Elie Wiesel

Nationalism, Ethnicity … And World Peace?

VTR Date: May 28, 1993

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Nationalism, Ethnicity…And World Peace”
VTR: 5-28-93

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms larger. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today. Those ranging from capital punishment to the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state. From the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its end, to education for what, for whom. Well, today our dialogue will focus on the role of nationalism, of ethnicity, of separateness as barriers to world peace.

Elie, you know, it occurred to me in beginning our dialogue today that at the end of World War II there was a tremendous enthusiasm for the multiplicity of ethnic and national groups that would now have their own voice, would be heard and have their own power. There was empowerment there. How has it led to chaos and to warfare today?

WIESEL: Well, even then in 1945 there was a kind of urge, not only to be free, but to be free within a society. Excuse me. Within the large society, universal society. Logically we should have then decided that nationalism was the wrong path. Because it led toward Nazism. Nazism towards the Holocaust. And yet the opposite occurred. You had many colonies that wanted to be free. Israel became a sovereign state. India became independent as a nation. So 50 years later, where are we? We see in Eastern Europe, it’s true, we do see a disintegration of moral values, of democracy. Why? Why? Because something went wrong.

HEFFNER: Went wrong, or is there something inherently wrong about the concept of separateness? After all, nationalism is based perhaps upon unification of individuals within certain geographic range, but beyond that it means pitting them against another nationalism.

WIESEL: Well, that’s the beauty of the human being. I am I. Am I alone? I am I only because you will also say the same thing, that “I am I,” quote, unquote. If I respect your individuality, then I would hope that mine would also be respected. The same should apply to a community. If a community is respected, I think it will respect others. However, now, what we see now in Eastern Europe especially, or in Asia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, what we see now is the respect is gone, the respect for someone else’s liberty or national dignity, national consciousness, national identity. So again something went wrong.

HEFFNER: But Elie, again coming back to this notion that something went wrong. Has there ever been a time when indeed that emphasis upon or permission for expression of good feeling hasn’t led to this group against that group?

WIESEL: Yes and no. Since the beginning of human history there were wars. Tribal wars, religious wars, national wars, nationalistic wars, geographical considerations entered into the play, of course. But what did it mean? I meant that one community felt that it is superior. The moment that happens, then something went wrong. So what went wrong now? Who feels superior? Usually, when religious wars occurred, it’s because one religion felt that only its members, its leaders have God’s ears, so to speak. That only they may interpret God’s word. Therefore you had religious wars, and they were vicious, brutal, cruel, murderous. Now, when the other wars occurred, let’s say a nation against another nation, it’s because that nation wanted conquest. Why did it want to conquer the other? Because it felt that it has the right for its citizens to have better conditions, to have more money, more food, more power. Now we don’t believe that that is happening, except in Yugoslavia, the former Yugoslavia. And we do witness terrible things under the name of ethnic cleansing. However, we feel that the question of democracy is really now at the heart of the problem. We offer them democracy, or they got democracy. And why did it go wrong?

HEFFNER: Why did it go wrong?

WIESEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I’m going to do what you do. I will ask questions.

WIESEL: But I wish I knew. Ask them. Ask them what went wrong. Now, superficially we do get answers. But what are the answers? Let’s see. The Serbian spokesmen say that we were wrong in the United States and in Western Europe to recognize right away the sovereignty of Croatia or of Bosnia and so forth. But these are just cover words. Indeed now what went wrong there, I think, is that hate continued to exist and to do damage to the soul of the people. Hate was not disarmed.

HEFFNER: But Elie, if we continue to foster in the name of diversity, in the name of individual freedom or nationalism, if we continue to foster the notion of sovereignty for this group and for that group, aren’t we bound to rekindle all of the old hates? And there are so many of them.

WIESEL: Not necessarily. Take France and Germany. They were enemies. Enemies twice, three times. And in terrible wars. And yet today they are together and they are ready to, within the framework of European community, to give up many, many components of sovereignty. You will go through France to Germany without a passport. Now, France and Germany, for the few hundred kilometers, would kill tens of thousands of people. So it is possible.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. How do you explain what happened there>? Something you wouldn’t have expected at the end of World War I or at the end of World War II.

WIESEL: Well, at the end of World War II it was simple, because Germany was defeated and the others were the victors. What, in 1945, really happened was a feeling, a utopian feeling that this is the last war. No more wars. Surely not with Germany, because Germany would not have the strength, the industry to start again. And I think that is still continuing. We have the feeling, we had a feeling here and in France that the demons are killed. No more, no more thirst for conquest in Germany because Germany itself has seen what it had done in the name of conquest, in the name of power, in the name of nationalism.

HEFFNER: Do you feel as sanguine as your fellow French do?

WIESEL: Sanguine about what?

HEFFNER: Sanguine about the future in Germany, and fear that…

WIESEL: Oh, I am afraid of what’s happening in Germany. I, you know, I belong to a certain traumatized generation. Therefore, whatever happens in Germany, to me takes on a different meaning. It doesn’t mean I condemn all Germany, the entire German people. I never believed. The first time we met after Bitburg, I remember, we spoke about it. I do not believe in collective guilt. Nobody should say that a people is guilty. There is no such thing. Strangely enough, you know, I as a Jew, read from the Bible. And the Bible speaks about a sinful city. And that city should be burned with everything in it. And yet the Talmudic commentaries make it their business to say that such a city never existed and never will. So the law is the law. You cannot say a community, a people, all together are guilty. There is no such thing.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you use that nice phrase, “We belong to a traumatized generation.”


HEFFNER: Two things occur to me. One is that it, that of course is an explanation for your rejection of this biblical injunction.

WIESEL: Of course. But I read the Talmud. I mean, those who say that no group can collectively be condemned.

HEFFNER: But I know that you say on the one hand, and you find it in the Talmud. On the other hand, you are part of a traumatized generation that obviously doesn’t share fully in terms of your emotions. Do you?

WIESEL: I still believe that we cannot condemn the entire German people. We shouldn’t. Because first of all there are young people born after the war or during the war. And some of them were my students or are my students, and they are the best that you can imagine. They are the ones who went back to Germany to organize the candlelight demonstrations against xenophobia, against racism. But why am I nevertheless so concerned with Germany?

HEFFNER: That’s my question.

WIESEL: Because why should there be, why should there by young people in Germany who, skinheads, former Nazis, or Nazis, or Neo-Nazis, today, walk and parade in the streets of certain cities and openly, openly spread hate? Don’t they know? I would somehow understand this of a 60-year-old person or a 70-year-old German who used to be a colonel in the SS, and that he should think with melancholy, with nostalgia of the Hitler years. In his mind it makes sense. After all, those were the best years of his life, where he could kill with impunity, he could rob with impunity, rape with impunity. He was king. But the young people? Why should they go for it? Do they know?

HEFFNER: Elie, you know, you’ll forgive me for what I’m going to say, but it seems to me that question which is the question of innocence, in a sense it’s so puzzling because it reflects your continuing notion that anywhere at any time It might be possible to find no hate, nothing that can be attributed to the skinheads, because after all, we have them in our own country. So it’s not a function of Germany.

WIESEL: Here it’s less meaningful, so to speak.


WIESEL: Because we didn’t have that experience. In Germany it means something. It began in Germany in 1933, 1939, 1942. It’s Treblinka, it’s Auschwitz, it’s Bergen-Belsen. So here we don’t have that. Here at least we know on the contrary. We fought it. Look, I am critical of Roosevelt for not having done enough to save the Jews. But nevertheless, he was a kind of commander-in-chief who went to war to save the world. And he did it with grace and with fortitude. So we should know that part. But why shouldn’t German young people know their part?

HEFFNER: It seems to me, it’s so strange thought, Elie, when you say, “Why shouldn’t.” To whom are you appealing, “Why shouldn’t”?

WIESEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Seriously.

WIESEL: Dick, you and I are talking and we hope that people listen. I’m not appealing to you. I’m appealing to myself and to you.

HEFFNER: Yet you’re looking to an image of the nature of human nature that makes skinheads something outside the framework of human nature.

WIESEL: No. No, I do not say that. I think there is something of the skinhead in every one of us.


WIESEL: Now, I don’t say that there is something of an Eichmann in every one of us. I don’t say that, because that’s a little bit too much. Only Eichmann was Eichmann. And only the Nazis were the Nazis. I don’t believe there is a Nazi in every person. No. Because it’s like saying every person is a potential killer. I don’t say that. Unless I kill, I am not a killer. Not even a potential killer. That choice is mine.

HEFFNER: But there are killers among us, whether we are in Germany, whether we are in the United States, or wherever.

WIESEL: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: And Elie, wouldn’t a descendant of slaves say, “You must understand.” I think of my youth when I used to pick up, I think it was The New York Post at the end of every year on December 31st and there would be an issue, and maybe it was the first of the New Year toting up the number of lynchings that had taken place in my country in the previous year. Now, I am not a young man, but I’m not that old. And I know that was true right up through the Thirties, and perhaps even until the forties. So that the vision of skinheads or vicious, violent persons, that’s not foreign to us here in this country.

WIESEL: I think the lynchings – I wasn’t here then; I came later. I came in the late Fifties to the United States. I can only tell you what I have told you already. When I came for the first time as a journalist I had a cross-country trip with friends of mine. I was very poor. They had a car, and they took me with them. When I came to the South, and I saw then a poster saying “For Whites Only”, I was ashamed. I felt shame, physical shame, ashamed of being White. And I think that same will remain in our psyche, in our collective psyche, because we should have been ashamed. Now, you must also admit that something happened to this country and to these people, that in a kind of generation, it’s one generation, one big generation maybe, that we have changed not only the law, but also our mentality. To be a racist today is something shameful. People are embarrassed, except those racists – and there are too many of them, there are 65 racist groups in our country – but still, take a human being anywhere in this country. You will see that normally that human being will be embarrassed if he or she is called racist.

Now, what does it mean? It means that we can. The choice is ours. We have to choose to be a friend of humanity or a foe. The skinheads have chosen to be foes of humanity. So we must with our ways and tools, education and most of them, to create that climate in this county. But to be a skinhead, to be a person who is a vehicle of hate, is a foe of whatever human beings aim to achieve.

HEFFNER: Well, Elie, I was thinking, listening to you now, how I have let our conversation drift away from another kind of danger that we started to talk about, and that is the ethnic cleansing, that is the function of the nationalism, of the creation of individual sovereignties. I wondered if you had it to do over again, if we had it to do over again, would we impose a much stronger, a much more rigid, a much more, oh, powerful United Nations or some parallel organization? Are we ever going to solve these problems until less and less sovereignty resides in individual nations and individual ethnic groups, and more in world councils themselves?

WIESEL: Well, the UN, I think, by charter has no right to interfere in domestic affairs. I am against that.

HEFFNER: What would you do?

WIESEL: Oh, I think when human rights are violated on such a scale we should intervene, we must intervene. How? I don’t know. I don’t know all the details. I don’t see the secret reports and the intelligence reports every morning. I don’t know what armies we have. I don’t even know what it means to be a soldier. I never have been a soldier. But I would establish a UN policy that the UN police only in…first of all, not only, first of all in one area, the nuclear area. I am terribly worried of the nuclear implications of this happening in Eastern Europe. Today you have in Eastern Europe at least three, three republics that belonged to the former USSR, and they are nuclear republics. Now, we know the conditions there. A captain, I think, makes $30 a month, if not less. Imagine there must be among those captains or lieutenants or majors some people who are corruptible. Imagine a Khaddafi, imagine a Saddam Hussein sending, I don’t know what kind of emissaries, to corrupt these captains and offer them $100,000 or more, and a visa to Switzerland or anywhere else. Now, I am worried that they could steal some kind of nuclear weapons. So I would like to have an international police under the UN to see to it that such proliferation does not occur.

As for the ethnical cleansing…the UN is involved in Yugoslavia. And they are doing, by the way, a very good job. I have seen them at work. I have seen this General Morleon, who with his bravado, marvelous bravado, said, “I will stay in Morillon and save Srebrenica.” I have seen this man. He is a good man. There are other officers from other countries. The UN now is physically present and involved in what is happening there. It doesn’t help much. I think we should do more. Now, is it a limitation of the local sovereignties? Yes, it is. But I think we should intervene even more.

HEFFNER: At the edge here of the 21st Century, do you assume that there will be diminished or diminishing national sovereignty and increasing world government?

WIESEL: Oh, no. For the moment it’s the opposite.

HEFFNER: I know.

WIESEL: We see very well.

HEFFNER: I know.

WIESEL: Every week another nation is born. Just recently that Monaco became a member, is going to become a member of the United Nations. A nice, beautiful little city with a small police force. It’s a pleasure to go, you know, sunlit Monaco. But to become a member means Monaco will have the same vote as the United States or England. It’s okay. I like it. It doesn’t bother me. But what bothers me is when a nation becomes so nationalistic that it infringes on the sovereignty of another nation.

HEFFNER: Or you are concerned too about what goes on within the sovereign nation. And isn’t that the point that, where we really began, that your concern is for the manner in which some nations treat their own nationals, or subgroups within the nation?

WIESEL: Yes, but there we come to the problem of human rights. And again I am for the proposal which was submitted, I think, and accepted by the United Nations that in certain cases interference is permitted. And when human rights are violated, otherwise what right would, did I have to fight for the rights of the dissidents or the Soviet Jewish refusniks? Or the Soviet Jews who wanted to stay there but live Jewishly, culturally, religiously when the Soviet Union still existed. What right do I have today to fight against the dictatorships and against the regimes that suppress, oppress their citizens? I think we should. We didn’t do it enough in 1933.

HEFFNER: Elie, a few minutes we have remaining for this episode in our series of dialogues. We can’t leave the table without talking about Israel and its surrounding national enemies. How are we going to deal with that exchange of hatred?

WIESEL: It is the, well, on one level it’s moving very well. I think Israel and the Arab neighbors are now in a state of hope, of optimism. They meet, they talk. I think things improve better than anywhere in the world. The second question should be the main question: Israel and Palestinians. And do the Palestinians have a right to have their own national identity?

HEFFNER: And your answer?

WIESEL: Yes. Israel says we don’t need another, another Arab nation. That is Israel’s problem. And if I had a kind of solution, what I would say is to create the Jordanian Kingdom of Palestine, so the word “Palestine” will be part of the name of that country. Which means the Palestinians would have their own passport, the Jordanian Kingdome of Palestine, which would be Jordan and part of the territories. Just for reason of face-saving, anyway, face-saving possibility. But I think if that can be achieved, and that should be a kind of basic formula on which to work and to search more and more possibilities, more options. I think that is a good way to begin.

HEFFNER: Elie, we see now that ancient hatreds surface and are extraordinary in the way and the intensity with which they burn. Do you think the ancient hatreds that reflect the Palestinian conflict with the Israelis will disappear with a new nation?

WIESEL: Oh, sure. That is not so ancient. Palestinians? They were, Palestinians 50 years ago were Jews. When you said 50 years ago the Palestinians were not the Jew, after all, there was a Jewish Agency for Palestine, the Jewish Brigade for Palestine, and that meant Jewish Palestine. The Palestinian became a word of hostility, carrying hostility toward the Jews much later. Fifty years.

HEFFNER: We are dealing now with two, three generations of conflict.

WIESEL: That may be so. The moment they have something of a national territory, something of a national identity, then they will have to work, they will have to cooperate with Israel.

HEFFNER: Isn’t it so interesting that we find the solution to these conflicts again in nationalism and finding national identity?

WIESEL: If we could create a world federation, a world government, it would be utopian. But you know, the word “utopian” means, “it never happened. It never existed. It doesn’t exist.” I would say it was messianic. It could be nationalism. But even when the Messiah will come, it wouldn’t mean the abolition of messianism. It would simply mean the respect that all nations will have for one another.

HEFFNER: You see that? That city on the hill? You see it coming?

WIESEL: Oh, I hope it will come. I don’t see it. But I see it must come one day.

HEFFNER: When you say you don’t see it, but you believe it must come…

WIESEL: I mean, as a Jew I believe it must come.

HEFFNER: And through what agency?

WIESEL: It must be a human endeavor, not a divine endeavor. It is we who can make it happen, even for the moment. Even for a year. Maybe it won’t last eternally. But if we can do it for one year, it would be worthwhile.

HEFFNER: Elie, I’m always so pleased when you express your faith, and it’s always an optimistic faith of necessity. We’ll come back and talk about many other issues in our dialogues. Thank you for joining me again today.

WIESEL: It’s a pleasure.