On 4 May the Netherlands commemorates the victims of the Second World War and on 5 May the country celebrates its liberation. The National Committee for 4 and 5 May takes care of organising the national activities on 4 and 5 May, including the coordination of the Liberation Festivals. It also runs educational projects, develops mass media campaigns and gathers knowledge and makes it available to others, for example about war monuments and commemorations throughout the country.
Every year the National Committee invites a distinguished individual in their field to write an essay based on the multiannual theme Passing on Freedom. In 2016, political philosopher Tamar de Waal contributed the essay De vrijheid omarmd or in English Embracing Freedom.
We invite you to read this inspiring essay from 2016 as it touches on various themes that we also bring forward on this blog.
By Tamar de Waal
When freedom is put to the test, we must embrace it. This is not always so simple. German-Dutch writer and psychiatrist Hans Keilson (1909-2011), who lost both his parents in Auschwitz, wrote about how tempting it is to respond to the hatred of others without thinking. Before you know it, Keilson reflected, you find yourself driven into a corner. Pushed into a contemptible position that you would never choose: giving free rein to the hatred in yourself. And ultimately you become much like the person who originally was your aggressor. Slowly but surely, you exchange your belief in humanity, pluralism and harmony for revenge, polarization and violence. And all this because someone else made a distinction between races and groups, and singled you out as the enemy.
Keilson’s rationale has never lost its strength. In the face of evil, an open and democratic society must never abandon its principles, values and moral perspectives.
Free of War
As people living in a society free of war, on 4 May in the Netherlands, we annually remember the victims of the Second World War as well as the Dutch who have experienced wartime violence since then. We also recognize that since 1945 there has not been a single day when the world was entirely free from war. In the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the end of the war in the Dutch East Indies on 15 August 1945 was nothing like the liberation of Europe. Only two days later the struggle for the decolonialization of a country yearning for freedom began. Owing to these kinds of histories, on Remembrance Day here we reflect on the past and try to draw lessons for our own time and the future.
In light of the horrors of the Second World War, the international community decided—in the words of the political thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)—that human beings may no longer be deprived of the ‘right to have rights’. To give this guiding principle moral and legal strength, the inherent dignity of the human family was articulated and enshrined in human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was internationally adopted in 1948, along with the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, followed by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
When we follow the news nowadays we see that these treaties are of unabated importance. Much like the era of the Second World War, also today we are dealing with cruel and authoritarian groups who are guilty of bombings, torture, slavery and mass murder. Currently, sixty million people are fleeing violence, persecution and war. Of them, 51% is younger than eighteen. For the first time since the Second World War the number of people on the run is over fifty million.
Hannah Arendt, who fled Europe for America in 1941, because of her Jewish background, has defined refugees as people who have lost their own distinct place in the world, are no longer protected by the law and have been stripped of all their rights. The protection of refugees after the Second World War therefore became an important political value.
To Everyone at All Times
Nevertheless, more and more voices argue that this principle does not need to apply to the displaced of today, despite the similarities with refugees of seventy years ago. Some say ‘the world has changed’ or that ‘this concerns an old treaty’. Others fan the fire of fear by saying that our enemies could be lurking among those refugees and that our borders must be completely shut down. Therefore, it sounds more like a problem that many asylum seekers are legally eligible for refugee status than that, out of a strong moral conviction, they are offered protection so they can once again live with human dignity.
Yet, is the 1951 Refugee Convention actually such an outdated treaty? The Dutch Constitution set down in 1848 is much older. And moreover, why would the value of a document be determined by its date of introduction? Or has it perhaps become largely untenable nowadays to provide refugees with protection? Both seem unlikely. When the Netherlands signed the Refugee Convention and its protocols—and in addition repeatedly reaffirmed this in international, European and national legislation—we understood this was not about offering protection to a few individuals. We knew that refugees could come in waves and in large numbers. Of course we realized this. Still we signed those treaties, with our eyes wide open.
Why did this happen? The reason is not bound by time. Certain events of the past must not be repeated in the future. We must never forget that in 1939 the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg with nearly a thousand persecuted Jewish passengers aboard. They left Germany in search of a country that would give them refuge and a future, beyond the reach of the Nazi regime. Cuba refused them, America too, followed by Canada, Paraguay, Colombia and Argentina. Finally, left with nowhere to go, the ship returned to Europe. After the war, it turned out that at least 250 of those passengers were killed or murdered in concentration or extermination camp.
This should never happen. Not then, not now. With this in mind, human rights cannot be outdated. They are universal. They apply to everyone at all times. These are our fundamental moral values. The only thing that may have changed in the world, is that our collective memory about this historical lesson has begun to fade.
Make Being Free Possible
Let us return to the views of Keilson in response to the notion that refugees could bring the enemy along with them and are a danger to our security. By asserting this, we adopt the language of the adversary. Then we lose who we morally want to be, in an attempt to protect ourselves from those who want to change us.
This does not mean that taking in a lot of refugees is always easy. It can even be alarming at times. But we must transform that anxiety into legitimate concerns, so we can care for each other to the best of our ability. It is essential that we continue to uphold the values that make being free possible. We must not let those who disregard liberty, or who are reckless, define what being free means. This undermines the worth of our values. Those who immediately trade in their principles when these are truly tested, never had any to begin with.
Instead, we must continue to think about ways to best protect our freedoms. Each and every year. Every day again. The preservation of our freedom lies in the rejection of hatred and an unwavering commitment to the inclusive principles of our democracy. When freedom is put to the test, we are called upon to embrace it even more.
Translated from Dutch by Lorraine T. Miller / Epicycles, Amsterdam
Tamar de Waal (1988) is a political philosopher who is getting her PhD at the Paul Scholten Centre for Jurisprudence at the University of Amsterdam, under the guidance of Professor Kymlicka (Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada), dr. Pierik (University of Amsterdam) and Professor De Wilde (University of Amsterdam). Her research focuses on the ethics of migration and citizenship. www.tamardewaal.nl