"Meetings between students and Holocaust survivors remain the best way of fighting Holocaust denial"

Article, 07.03.2017

This year, Switzerland is assuming the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Its new chair, FDFA secretary general Benno Bättig, discusses his role, Switzerland's priorities and the importance of raising youth awareness.

A group of Swiss youngsters looking at a wall featuring portraits of Holocaust victims.
Swiss youngsters looking at portraits of Holocaust victims ©

Why was it important for Switzerland to take on the chairmanship of the IHRA?

New chair, FDFA secretary general Benno Bättig.
Benno Bättig © FDFA

From a policy perspective, I can say it was important for the sake of continuity and due to a sense of responsibility.

Switzerland joined the IHRA, as its 18th member country, back in 2004. Since then, the IHRA has almost doubled in size (it now has 31 member countries and 11 observer countries) and Switzerland has pursued its commitment to the teaching of the Holocaust, the remembrance of its victims and empirical research into the role the country played in that period. The country report we submitted to the IHRA last year is just one example of that. The chairmanship also gives us the opportunity to highlight the steadfastness of this commitment and to encourage local initiatives in this regard. In 2015, the Federal Council unanimously agreed to Switzerland putting itself forward as a candidate for the chairmanship of the IHRA.

As a citizen and a father, I should add that one of the reasons was to remind younger generations that the Holocaust concerns us all.  We must remain conscious of what can happen if we subject others to systematic discrimination, humiliation and exclusion.

As the chair of this organisation, what are you personally planning to focus on this year? Is there one priority you hold particularly dear?

A number of local projects are associated with the chairmanship. I am delighted with the variety of these projects and the enthusiasm I see in the people working on them. These projects revolve around three themes: education, young people and social media.

I have a particular interest in youth affairs and therefore also in educational activities to raise awareness. In 2015, I had the privilege of opening the IHRA's first international conference in Switzerland. Everyone agreed that, largely thanks to the dedication of the University of Teacher Education Lucerne, this was a resounding success. During the chairmanship, two other Universities of teacher education will be involved in projects, including the international study days in Lausanne on practices and experiences in education relating to the Holocaust.

In a nutshell, the thread through all these projects is their focus on young people and the desire to find approaches and strategies to raise their awareness of these unprecedented historical events. My children now live in a world in which they are flooded with information, tending to blur the distinction between real life and virtual reality. We have a duty to provide the younger generation and citizens of tomorrow with tools to distinguish between what is essential and what is secondary, and so between the real and virtual worlds.

How are you going to appeal to young people?

I would like to give a concrete example of what I mean by essential and real, namely the meetings with survivors. For at least 20 years now, school classes have had the privilege of speaking with Holocaust survivors living in Switzerland. Such meetings remain forever etched in pupils' memories and are the best way of fighting Holocaust denial. These meetings are therefore absolutely vital, and I hold them particularly close to my heart. That's why over the past 10 years the FDFA has supported the publication of a dozen unpublished survivors' memoirs. French-speaking classes have just translated them into French, with this providing an opportunity for the pupils to meet the authors.

How does Switzerland plan to cooperate with the relevant organisations and stakeholders in Switzerland?

Such cooperation is nothing new, dating back to long before this chairmanship and has provided us with a sound basis for planning our year in this role.

When, at the FDFA's instigation and with the support of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, Switzerland proposed joining the IHRA, a group was launched bringing together relevant civil society players and organisations. This group helped to support and encourage the work of the Swiss delegation to the IHRA and also establishing a network of these stakeholders and communicating on the ground across Switzerland about the IHRA's activities.

The group, which initially had some 20 members, was expanded further in anticipation of the IHRA chairmanship. Various projects have been developed in this context, and we look forward to presenting some of these at the plenaries in Geneva and Bern.

Press releases, 07.03.2017

Ambassador Benno Bättig, Secretary General of the FDFA and head of the Swiss delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), today took up the office of chair of the IHRA for a period of one year. The priorities of the Swiss chairmanship include teaching and education, young people and social media. The IHRA, which has 31 member states, aims to promote research and education about the Holocaust and to bear its victims in remembrance through commemorative celebrations and memorials.

The new chairman of the IHRA, FDFA Secretary General Benno Bättig, gives a speech at the Swiss embassy in Berlin on 7 March 2017.
Benno Baettig © FDFA

Ambassador Benno Bättig, head of the Swiss delegation to the IHRA and Secretary General of the FDFA, took over the chairmanship of the IHRA from Romania at an official ceremony held at the Swiss embassy in Berlin. At the handover ceremony, the new IHRA chair indicated that various activities were planned “to reach young people and to ensure that the past remains part of the present.”

Switzerland has declared teaching and education, young people and social media as the priorities for its IHRA chairmanship. It aims to use modern communications technology to convey knowledge about the Holocaust to young people and to bear in remembrance the crimes committed by the Nazi regime against Jews, Roma, Sinti and other minorities. “It is our responsibility and duty to give young people, who are the citizens of the future, the skills to distinguish between what is important and that which is not and between reality and the virtual world,” remarked Ambassador Bättig.

As part of its chairmanship, Switzerland will organise international seminars on education at the University of Teacher Education in Lausanne which will cover information and teaching about the Holocaust. This conference aims to provide ideas on how to convey this complex topic appropriately and successfully in teaching. A plenary meeting of the IHRA will also take place in both Geneva and Bern during the Swiss chairmanship as well as an IHRA conference at the University of Teacher Education in Bern on the massacre carried out by the Nazi regime on people with disabilities.

The IHRA is an intergovernmental organisation with 31 member states. It aims to promote research and education about the Holocaust in the member states and to hold the victims in remembrance through commemorative ceremonies and memorials. The IHRA’s institutional partners include the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and UNESCO. Switzerland has been a member of the IHRA since 2004 and has been actively committed to the organisation’s objectives since its accession as its 2015 report to the IHRA underlines. For example, it organised an IHRA international conference on educational research about the Holocaust in Lucerne in 2016 where the findings of the latest research on teaching and learning about the Holocaust from all over the world were discussed. The results of this conference were published in a book that was presented at today’s ceremony in Berlin (“Research in Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust”, published by Monique Eckmann from Geneva). Switzerland is also supporting the publication of a collection of memoirs by Holocaust survivors as well as two touring exhibitions.
Since Switzerland joined the IHRA, the FDFA has met with key partners from federal government, the cantons and non-governmental organisations in the context of an advisory group. This group was involved in planning and determining Switzerland’s future IHRA chairmanship. Close cooperation with the group will also be a key part of Switzerland’s work during its IHRA chairmanship. Switzerland will hand over the chairmanship of the organisation to Italy in March 2018.

Further information:

Switzerland's chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2017, dossier, FDFA

Secretary General Benno Bättig’s speech during the handover ceremony of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) chairmanship from Romania to Switzerland(pdf, 70kb)

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