Syria And The Contagion Of Despotism Across The World

Sunset on the Syrian border
Sunset on the Syrian border
Stefan Ulrich


BERLIN — The theater of war that is Syria has brought us scenes of a world devoid of rules: children killed by poisonous gas, the bodies of prisoners who were tortured or burned alive and a multitude of national armies and rebel groups that hack each other to pieces. In short, it has brought us scenes of utter barbarism. All this despite the fact that nations have, for centuries, attempted to regulate how we engage in war and how we protect civilians from the excesses of war.

After the destruction caused by the Thirty Years' War in Europe in the 17th century, all the warring parties involved managed to unite under the Westphalian Peace Treaty, which acknowledged the equality of all countries, no matter how powerful some states were. The suffering of those wounded in the battle of Solferino, in the war for Italian unification, caused one man, Henry Dunant, to found the Red Cross and create international humanitarian law. The experience of both the World Wars prompted nations to ostracize war, which, up until then, had been considered the mere continuation of politics by other means.

But why was all of this done? It was done in order to guarantee that those who commit war crimes, initiate wars of aggression or commit genocide would be held to account. As a result, some wars were prevented and some crimes were punished.

The United Nations and human rights activists had to fight continuously to ensure that the law was heeded. There were setbacks. Former U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. In Africa and elsewhere, war lords took their rage out on civilians. But the world did not just simply stand by. Infractions of international humanitarian law led to protests, sanctions, tribunals and even military interventions. The UN found it difficult to intervene in the Kosovo conflict but at least it tried. No civilized state wanted to be seen as breaking international humanitarian law. That was at least some sort of progress.

Until now. Until Syria. Now it seems like the world is receding from civilization. This may be because both World Wars have largely been forgotten. It may be due to the newly kindled ideological and religious conflicts that are obscuring our sense of justice. But international humanitarian law is now dying a slow death.

There are many symptoms attesting to this diagnosis: China's expansion in the South China Sea, North Korea's nuclear program, the rejection of the International Criminal Court by some African nations, the treatment of refugees in some EU states. But nowhere is international law so brutally violated as it is on the battlefields of Syria. And those who wage war do not feel the need to justify their bloodthirsty pursuit any longer.

A group of nations without rules is in no one's interest.

Needless to say, the terror militia of ISIS is displaying particularly atrocious behavior. The Assad regime in Syria reached a new level of depravity when it used poisonous gas against its own citizens, as proven by a team of United Nations experts. The regime destroyed residential areas, starved entire cities and tortured prisoners. It is despicable that Russia has become an ally of this horrific regime. Protests in the West to all this have been mute. Many Western governments clearly do not have any regard for international humanitarian law as demonstrated by their airstrikes.

And now we can add Trump's military strike to this long list. The bombing violates the prohibition of violence — the key point of the charter of the United Nations (Chapter 1, Article 2, Section 4). Trump did not act in self-defense nor did he receive a mandate by the UN Security Council — a clear violation of international humanitarian law. And yet, Western governments applauded his actions, among them the German government, which once used to champion human rights.

There are, of course, good moral and political arguments for forcefully preventing the Assad regime from committing murder. But a group of nations without rules — a world of despotism — is in no one's interest. Despotism harbors the threat of yet another Thirty Years' War but one with modern weapons. Instead of breaking the law, the EU and U.S. should do everything in their power to enforce humanitarian edicts. Yes, that's quite a difficult task but it has never been easy to escape barbarism.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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