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The Banality of Genocide

This speech was delivered at the first annual Humanity in Action International Conference in Amsterdam on July 2, 2010.

General Roméo Dallaire was the commander of the UN military force sent into Rwanda to prevent a new outbreak of the civil war and monitor the implementation of the peace process.

What he discovered was a genocide in preparation. His efforts to warn the international community to act against the genocide proved fruitless, and he became the powerless victim to what was the concluding genocide of the 20th century—the century that brought us genocide.

In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire, among other things, notes a strange piece of information that came into his hands in February 1994 in Kigali. One of his informants told him that teachers in schools in Rwanda had been instructed by the Ministry of Education to draw up lists of Tutsi and Hutu students and pass these on to the Ministry. Dallaire notes in his book: We were kind of puzzled about why is it that the Ministry needs lists of Tutsi and Hutu students, but there was so much going on that we never went back to the informer to ask for more. Two months later the genocide started, and of course the lists of Tutsi and Hutu students played a role in the implementation of that genocide.

I’m sure that at least some of you are familiar with the background in Rwanda, but for those who possibly might not be, just a brief footnote. The Tutsi and the Hutu were the two main socio-ethnic groups in Rwanda, not ethnic groups in the European sense. Both Tutsi and Hutu share the same culture, same religion and same background. In Rwanda’s extremely complex social system, these were originally two different social groups. They were permutated into ethnic groups under Belgian colonial rule, and every adult Rwandan had to carry an ID card that contained the mention of his or her ethnicity: Tutsi, Hutu or Twa, the third, tiniest group. 

However, children did not carry ID cards. Therefore, in order to know which children to kill, the government—which was preparing the genocide—had to have lists of namea. And this is why the teachers were asked to draw up lists of Tutsi and Hutu students. 

I often think about those teachers. I imagine myself being a teacher, say in Kigali in 1994, and receiving the circular from the Ministry of Education. My first reaction is, of course: Why the hell does the Ministry need lists of Tutsi and Hutu students? It’s ridiculous. But then I tell myself, “Okay, is this the first ridiculous circular I’ve received from the Ministry? They ask me so many stupid things; it is just a waste of time. Who knows? Maybe what they want to do is to find out whether Tutsi or Hutu students are not receiving adequate education. Maybe it is about comparing ethnicity and academic achievement. Maybe it is looking at mobility; how the patterns change over time.” There are so many rational reasons that the Ministry might have in asking for this information. So why not provide it? I’ve given the Ministry so much information already, right?

So the teacher, between checking the kids’ homework, draws up a list of Tutsi and Hutu students and sends it to the Ministry. The point I am trying to make is that when genocide happens, the final perpetrators of the genocide are the people who actually go there and kill, or chop people to pieces, or put people into gas chambers, or starve people to death—depending on the technology of the genocide. But for the genocide to be possible at all, it needs those teachers. It needs us. The preparatory period for the genocide, the one that precedes the actual murder, is one in which the institutions of normal, functioning state and civil society are being used to prepare the murder. Without the participation of those institutions, without the participation of ordinary citizens, the preparation of the genocide would not have been possible, and therefore the genocide would not have been possible. 

Some of you might be familiar with the work of the German linguist Klemperer, who wrote a fascinating book about the coming and growth of Nazism in Germany in the interwar period called Lingua Tertii Imperii, “The Language of the Third Empire,” meaning the Third Reich. In his book, Klemperer—a German philologist of Jewish extraction, who, somewhat by surprise, finds himself labeled as a Jew and then has to suffer what the Jews have to suffer—documents the development of public language and the way it was being used in Germany. He notes with some amusement that the term “Jew,” which was a religious or possibly and ethnic designation, has acquired legal meaning. That once you are classified as a Jew, there are certain things you are not allowed to do and other things that you have to do. He notes quite funny jokes that would arise in Germany when Jews became a legal category, because how do you decide who is a Jew? Just what percentage of Jewish blood do you have? And what is Jewish blood anyway? And you can imagine the easy-going jokes about just how silly and how stupid the bureaucracy is.

But then “Jew” becomes part of the accepted language. He notes in one of his texts that once, inadvertently, in a public park, he sat on a bench that was not allowed to Jews. Jews at that time could still enter Germany public parks, but could no longer sit on certain benches clearly marked as forbidden to Jews. A sweet old lady passing by noticed this and pointed this out to him. “Sir, you’re sitting on the wrong bench. You’re not allowed to sit here.” The sweet, old lady probably did not have one anti-Semitic bone in her. She was treating with respect. She called him “sir.” She was simply pointing out to him that he has broken the law, the way she would have pointed it out to him if he had walked on the grass were forbidden to walk on the grass.

That sweet lady, of course, had no idea at all that her action, in a very small way, was making the genocide possible by internalizing it and making her own the mental categories and ideas that stood behind the genocide. Later on, Jews were no longer allowed to sit on any bench in any German park. Then they were not allowed to exercise certain professions. Of course, they were not allowed to marry Aryans. And then certain shops were designated only for Jews, and you could shop there only at given hours. Klemperer once or twice tried to stand in line outside of the Jewish hours and was thrown out of the line. “Your time is sometime else; you’re not allowed to stand in this line.” Again, most of the people who were doing this were probably normal, good, decent people. These were not the Gestapo goons, these were not the SS. These were you and I, obeying the law.

In one of what I think is the most important works ever written about the Shoah, Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish-Jewish émigré sociologist who still teaches at Leeds University in the UK, puts forward his interpretation of the Shoah. What he says is that the Shoah is the bastard child of the Enlightenment. Contrary to the kind of literary language we use to describe the Shoah—that it is a throwback to the Dark Ages, it is medieval, it is barbaric—Bauman argues: No, it is not medieval, it is not barbaric. It is Enlightened and Modern. His argument goes more or less like this: until the Enlightenment, the idea that governments have a responsibility for improving the lot of the people they govern simply was not there. The responsibility of governments was essentially to protect the territory they govern from foreign invasion. This is why people had to pay taxes, so that there could be a standing army. The idea that the government has internal responsibilities, that it should better the lot of its people, was alien. It simply did not happen.

The Enlightenment, with its entirely innovative and wonderful concept that people are entitled to live better, to live healthier, freer and better educated, implies that some authority must be responsible for this change. Ultimately, the government has to be responsible for this change because only the government can implement the appropriate changes on a mass scale. This is why compulsory education goes through the government. This is why campaigns of inoculation, of vaccination against diseases, go through the government. But this also means that the government is responsible for groups of people who do not cooperate.

The idea of the “mentally ill” is an Enlightenment idea. Before the Enlightenment, the mentally ill were part of the everyday landscape. They were the strangers, the freaks. Nobody thought they should be cured. The idea that this is a mental disease that should be put in hospitals and cured is of course an Enlightenment idea. By and large it is a wonderful idea, because it has brought people out of untold misery. As medicine progresses, and we are able more and more to help. However, it also stands to reason that if any of the great teachers of antiquity, from Socrates, through the Buddha, to Jesus, were to show up in an Enlightenment society, a mental asylum is probably the place to which he would go. There he or she would be reeducated to become a productive member of society. If some people refuse to be reeducated, they will just have to stay in the mental asylum for life.

But what happens if groups of people obstruct the progressive ideas of the government? In the Soviet Union after the October Revolution, the Communist Party decided that there is a social group called the kulaks, meaning the rich peasants, who are thoroughly reactionary, opposed to the idea of progress and the construction of socialism, and therefore, I quote textually, “They have to be eliminated as a class.” It was not even the fault of the kulaks that they were horrible reactionaries. Yes, many of them were horrible reactionaries: some did not want to give up their grain to the Communist authorities; some thought that having a tsar was better than having Lenin; and others really believed that it was nobody’s business whether they go to Church. For all those reasons, they were in the way of progress. Standing in the way of progress, they had to be eliminated for the greater, common good. Millions of people were starved to death in the early Soviet Union because they were kulaks and they stood in the way of progress.

In Germany, the interesting thing about Hitler’s anti-Semitism is that it starts out with an almost clinical detachment. Some of you might have read Mein Kampf. If you have not, actually do. It is available in libraries. It is interesting. It is a terribly disappointing book in a way. It is horribly, badly written and, frankly, stupid. You think, “And this book changed the world? In a horrible way, but changed the world?” It does not make sense. But the interesting thing that you will find in Mein Kampf is Hitler’s approach to the Jews. He says that, the way that a doctor wants to save a human being has to be merciless towards the bacteria that make the human being sick, politicians who want to save Western civilization have to be merciless against the Jewish bacteria who are destroying it. In one of his asides, Hitler says: It’s no fault of the Jew that he is a Jew, but it is no fault of human beings that they want to be rid of the Jewish bacteria that are destroying them. It’s nothing personal. It’s just another implementation of the Enlightenment idea that we, the government, are responsible for improving the lot of society. If there is a group that refuses to be re-socialized for the common good, or stands in the way of the common good, it is indeed a good thing to have this group eliminated.

This is why the analogy that people sometimes make between genocides—which are a 20th-century phenomenon, and I’ll explain that in a moment—and massacres, which have been the standard fare of human history since time immemorial, is false. Read descriptions of massacres. Medieval chronicles are full of them. What you will almost universally discover is that your usual massacre is relatively short-lived. The city has been besieged for months, it finally falls, the conquering army enters, and then it does what conquering armies do: murders, rapes and loots. This was usually the driving force for the conquering army anyway. This orgy of murder, rape and looting goes on for three days, four days or five days. You can have too much of a good thing. I mean, just how many people are you going to torture and murder before you are fed up. You’ve had your fun. How many women can you rape? How much gold can you loot? Eventually, after you are satiated, we will let whoever survives live. The idea of massacre is about immediate gratification. Once your feelings, your lusts are gratified, there is really no reason to continue—until next time, at least. Also, those who perpetrate massacre usually feel that maybe it was not the morally right thing to do. The historically accepted way of making amends for having participated in a massacre was to then make religious donations to the temple, church, mosque or synagogue. This implies the people making such donations felt some kind of moral unease.

I remember having a conversation last year in Kigali, Rwanda, with a gentleman who had just emerged from jail having been sentenced for thirteen years for participation in the genocide. Very sweet gentleman; we had a very nice talk over some beers. He was explaining to me—he had not read Mein Kampf—but he told me: “You know, you know how we call the Tutsis? We call them inyenzi, cockroaches. Do you think it is just by chance that his particular group gets called cockroaches? You know, in one newspaper there was a very good article I recommend you read. It says, ‘The way that the cockroach cannot give birth to a butterfly, an inyenzi will always remain an inyenzi.’” These people are evil, they’re wrong. He says, “First of all, I was framed, I didn’t kill anybody, whatever. But you know they accuse us of being murderers. Mister, believe me, the people who did the work”—that is the term he used, l’travail, the work—“they worked hard. It is hard, physical labor. It was no fun at all, but somebody had to do it, because people have the right not to live with cockroaches, inyenzi, in their homes.” 

This was more or less the same language I heard it Bosnia from the perpetrators of the Bosnian genocide. It was described in the starkest detail in a book by Christopher Browning, the American historian of the Shoah, called Ordinary Men. Again, if you have not read the book, I strongly recommend that you do. This is the history of Reserve Police Battalion 101 from the city of Hamburg. The battalion, in the summer of 1942 around the small Polish town of Yanofpodlaski,  murdered some 25,000 Jews. The battalion was a reserve police battalion. This was not the Gestapo, this was not the SS nor was this even the Wehrmacht. It was middle-aged gentleman, aged 45 and up, too old to be drafted, who were taken into the police battalion and sent to occupied Poland to do their police work, which in this case meant killing Jews. They came from all walks of life. They could have been teachers, clerks, engineers, bus-drivers or longshoremen, all of them married with children. They were middle-aged men doing a service for their country. 

For historical reasons I will not explain here, much of the documentation of Battalion 101 has survived including letters sent home. In one of those letters, one of the soldiers of that battalion wrote to his wife: This is really awful. It’s awful. I mean, no matter how hard you work to herd those people to the execution site, they’re undisciplined and the old ladies really can’t walk fast enough, they get lost, and kids will scream and look for their parents. It’s a mess. No matter how hard you try, when you shoot them you end up spattered with blood and brains and whatever. It’s disgusting, it’s hot, and this is Poland, a barbaric place. They don’t even have proper showers. It takes hours to wash up, day-in and day-out. It’s really horrible, but somebody has to do it. Again, it is nothing personal. The Jews are wrong, they should not be here. Somebody should do it.

The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, when orders came that they were to execute the Jews, were given a choice by their commanders. They said, “If you don’t think you are up to it, you can say that you will not participate and you will be transferred to another unit.” There was no penalty attached. Nobody went to jail for refusing to murder people. The worst that would happen would be that you were transferred to another unit. These were not fanatics. These were not ideologues. These were you and I; these were ordinary men. There were one or two cases of people refusing. Nobody wanted to let the others down. It was simply not decent, not fair, to let the others do the dirty work while you enjoyed a more privileged posting. Bottom line: these were moral people, who did what they did not because they lusted for murder, but because they felt solidarity with others. They would not let their compatriots down. “I will not have my buddies have to cleanse themselves everyday of the blood and the brains. I will participate myself.” They did it for what they believed is a moral purpose: the betterment of humanity. The elimination of the Jews served to improve the lot of humanity. 

They thought of themselves in pretty heroic terms. In a famous speech given to the top SS leadership in the Polish occupied city of PoznaƄ in 1943, Heinrich Himmler said, “We are all here because we have all participated in a glorious page of German history, which will never be written. It will never be written because we cannot expect lesser men to understand the nobility and the glory of the enterprise, but it is a noble and glorious enterprise.” This is just as the killers of the Tutsi in Rwanda believed they were participating in the glorious enterprise, even if they had no fun at all. And they had no fun at all. There was the occasional cow you could loot, occasional woman you could rape or someone you didn’t like whom you could murder, but chopping people to death with machetes is very hard, physical labor. If you have to do it day-in and day-out, nine to five (it was very well organized), it is no fun at all. You do it because you are a moral person, because you believe that somebody has to do the hard work for the greater common good. Ultimately, because you believe the government has the right to ask you which children in your classroom are Tutsi and which are Hutu.

This is what I would call, referring to Hannah Arendt’s ground-breaking work on the Eichmann trial when she wrote The Banality of Evil, the banality of genocide. In a way, mass-murders and massacres—which also occur in our times as they occurred throughout history—are not banal. They are extraordinary events that both the perpetrators and the victims conceptualize of as extraordinary events. Genocide, in a way, is incipient in the everyday institutions of a well-organized state and a well-organized civil society. Once we accept the principle that the government, which is responsible for the common good, has the right to conduct certain actions concerning certain special groups of people, the first step has been made. Nobody in their right mind would refuse the government’s right to conduct vaccinations. We are all healthier because of that. But, in vaccinations, one premille  of those who get inoculated risk dying. We accept that they will die for the greater common good, and I think that we are right to accept that. I do not know if I would say the same thing if my child died from a vaccination, but mercifully this is one test I was spared. But we already, incipiently accept the principle that it is okay to sacrifice someone for the greater common good. We accept that people be categorized and classified.

Going back to Rwanda, which I find a fascinating case. The Tutsi and the Hutu were part of an extremely complex social structure that included categories such as access to power and type of labor done. It was not ethnic in any measurable sense. Those groups share the same language, the same culture, they have no traditions that one group came from here and the other group came from there. Essentially—and I am simplifying it very drastically—if you were a farmer, you were probably Hutu, and if you were a herder you were probably Tutsi. It was by and large better to be Tutsi than to be Hutu, because the kings were always Tutsi. The princes could be Tutsi or Hutu, and tribes could include both Tutsi and Hutu, but the Tutsi were considered slightly better. If you wish, an imperfect analogy would be to the relationship of the aristocracy and the peasantry in the European Middle Ages. There was a great deal of social mobility across those lines. A farmer who married into a Tutsi family would become Tutsi. A Tutsi who lost his herd would because Hutu.

The Belgians took over Rwanda in 1919 as war compensation from Germany, something I find very sweet: the taking of a third country as compensation from a second country to the first country. The Belgians approached Rwanda (it wasn’t a colony, but a protectorate by mandate from the League of Nations) in a very decent spirit. Belgium had been thoroughly shocked by the revelation of the horrors of Belgian rule in the Congo, and the Belgian approach to Rwanda was: “This time we’re going to do it right.” In fact, Belgian invested much more money into Rwanda than they ever got out of it. It is a very poor country. They did most of the right things: they build hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and educated Rwandan kids. They found this unholy mess of Tutsi and Hutu, a terribly complex situation. They decided that this should be set right scientifically.

For ten years, teams of anthropologists from Belgium would crisscross Rwanda measuring the angle of people’s noses, the curliness of their hair and the color of their eyes, to finally scientifically ascertain who is Tutsi and who is Hutu. Enough of this African mess! We are bringing in good, clean, European science. After ten years, they decided that if you are over one meter eighty [in height], or have ten cows or more, you’re Tutsi. If you fail to meet those criteria, you’re Hutu. This meant that in some families, one brother was Tutsi and another brother was Hutu, but this was the Africans’ fault. They had brought this mess on themselves. We are trying to put things straight. Their identities were put on their ID cards: Enough of this African mess of somebody being Tutsi today and Hutu tomorrow. If you’re Tutsi, you’re Tutsi!

All it took at the roadblocks in 1994 was to ask for your ID card, because the Rwandans themselves could not tell Tutsis and Hutus apart just by looking at them. They needed to have ID cards. Those ID cards were a European invention brought into Rwanda with the best possible intentions. If being a colonialist can have any good outcomes, Belgian rule is Rwanda is more a positive than negative example. Belgians went with the best intentions in the world. They brought those messy Africans the benefits of developed European science. They gave ID cards with either a Tutsi or Hutu mark. Without that, the genocide would not have been possible. It simply would not have been possible. Tutsi and Hutu were fighting wars before the Belgians came. In some wars, it was Tutsi against Hutu; other wars were Tutsi-Hutu coalition A against Tutsi-Hutu coalition B. As in European history, the same thing applies to Rwandan history. It was complex. Thanks to the wonderful introduction of European science, it became very simple, extremely simple, to conduct a genocide.

The ID card alone could not do it. Belgians brought formal European education to Rwanda, and were very good at it. They taught the history of Rwanda. Rwanda was an oral society. There was no written history, only vague myths. Belgians brought European science and history to Rwanda, and they taught the history of Rwanda the way they thought it happened.

There was a completely invented history, thought-up by a British adventurer who was the first European to enter Rwanda in the mid-19th century. He was very surprised: Rwanda, as compared to other central African states, was actually a state with central power, a standing army, courts and a judiciary system. It had no cities—it was an agricultural society—so at first sight it was difficult for a European to recognize it as a state, but it was a state. He was very surprised. Then he noticed that some Rwandans are taller than others and have slightly lighter skins. There is the explanation! These are obviously “whiter” Rwandans, and this is why they have a state. They have almost-white people. So he decided that the Tutsis, a greater number of who were tall and light-skinned compared to the Hutus, were really invaders from the north—maybe from Ethiopia, maybe from the Mediterranean coast, from closer to Europe, from closer to civilization—who had come south and conquered this barbaric country, and that is why it has a state system. There is not shred of evidence for that. Nothing. Not one popular legend, not one belief about invaders from the north, nothing. It’s pure fiction.

This is the fiction the Belgians taught in schools. They taught mainly Tutsi children, because the Tutsi of course are whiter and therefore better, that they are a superior race. By virtue of being superior, they have the right and the destiny to rule over the Hutus. This came as a surprise. The Tutsis did not think of themselves as a superior race, nor did the Hutus think of themselves as an inferior race. They did not think of themselves as races at all. But superior European science had taught them that they are in fact separate races, and one is better than the other. As you can possibly understand, the Hutu did not very much enjoy being told they are an inferior race.

After World War II, Belgium continued to run Rwanda, but Belgium had a major internal change of system: the Flemish majority, which was dominated by the Walloon minority, gets the upper hand. That is the beginning of the ascendancy of the Flemish in Belgium. Most of the personnel sent from Belgium to Rwanda were Catholic missionaries, often from Flanders. They started viewing the situation in Rwanda through the prism of the situation in Belgium. You had a majority, the Hutu, who were oppressed by a minority. It is time for the majority to stand up. The same Belgians who first taught the Tutsi that they are a superior race and the Hutu that they are an inferior race, then started teaching the Hutu: You are a majority! You have democratic rights! You should be the masters of the land and they, the foreign invaders, should know their place.

The first massacres on a mass scale occurred on the last months of Belgian rule in Rwanda, and the Belgians let it happen: it was just the majority asserting itself. All this was a European import. The idea that Rwanda was some kind of typical African massacre (massacres happen in Africa the way it rains in England—it is just the natural way of things) is bonkers. All this was a European import.

The final element, to clinch it all, was the media. We were discussing this briefly on the way here. After 1989, after democratic transformations in Eastern Europe, the French, who had taken over from the Belgians the patronage over formally independent Rwanda, started pressuring the then-Rwandan dictator General Habyarimana to liberalize laws on the media, liberalize laws on the parties and create a democracy. The good general, who was running the dictatorship mainly in the interests of himself and his clan, but not along Tutsi-Hutu lines, was very skeptical and tried to explain to French president Mitterrand that if he allowed for freedom of expression that bad things would happen. The French forced him, the media got liberalized and very soon a populist broadsheet appeared called Kangura. “Kangura” in Kinyarwanda means “wake him up.” Some of you might hear echoes of things that Klemperer described: Deutschland erwache. Wake him up! 

Kangura was teaching its mainly Hutu readership the evils of the Tutsi. There is even a text published in Kangura, you can look it up on the website, called “The Ten Commandments of the Hutu.” That is how it was originally titled in the newspaper. It says that the Hutus must know that the Tutsis, all of them, are enemies who try to dominate the Hutu people. Two or three of the commandments are specifically about Tutsi women, who are particularly dangerous. Tutsi women corrupt Hutu males by pulling them away from their racial solidarity. This is why, of course, the Tutsi provide their wives and daughters to Hutus: to corrupt them and enfeeble them. Again a myth you can find very easily in the German anti-Semitic propaganda of the ‘20s and ‘30s. “The Ten Commandments” go on about what all Hutus must believe about all Tutsis being what they are—being evil.

Without this combination—modern science, modern education and modern media—the Rwandan genocide could not have happened. All those institutions are part of a legacy of the Enlightenment. It would be, of course, extremely easy to bash the Enlightenment as such, to show just how evil this entire enterprise has been. The fact that there is a pathological consequence of something doesn’t make that something pathological. It needs to make us terribly aware of the incipient dangers in seemingly innocent things. No, what we are taught in schools about ourselves and about others is not innocent. No, it is not innocent if the Ministry asks you to draw up lists of Tutsi and Hutu students. Or Polish and Ukrainian students. Or Hungarian and Roma students. This is not innocent. It is not innocent when, in the media, we start reading about a certain group (ethnic, religious, sexual, whatever) described as animals or insects. We all need to be extremely aware of that. 

The problem, of course, is that you can cry wolf only so many times and before nobody listens. Each time red flashing lights such as those I have just described appear in the discourse or practice of democratic societies, somebody will probably say: “Dangerous. This might lead to genocide.” And we will all pooh-pooh that. Come on, don’t be ridiculous and don’t exaggerate. In fact, in most cases, it is ridiculous and it is exaggeration. The point is that we never know which those cases are. It might well be that some of those whistleblowers, who were ridiculous and exaggerated, have through their ridiculous and exaggerated actions blocked an historical development which otherwise might have lead us into another Rwanda, another Germany or another genocide of the Armenians.

Language is one of the key elements here. Again, I strongly encourage those of you who have not read Klemperer to read him. This is a textbook. It was fascinating to see my Rwandan friends, who had not heard of Klemperer, read him and say, “But this is about us! This is how it happened here!”

There is one more thing about language, and on this I would like to conclude. There is one more perverse aspect to the history of genocide. Genocide can become a success story. If you look at the public reception of the Shoah, of the extermination of the Jews by the Germans in World War II, it is in fact a success story. Never before in human history had the suffering of an oppressed group been universally recognized the way that group recognizes it itself. The history of Jewish suffering the way the Jews remember it has become the universal history of Jewish suffering. It had never happened before. This is an incredible success, and everybody envies the Jews their success. I understand it.

If you go out on the street, not necessarily only here in Amsterdam, but in any major European capital, and you ask about the Holocaust (European, world capital, whatever), chances are that most people will know that the Holocaust was about the Germans killing the Jews. If you make a public opinion poll about who killed whom in Rwanda, was the Tutsis killing Hutu or the Hutu killing Tutsis—and does it matter? Probably most of the responses will be: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” To this very day the Armenians cannot get their genocide recognized by the descendants of the perpetrators. The Shoah is recognized. The Shoah is remembered the ways Jews remember it and it has generated something which I, slightly perversely, call “Shoah-envy,” “Holocaust-envy.”

“We suffered too!” says any of the other myriad oppressed groups, which have suffered. “So our suffering should be also remembered like the Jewish suffering! Are the Jews any better?” No, it just happens that this was the biggest genocide in human history. If somebody comes up with something better, then the Shoah will become second best. The Jews are the world’s leaders in suffering. Everybody envies this suffering. If you do a Google search using the term “holocaust,” you get approximately 17 million websites. That’s what I got yesterday evening checking that. But if you search “holocaust” and “Jews,” you get less than half of that. More than half of the references to the Holocaust do not refer to Jews. It can be the Armenian holocaust, the Polish holocaust, the holocaust of unborn children, or the holocaust of the underprivileged white males, you name it. Everybody wants to have a holocaust of their own so that they can duplicate this incredible Jewish success story.

I would more than happily trade the success story for the six million, but nobody’s offering.

The bottom line is that this trivialization of the Holocaust trivializes not only the term, but also the very concept. If what happened to the Jews is the same as what happens to undereducated white males who cannot get what’s theirs by right (and I have actually seen texts speaking of the holocaust of the white male, conducted probably by the white females), then, just between you and me, it’s no big deal, right? Then certainly what happened to the Jews is also no big deal, and everybody knows the Jews exaggerate. This entire genocide business, frankly and between you and me, has been blown out of all proportion.

This not only insults the memory of the victims; it makes us insensitive to the chance that we might witness another genocide—probably not in Europe, although the one before last, in Rwanda, was in Europe, in Bosnia. Just as we need to be very vigilant and very sensitive to forerunners of genocide in public discourse and public institutions, we must be vigilant and sensitive to the banalization of the term and of the concept in public discourse. 

Finally, genocide is one of the great contributions of the 20th century to the history of mankind. This is a novel phenomenon. It did not occur before, but I fear this is not the last that we’ve heard of it. It is so easy and, unless you have the bad luck of losing a war in the process, you can probably get away with it. Look at Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir just after the genocide in Darfur. He was not taken to the International Criminal Court. He did not lose a war. The German leaders lost a war and got Nuremberg. The Hutu genocidaires lost a war, and some of them are on trial while others are on the run. Al-Bashir is not on the run. He has been reelected president. He did not lose a war. So if you want to have a genocide, just do not lose a war. Do not do two things at the same time. Have your genocide first and then have your wars if you need to.

Because it is easy, because it stems from so much of the logic of the Enlightenment state and because you can get away with it, we will see more of it. The only thing that really stands between a genocide happening and not, is this teacher who gets a directive from the Ministry of Education: Draw up a list to Hutu and Tutsi students in your class. Imagine being that teacher, and imagine telling yourself: “Hell no, I’m not going to do this, and no I don’t need to explain my motives. They better explain why they want this information in the first place.” What we need are not good civil servants who will perform the instructions from the Ministry. What we need are people who will not do things that feel wrong, even if they look right. Be those people.

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