In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action’s educational programs from 1997 to 2010.
That is where genocide has its roots: When society starts seeing groups of people or certain minorities as a sort or species, not as a group of individuals with individual rights.
The Holocaust did not just happen or happen by accident– nor did the Iraqi genocide of Kurds 1988, the Rwandan genocide 1995 or the one in Srebrenica 1995. They happened according to plans initiated by politicians and bureaucrats and were all carried out by willing killers.
Each genocide differed from the others. And it makes no sense to cut across all genocides and see them as one similar piece of crime. In fact, that is where genocide has its roots: When society starts seeing groups of people or certain minorities as a sort or species, not as a group of individuals with individual rights, there is reason to worry.
Each of the six million people killed in the Jewish Holocaust had individual rights. And although the butchers, to a great extent, were made responsible for mass killings, every single killing was individual – with a single perpetrator and a single victim. Someone committed a murder. Someone was killed.
These genocides do, however, have at least two things in common – probably more. First: meticulous planning. Second: the widespread willingness of surrounding society not to see what was in the making. Both rely on what is called ‘civil’ society. And both, in fact, apply to civil society’s approach to ‘the other’.
When Jews of Germany and parts of Austria were attacked in the streets during Kristallnacht(November 9-10, 1938), at least 96 people were killed, about 1,000 synagogues were set on fire, about 7,500 Jewish shops and businesses were destroyed, and 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. It was treated as news, but in fact it wasn’t new.
The Holocaust did not just happen or happen by accident– nor did the Iraqi genocide of Kurds 1988, the Rwandan genocide 1995 or the one in Srebrenica 1995.
Ever since the beginning of Adolph Hitler’s reign, new discriminatory laws and practices – one after another– were put in place against Jews. Kosher butchering was banned in 1933. That same year, registration of Jewish children began in German schools. From 1935, German Jews were deprived of citizenship. In 1936, Jews couldn’t participate in political elections. In 1938 Jews had to carry a special identity card.
Did the Holocaust start with the first murder of a Jewish citizen? Did it start by the first legal discrimination of Jews? Or did it start by the passive acceptance of civil society to differentiate in talk and law between the majority and a specific minority, perhaps unknowingly- perhaps ignorant – that it might pave the way for a deliberate catastrophe?
When Kurds of Northern Iraq were killed in 1988 – the number still remains unknown, but figures amount to 100,000-188,000 individual victims– it wasn’t treated as news at all. Only when Iranian authorities allowed scores of photographers into the village of Halabja, when 5,000 Kurds had been gassed to death, did the news reach the world press. But still, it wasn’t new.
For years, Saddam Hussein had singled out Kurds as responsible for treason against Iraq and Arab society. And when soldiers were sent to “Kurdistan” in the north of Iraq, they only acted according to plans.
Villages had to be ‘cleaned’ for villagers that had to be killed, (i.e. not only lorries would be needed). And plans were made to empty thousands of villages of their inhabitants.
Hassan al-Majid, then commander of Northern Iraq, had issued rules in 1986 which made it legal to take cows, sheep, goats, and sometimes even women, from Kurdish citizens. For years, loyal bureaucrats to the dictatorship in Baghdad had worked on a master plan for Operation Anfal. Carefully, they calculated how many lorries they would need to bring to the North to pick up people, live or dead, to bring them to other locations, where mass graves would be dug. Villages had to be ‘cleaned’ for villagers that had to be killed, (i.e. not only lorries would be needed). You would need soldiers, weapons, ammunition, helicop- ters, and gas canisters. And plans were made to empty thousands of villages of their inhabitants.
Did the Operation Anfal – named after and legitimized by a chapter in the Quran about the battle of Badr 624 AD – start with the killings in Halabja? Did it start by the regime’s legal discrimination? Or did it start by the accusation of Kurdish disloyalty and the deliberate encouragement of non-Kurdish Iraqis to participate in discrimination against Kurds?
When the beautiful mountain village of Srebrenica was transformed from a UN declared ‘safe area’ to a slaughterhouse of 8,000 men in July 1995, it certainly didn’t happen silently. The Bosnian war had raged for several years. And Bosnian Serbic forces left no doubt that they wanted to eliminate Muslims and Muslim identity from their territory.
Two years earlier, the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) had announced that its force of 400 soldiers was protecting the Bosnian Muslims of the neighborhood. But when the Army of ‘Republika Srpska’ led by General Ratko Mladic in July 1995 rounded up male Muslims in Srebrenica, the UN forces turned their back on the atrocities.
The mass murder caused an international outcry as the largest mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust, and the International Court of Justice declared it genocide
The Serb forces ordered women and children out of Srebrenica and selectively murdered the 8,000 male Muslims–military as well as civilian – and buried them in mass graves outside the village. All were men, most were adults, but children below the age of 15 and even babies were killed.
The mass murder caused an international outcry as the largest mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust, and the International Court of Justice declared it genocide, due to the deliberate intent to destroy the Muslim society of Bosnia.
But did the genocide of Srebrenica start accidentally on July 13th 1995? Was it initiated several years earlier by the promise or campaigns of ‘Republika Srpska’ to eradicate Muslim identity from Bosnia and Herzegovina? And would it have happened at all if the UN Forces had honored its promise to protect the civil population of Srebrenica instead of ignoring the fatal operation or the Serb forces?
When 800,000 were killed in Rwanda in 1994, other UN forces had decided to withdraw and leave people to their fate. The two population groups, Hutus and Tutsis, largely were an invention of Belgian colonial forces in the beginning of the same century. Still, discrimination between the two came to the forefront of events, when the killings began.
In just three months, nearly 800,000 people had been killed, most of them through the use of knives and clubs, many with guns.
Most killers, but certainly not all, were Hutus– and most victims were Tutsis. The atrocity was ignited by the explosion of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994. Then Tutsi rebel leader– today’s president– Paul Cagame was blamed for the explosion. The leaders of the Kigali opposition were murdered shortly after the plane exploded, and very soon mass killings of Tutsis started all over Rwanda. In just three months, nearly 800,000 people had been killed, most of them through the use of knives and clubs, many with guns. UN forces nearby alerted the UN headquarters in New York to no avail. Additional forces weren’t dispatched to enforce law; instead, the UN forces had to observe the Rwandans falling prey to their killers.
In Rwanda, the genocide probably had a social and economic aspect.
The genocide made the headlines of international politics and the media. The neighboring state of Burundi in fact had lived through two similar mass killings, one of Hutus by the Tutsi army in 1972 and one of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994. In Rwanda, the genocide probably had a social and economic aspect. Weapons had been distributed to thousands of army members. And the distribution of ID cards beforehand made it possible for the perpetrators to identify whom to kill and whom to leave in peace, acknowledging that physical features didn’t always make it possible to distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi. Hutu generals and politicians appear responsible for having distributed leafl ts encouraging violence against Tutsis, and two radio stations in particular– Radio Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines– distributed mass amounts of hate speech against the Tutsis.
To that extent it is fair to ask: Did the genocide of Rwanda start on April 6, 1994 with the assassi- nation of president Habyarimana? Was it initiated by the campaigns of government strongmen to prepare for violence against Tutsis? Did the media prepare the ground for genocide by its distribution of virulent hate speech? And again: Would it have happened if the UN had ensured sufficient peace and protected the citizens of Rwanda against one another?
The Holocaust, as well as the three subsequent genocides (a term coined in 1944 by Jewish-Polish Raphael Lemkin by combining the Greek word for race, ‘geno’, with the Latin termfor killing ‘cide’) in Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia are all well documented. Even so, the genocides are disputed locally as well as internationally by people who question these specific historic facts.
Why would anyone question that 800,000 people of Rwanda were killed?
One wonders why anyone would be inspired to raise doubt as to whether six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime or any Jews deliberately killed at all. The horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps are well documented. Today, “Holocaust denial” seems mostly appreciated by anti-Semites and enemies of the state of Israel.
It seems equally extraordinary to question whether Kurds of Northern Iraq were butchered by Saddam Hussein, keeping in mind that mass graves have been opened, and the murdered people of Halabja photographed in their agony. In this case as well, mostly people critical of Kurdish calls for equal rights seem to appreciate the voices trying to silence the memory of the Anfal Operation.
Why would anyone question that 800,000 people of Rwanda were killed? After all, plenty of documentation and photographs exist in this case as well. True, most of the people charged with murder haven’t been sentenced yet, and Rwanda today is in a process of reconciliation and reconstruction. Anyway, what would be the value of reconciliation if the horrific events of the genocide are ignored or even denied?
While one murder is a crime, genocide may still be a matter of statistics, as it has been claimed.
When the killing in Srebrenica was taking place, UN soldiers withdrew although they knew what could happen – and did happen.At the time of writing these words, some fifteen years later, the mastermind of the genocide, general Ratko Mladic, is still on the run. ‘Srebrenica’ isn’t the subject of pleasant dinner table conversations.
Considering that murder in most countries, if not all, may lead to prosecution for the rest of a killer’s life, it is extraordinary that political mass murder often does not lead to a court case. While one murder is a crime, genocide may still be a matter of statistics, as it has been claimed.
In the right (or rather wrong) circumstances, many, if not most or all people, may be capable of killing. And in the right, (i.e. wrong) circumstances, most people may be capable of turning their back on killings, as well as preparations for genocide.
When the world realized that Karl Adolf Eichmann, the chief operator of the Holocaust, only amounted to a ‘normal’ man, not a beast, Hannah Arendt coined the famous phrase about the “Banality of Evil”. In the right (or rather wrong) circumstances, many, if not most or all people, may be capable of killing. And in the right, (i.e. wrong) circumstances, most people may be capable of turning their back on killings, as well as preparations for genocide.
After all, the Holocaust or later genocides might not have happened, if people locally or internationally had reacted to preparations being made – or objected to current hate speech and legal discrimination injected in the rule of law.
Why study? Why keep talking about the Holocaust or later genocides? Why keep talking about the genocide of a million Armenians or one and half million Armenians three daceds prior to the holocaust?
The question of numbers, of what really happened, of perpetrators and of responsibility remains sensitive.
It is hardly a secret that the Armenian fate is still an explosive issue in current politics in Turkey and Armenia. The question of numbers, of what really happened, of perpetrators and of responsibility remains sensitive. So is the Holocaust; even if current democratic Germany has honorably tried to settle the scores of the Nazi Third Reich, the Holocaust still remains in the memory of survivors of World War II. And the very existence of Holocaust Denial calls for continued interest in the lessons of the Holocaust.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, in Rwanda and in Srebrenica, the wounds are still open; bodies are still retrieved and new graves are still being dug.
Do we really have reason to hope that humanity is able to close the book of Genocide and leave it to history? Do we really have reason to believe that humanity today is more clever, more sensitive and better prepared to prevent another Genocide?
Ask the people of Darfur, the Sudanese province where three or four hundred thousand people have been killed in this current decade in what amounts to genocide. Ask the Darfuris if the international civil society was ready to protect people and prevent mass murder. Ask the Darfuris about the sensitivity of the world. Ask the Darfuris about mass killings taking place while the international community did not succeed in finding peace by enabling soldiers to hold back the killers.
Alas, the world is the same as before the Armenian Genocide, before the Holocaust, before Kurdistan, Rwanda and Srebrenica.
What coming generations need to study is not only how civil society, to a great extent, turned its back on Genocide; what is needed is how to detect hate speech, intolerance and discrimination in the future.
Media, politicians and bureaucracy share an evident responsibility. Do media stay back from stigmatizing minority groups? Do politicians avoid instigating or nourishing conflicts between communal groups? Does bureaucracy retract from treating individual citizens merely as parts of communal groups?
Schools are a parallel responsibility. Do schools offer children the same education and the same introduction to society regardless of the student’s religious, ethnic, racial background or sexual orientation? Do schools open the eyes of students to the requirements of human rights?
Teacher, student, citizen, we bear the greatest, most obvious responsibility. Do we react to what always comes first in the case of genocide: Hate speech, intolerance and discrimination?
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Jerichow, Anders. “The Banality of Genocide.” In Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Julia Zarankin, 145-155. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.