PARIS — There are times when it is necessary to compare things that are not comparable. There's a chance at least that it will wake up some anesthetized minds.
Between 1933 and 1940, several million refugees who had escaped from Germany, Poland, the Baltic countries and elsewhere, fleeing Nazism, were met with closed borders. They had names like Nathan, Samuel or Rachel.
Nathan, for example, was prescient enough to flee Germany as early as the summer of 1933, five months after Adolf Hitler took power. He wanted to go to the United States, but couldn't obtain a visa. He tried Spain, and was rebuffed again. More by chance than anything else, he ended up in France, where he wasn't exactly welcome but not pushed away either.
Nathan survived the German occupation of France by joining the ranks of the resistance movement, in the Pyrenees, together with Spanish Republicans who survived the civil war. Nathan had ten brothers and sisters, all killed in the Nazi concentration camps, while his mother died of hunger in the Warsaw ghetto.
The six million who died in the Holocaust didn't arouse any great wave of emotion — Jewish people aside — until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Before that, the extermination of the Jews had been assimilated in the collective unconscious as collateral damage of World War II. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who had been aware of their situation since 1933, had nonetheless always refused to allow the extermination not yet known as the Shoah to hijack their global strategy, the defeat of the Nazis and the alliance with Stalin.
Let's now talk about that thing which, supposedly, has nothing to do with what I just explained, namely the flight of millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. Is it different because Latifa, Ali and Ahmed aren't slaughtered with the same industrial efficiency as Samuel, Nathan and Rachel? Why is it different? Are we to believe that Ali, Latifa and Ahmed risk ending up drowning in the Mediterranean, suffocating in a truck, dying of thirst on a road in Greece because they're tourists or just looking for a new job in England?
No, because they too are fleeing extermination. If they take the risk of drowning, it's because they know that the alternative is to be gassed, shot, bombed, starved. It isn't the Shoah — or perhaps not yet.
Hundreds of Afghan and Syrian refugees arrive in Piraeus, Greece, on Sept. 3 — Photo: Michael Debets/Pacific Press/ZUMA
More than a crisis
What will we call this human tide washing over Europe, a few years from now? How will we justify in our history books and our official lamentations this exodus that Europeans, both the people and their political leaders, are trying to reduce to a technical "crisis" that simply calls for a few legal adjustments in the definition of refugee status?
If Nathan was still alive, I don't doubt for a moment that he would look at Ali or Ahmed and see himself, his own face, his own fate, his own distress. Nathan would recognize all the arguments that, back then, were used to prevent him from crossing the same borders: that the economic situation in Western Europe wouldn't allow them to fit in, that the public opinion opposes the arrival of more foreigners, Jews and other aliens, whose numbers are already too big for a government to take that risk. Wasn't Nathan exaggerating the threats that was supposedly hanging over his and his people's heads? Surely that Hitler person would eventually become reasonable …
Will Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean dictator, Bashar al-Assad and the jihadist groups devastating the Middle East ever become reasonable? Nobody in the West is trying to make them. The only initiative that was at some point considered was François Hollande's willingness to bomb Assad's headquarters. It ended up blocked, in 2013, by Barack Obama, in a move reminiscent of the 1938 Munich Agreement.
The only Western leader who's now assessing the reality of the tragedy and who's offering appropriate humanitarian solutions is Angela Merkel. As a German, she knows that Ahmed is Nathan, only 75 years later.
We all know the seemingly rational objections — that these people are not Europeans and can't integrate in our societies, that the economy can't take on that burden. But what sounds true is false. These people are refugees, who once accepted into Europe, would bring their education and their capacity for work. Most of them are young and determined, as their exile demonstrates. Migration is a terrible selection of the fittest against the weakest. The United States has always developed faster than Europe thanks to the dynamism of migrants, whereas Europe declines as it grows older.
Cultural integration would be unthinkable, wouldn't it? The argument seems to make sense, but strangely assumes that Europe is culturally, ethnically and religiously, a pure, immaculate jewel.
In truth, Europe is a blended accumulation, a melting pot of cultures that, put together, constitute the European civilization. I remember a former French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, who, faced with immigration on a smaller scale, thought he'd solved the problem by simply saying that "Europe cannot accommodate all the misery in the world."
We could retort that Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have sheltered 3 million refugees, while Europe has accommodated just 300,000. For this, I am ashamed for Europe, of its selfishness, its historical short-sightedness and its contented little bourgeois arrogance.
That is why I say today that Ahmed is my brother and Latifa my sister. Because, you see, Nathan was my father.