was looking outside: to the victims of its empire.

If the crumbling European empire eventually learnt to question sovereignty, the idea was also that for the colonized nations, sovereignty was the vehicle of liberation. By the same token, after the Holocaust and the systematic extermination of European Jewry, the idea was that Jews had to defend themselves and restore their dignity, as a nation, through national soveregnity – through the creation of a Jewish state.

And we must be clear: At this moment in history, they were not wrong.

When applied to Europe’s victims, Europe’s answer can seem like the intellectual baggage of empire, or like the remains of a colonialist ideology that asks to go on imposing itself even after empire has ended. Does Europe’s successful answer to the past of empire apply to empire’s past victims?

And here is another question: can Europe’s answer to its past survive if we contradict that answer as far as its victims are concerned? If we recognize that others have the right to violate human dignity, we also recognize our duty to respect their right to do so. Human dignity is then important for us, but not inviolable. That’s the crucial point; once you recognize that, externally, you also recognize something internally – you simply cannot claim human dignity as inviolable within the continent either. To offer a variation on Snyder’s point: this is the most important question about the answer given to the most important question in modern history.

For postcolonial thinkers, limiting liberated nations through the cosmopolitan idea of humanity seems like a form of neo-colonialism: imposing the answers of Europe on its victims, preventing their emancipation. When it comes to the Holocaust, the objection is exactly the same. Try suggesting that an Israeli constitution ought to start not with the sovereignty of the Jewish people but with a commitment to human dignity: you will be accused of antisemitism for suggesting to use European cosmopolitan ideals to question Jewish sovereignty, and the Jewish and democratic state – inviting charges of antisemitism.

For one side, then, universalist politics seems like racism, or colonialism; for the other, like antisemitism. And since all sides here view sovereignty as the zero-sum condition of their very existence, these doctrines are now not just in conflict but on a collision course: it is not because the sides are so different from another that the situation is so violent and the debate so heated, but because they are so similar.

For many on the left, certainly the postcolonial left, the Palestinian people are the ultimate embodiment of the struggle against European colonialism. Whoever questions their right to armed resistance, for example by condemning Hamas’s attack on civilians, ‘relativizes’ or ‘contextualizes’ colonialism. What right do Europeans have, so the argument goes, to criticize the use of force by those who are not protected by law in the first place?

On the other hand, in Germany but not just in Germany, we see the same though opposite idea: that Jews, represented by the state of Israel, embody human suffering and the right to self-defense. Whoever demands that the country subscribe to a neutral liberal-democratic constitution – asserting a state for all citizens – and be accountable to international law in fact relativizes the Jews’ right to self-defense. Whereas Europe’s answer to its crumbling empire was to deconstruct sovereignty by asserting dignity as its limit, its victims’ answer was to assert national sovereignty as inviolable. Each side pretends to embody something ultimate, absolute, that relativizes the human dignity of those belonging to the other group.

This was clear in the responses among left intellectual circles to Hamas’ systematic, sadistic massacre of whole families, rape and burning. There can be no ignoring this: the tendency on campuses ranged from exhilaration at this act to tolerating it – or at least insisting that the Palestinians had the right of ‘armed resistance’ vis-à-vis their ‘colonizers’. If you argued that this was at best excusing genocidal antisemitism and at worst supporting it, the common response was that Hamas is not an antisemitic organization, because the attack targeted Israelis, not Jews as such. But Hamas’s charter of 1988 clearly states: ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems kill the Jews, and when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees, the stones and trees will say O Moslems, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’

There used to be a tendency to ignore this clause or claim that Hamas has given up on it. But it is very plausible that this exact line about the Day of Judgment was present in the minds of those who conducted the massacre. On 7 October quite a few of them seemed to have thought exactly that: that the Day of Judgment had arrived. Tolerating this is widespread, and it is important to say that this toleration proceeds exactly from the idea of the sovereignty of the colonized. The same people – students, faculty – who excused the massacre now chant ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. Make no mistake: they do not mean ‘democratic for all’, but ‘free from Jews’ – or, to be precise, they suspend judgment, in order to avoid the allegedly neo-colonialist assumption that they have the right to decide for the Palestinians.

National sovereignty is treated as the inviolable vehicle of liberation. As Yanis Varoufakis put it: ‘I was asked whether I condemn Hamas and said no. But I condemn all violence against civilians. I also don’t condemn the Israeli settlers. Also not Benjamin Netanyahu. I condemn us Europeans.’ If you ask me, this is not a way to take historical responsibility as European, but to hide behind it, and make a mockery of it.

The other end of the spectrum operates by the exact same logic. It is most visible in the false tendency among a certain European liberal center to treat the Holocaust as a ‘universal’ signifier. As one author has put it, Holocaust commemoration has become ‘universal’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ memory. In this view, the event is a symbol, not of a specific past horror, but of any systematic violation of human rights. By the same token, the Holocaust is no longer the exclusive property of the national groups directly involved in the historical event – Jews on the one hand, Germans, and Europeans more broadly on the other; rather, Holocaust commemoration plays a crucial role reinforcing international law and human rights, becoming ‘a potential symbol of global solidarity’.

At first glance, this may seem like a friendly thesis about memory or history as calling for universal commitments. On closer inspection, it should become clear that it has given universalism a bad name, by presenting universalism or memory as a colonial project. The way the Holocaust is commemorated is in the service of particular national projects. This ‘universal’ symbol therefore excludes from ‘global solidarity’ those for whom this symbol is anything but accessible. Since Holocaust commemoration has been interpreted as the argument for Jews’ national sovereignty, it does not promote international human rights, especially not for those whose human rights could seem to stand in the way.

One of the most significant examples of this tendency is the attitude of the German government to the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC). The institution of international law and international tribunals authorized to prosecute war crimes developed in the immediate context of Nazi crimes. This is a strong reason for Germany, taking historical responsibility, to be one of the ICC’s main sponsors. The German Foreign Office has gone out of its way in the past to defend the ICC against meddling by the Trump administration, stating that ‘any attempt to undermine the independence of the court should not be tolerated’. But when the prosecutor in The Hague started an initial investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by Israel in the Occupied Territories, Germany contended that the court had no jurisdiction. Israel, it argued, is not a party to the Rome Statute, which regulates the court’s mandate, and Palestine is not recognized as a state. When the ICC’s justices rejected that opinion – and with good reason: Palestine, they decided, had been recognized as a ‘State Party’ to the Rome Statute regardless of whether it is a state or not, meaning that the court has jurisdiction – a spokesperson for the German Foreign Office stated that ‘our position on this case is unchanged. According to our legal position, the International Criminal Court and its Office of the Prosecutor do not have jurisdiction.’ The German Foreign Minister repeated the same statement.

To understand how grave these statements are, it is necessary to put aside the question of the court’s jurisdiction. This is about the court’s authority, which to recognize means to take the Court’s decision as sufficient to change Germany’s legal position – thus limiting its sovereignty. The German government’s claim that the court has no jurisdiction in Palestinian territories, despite the Justices’ decision that it does, denied not just the jurisdiction of the Court over Palestinian territories. It also denied its autonomy and authority.

This is a good example of the powerful influence of the familiar though unofficial Staatsräson doctrine – which can only be unofficial, since were it not, it would conflict with the constitution. This is what it looks like when the commitment to Europe’s answer to its past, if grounded in history, meets its limit and becomes not just not universal but anti-universal. With its talk of Staatsräson Germany asserts its own sovereignty to oppose the autonomy of the court, in order to protect Jewish sovereignty from the court’s authority. Since Germany is a chief sponsor of the Court, this constitutes a serious threat to this institution.

That was four years ago. We can now see the effects of this questioning of the power of international law. Does the ICC have authority in the territory, as Gaza is flattened and starved, and Israeli cabinet ministers speak about entering Rafah, since ‘we will not do half a job, but require full annihilation’? If you ask me, it’s too bad that Varoufakis, as a European, doesn’t condemn such a statement.

This, then, is the question: Is Europe to think of the answer that it has given to the most important question of modern history as its own answer only? As one that may be good here, but that elsewhere isn’t just wrong but also illegitimate? Or is that already to betray Europe’s answer – writing the first sentence in the history of this answer’s decay, also within Europe, and handing over the argument to Europe’s enemies?

Consider the opposition to this talk, here on Judenplatz. Is the idea illegitimate that saving Israel and Palestine from falling into a yet-worse dystopia requires us to imagine a transition of the region in the direction of a European constellation, following the same patterns of that great European answer, with sub-sovereign nations joining a (con)federative common constitution for the whole region? Is this federative idea, which requires taking seriously Immanuel Kant’s warning that peace talks and peace agreements ought not become lies – lies that lead to zero-sum wars that undermine the very possibility of peace – is this idea illegitimate?

If the European answer is delegitimized in this way, how does that reflect on Europe? How does allowing the dehumanizing logic of total war in Israel and Palestine affect Europe’s own Jewish and Muslim citizens? Does this not hand over the argument to the populist nationalist right, which is on the rise all around us, asserting national sovereignty, questioning international law, and claiming a citizenship based on ethnic affiliation?

This, then, would be my call to Europe: insist on the reality of your ideals. They are all the more important because of historical responsibility, but ultimately, as cosmopolitan ideals, they cannot be understood as being dependent on or limited by historical responsibility. At this dark, difficult juncture at which politics and thinking have now arrived, we must reject the tendency on all sides to undermine Europe’s ideals by a very irresponsible way of understanding historical responsibility. That is the only way to maintain Europe’s historical commitments, and to prevent these commitments themselves from becoming national forms of mythical thinking.


This speech was hosted by the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna, and Vienna Festwochen. It was delivered on 7 May 2024 despite attempts by Vienna’s Israelitische Kultusgemeinde to cancel the event: a leader of the Kultusgemeinde claimed that, had he been ‘30 years younger’, he would have come to the talk to ‘throw eggs on Boehm’, which could have plausibly been interpreted as an invitation for others to act. The talk, which required police and Verfassungsschutz protection, was conducted amid protester disruption.



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