The unlearned lessons of the Holocaust

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler reminds us that past genocides demand universal responsiblity to ensure they do not reoccur in any form.

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February 9, 2012 15:20
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 521 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The unlearned lessons of the Holocaust While the United Nations held a series of commemorative events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day – and marking also the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp – the international community awoke recently to yet another chilling and mocking reminder of the dangers of state-sanctioned cultures of hate that took us down the road to the Holocaust.

In an ominous speech last week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to acquire nuclear weapons, while speaking of Israel as a “cancerous tumor that must be excised and will be excised” from the Middle East.

Khamenei also voiced his support for those “confronting the Zionist enemy,” and “removing it from the face of the earth.”

The incendiary rhetoric is particularly chilling in light of Iran’s nuclear weaponization program, which the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in a recent report, referred to as “the most significant, urgent threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation today.”

Indeed, these chilling words invite us to revisit the as yet unlearned lessons of the Holocaust – in particular, the universality of these lessons – and their importance today not only as a horrific historical tragedy to be commemorated, but as witness and warning for the responsibilities to be acted upon.

Lesson 1 – The Holocaust: the responsibility to remember The first lesson is the imperative of remembrance itself – what the French call le devoir de memoir – the duty of memory. For as we remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, we have to understand that the mass murder of millions is not a matter of abstract statistics. For as we say at such moments of remembrance, unto each person there is a name – unto each person there is an identity. Each person is a universe.

As both the Talmud and Koran teach us, whoever saves a single life, it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe – just as whoever has killed a single person, it is as if they have destroyed an entire universe. And so the abiding imperative: that we are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.

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Lesson 2 – The danger of state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide: the responsibility to prevent The enduring lesson of the Holocaust and the genocides that followed is that they occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but because of a state-sanctioned ideology of hate. This teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, this is where it all begins. As the Canadian Supreme Court recognized, in words echoed by the international criminal tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began with words. These, as the courts put it, are the chilling facts of history.

These are the catastrophic effects of racism.

And we are witnessing yet again another state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide, whose epicenter is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, which denies the Nazi Holocaust as it incites to a Middle Eastern one.

Let there be no mistake about it: Iran has already committed the crime of “direct and public incitement to genocide” prohibited under the Genocide Convention. Yet, as I write, not one State Party to the Genocide Convention has undertaken any of the mandated legal obligations under the Convention and international law to prevent and protect against this state-sanctioned incendiary hatred – and to hold the perpetrators to account.

As one involved as Canadian minister of justice and attorney-general in the prosecution of Rwandan incitement, I can state – as I’ve testified before the Canadian Parliament – and as others have also documented – that the aggregate of precursors of incitement in the Iranian case are as threatening as those in the Rwandan one, if not more so.

Lesson 3 – The dangers of silence, the consequences of indifference: the duty to act Indeed, the genocide of European Jewry succeeded not only because of a culture of hate and an industry of death, but because of crimes of indifference and conspiracies of silence. And we have witnessed an appalling indifference and inaction in our own day which took us down the road to the unthinkable, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and to the unspeakable, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.

What makes these genocides so unspeakable is that they were preventable. No one can say that we did not know. We knew, but we did not act in Rwanda, just as we knew and did not act in Darfur, ignoring thereby the lessons of history, betraying the people of Rwanda and Darfur, and mocking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

And so, it is our responsibility to break down these walls of indifference, to shatter these conspiracies of silence – to stand up and be counted and not look around to see who else is standing before we make a decision to do so; because in the world in which we live, there are few enough people prepared to stand, let alone be counted.

Indifference always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, never on the side of the victim.

Simply put, indifference in the face of evil is acquiescence with evil itself – it is complicity with evil.

Lesson 4 – Combating mass atrocity and the culture of impunity: the responsibility to bring war criminals to justice If the past century – symbolized by the Holocaust – was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice; and so, just as there must be no sanctuary for hate and no refuge for bigotry, there must be no base or sanctuary for these enemies of humankind. In this context, the establishment of international criminal tribunals – such as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and in particular the International Criminal Court – must be seen as important developments in the history of international criminal justice, and perhaps the most significant developments in international criminal law since Nuremberg.

However, these tribunals must be supported – and their decisions abided by and enforced – lest a culture of impunity be allowed to develop and undermine the international criminal process itself.

One need look no further than the case of Ahmed Haroun, the former Sudanese minister of the interior indicted for his direct role in the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Darfur. He was cynically rewarded for this indictment by being appointed minister of state for humanitarian affairs and made responsible for hearing the human rights complaints from the very victims he had assaulted.

And, as I write, not only has Haroun remained free, but he continues to commit war crimes, now as the appointed governor of South Kordofan, a Sudanese border region under assault.

In addition to Haroun, this impunity also finds expression in the cases of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Sudanese Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Mohammed Hussein – both indicted by the International Criminal Court for complicity with the genocide in Darfur.

Yet, none of these men have been arrested, as Sudan refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC and will not surrender them. They remain free, and able to travel freely – not only in Sudan but also in the African region. Indeed, these indicted war criminals continue to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity with impunity.

Equally scandalous is the case of Ahmad Vahidi, now Iran’s defense minister overseeing the Iranian nuclear weaponization program. Vahidi was named by Argentina’s judiciary as being responsible for the planning and perpetration of the greatest terrorist atrocity in Argentina since the Second World War, the bombing of the Jewish Community Center (the AMIA) in 1994, and is now subject to an Interpol arrest warrant. Yet he too remains free and has yet to be brought to justice while he is complicit in Iran’s standing violation of international law.

Lesson 5 – The trahison des clercs: the responsibility to speak truth to power Nazism succeeded, not only because of the “bureaucratization of genocide,” as Robert Lifton put it, but because of the trahison des clercs – the complicity of the elites: physicians, church leaders, judges, lawyers, engineers, architects, educators and the like. As Elie Wiesel put it: “Coldblooded murder and culture did not exclude each other. If the Holocaust proved anything, it is that a person can both love poems and kill children.”

One was reminded recently of the trahison des clercs on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference – the January 20, 1942, meeting of senior Nazi officials, which planned the “final solution,” the systematic and deliberate physical annihilation of European Jewry.

This reminds us that the final solution was not only fashioned, planned and decided upon, but then executed by the Nazi elites, themselves encouraged by the indifference and inaction of international “bystanders” at the time – both governmental and elite.

Lesson 6: The vulnerability of the powerless, and the powerlessness of the vulnerable: the duty to protect The genocide of European Jewry occurred not only because of the vulnerability of the powerless, but also because of the power- lessness of the vulnerable. It is not surprising that the triage of Nazi racial hygiene – the Sterilization Laws, the Nuremberg Race Laws, the Euthanasia Program – targeted those “whose lives were not worth living”; and it is not unrevealing, as Prof. Henry Friedlander points out in his work on The Origins of Genocide, that the first group targeted for killing were the Jewish disabled – the whole anchored in the science of death, the medicalization of ethnic cleansing, the sanitizing even of the vocabulary of destruction.

And so it is our responsibility as citoyens du monde, citizens of the world, to give voice to the voiceless, as we seek to empower the powerless – be they the disabled, the poor, refugees, the elderly, the women victims of violence, the vulnerable children – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Lesson 7: Holocaust remembrance: the responsibility to educate In acting upon the lessons of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which grew out of the first Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust – in which I participated – states should commit themselves to implementing the Declaration of the Stockholm Forum in 2000, which included, inter alia, the understanding that: “The Holocaust fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilization.

The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning...

its magnitude... must be forever seared in our collective memory... together we must uphold the terrible truths of the Holocaust against those who deny it.”

The Declaration concluded : “We share a commitment to encourage the study of the Holocaust in all its dimensions... a commitment to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honor those who stood against it... a commitment to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust... a commitment to plant the seeds of a better future amidst the soil of a bitter past... a commitment... to remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us, and reaffirm humanity’s common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice.”

Lesson 8: Anti-Semitism: the responsibility to combat If the Holocaust is the paradigm of radical evil – defying comparison and comprehension – and genocide is the crime of crimes, whose name we should even shudder to mention – then anti-Semitism is the paradigm of the most ancient, enduring, and radical of hatreds, and where the word paradigm is as sanitized as it is inadequate.

Let there be no mistake about it: Jews died in the Holocaust, but anti-Semitism did not die, and Jews continue to die because of anti-Semitism.

This raises the most difficult of the yetunanswered questions: “Why?” Why the Holocaust? Why the genocide? I don’t purport to have an answer, but offer the following thought – grounded in the works of Holocaust scholars such as Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning – that Nazism almost succeeded not only because, as set forth above – the ideology of hate, crimes of indifference, and the complicity of the elites, the powerlessness of the vulnerable – but because of the internalized and institutionalized legacy of racism, because of an ingrained culture of racism and anti-Semitism.

Indeed, it is this culture of racism, this eliminationist anti-Semitism – anchored also in the theory and practice of racial hygiene – that transferred “ordinary Germans,” in Daniel Goldhagen’s phrase, into “Hitler’s willing executioners.”

And if the critique be made – as it is – that if this be true of Germans, is it not true of others? Why single out the Germans? The answer must be that racism and anti- Semitism was not only German but European and beyond – that ordinary men became willing executioners in the Baltics and Balkans, in Vichy France and Quisling’s Norway – that even Norway enacted the Nuremberg Race Laws and deported its Jewish population to Auschwitz, for which the Norwegian Government apologized this past week in its commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance.

And so, what must be realized – and as history has taught us only too well – that while it may begin with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews. The struggle against racism of any kind must, therefore, not be seen simply as a Jewish issue, but as a profound justice issue of the first import.

The familiar words of the German Protestant theologian, Martin Niemöller, bear not only recall today, but acting upon them beyond today. “They first came for the Catholics, but I wasn’t a Catholic so I did nothing. Then they came for the Communists, but I wasn’t a Communist so I did nothing. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I wasn’t a trade unionist so I did nothing. Then they came for the Jews, but I wasn’t a Jew so I did nothing.

Then they came for me, and there was nobody left.”

Lesson 9: Raoul Wallenberg and the courage to resist Finally, as Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated, it was possible to resist, to confront evil, and to prevail, and thereby transform history. Wallenberg – a Swedish non-Jew who saved some 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust – is most known for his granting of Schutzpasses: diplomatic passes protecting their recipients. This influenced other governments to follow his example and issue passports that saved thousands from the Nazis. He also established 32 safe houses protected by neutral legations, saving some 32,000 people through this initiative alone.

The problem was that there were too few Wallenbergs; indeed, as Elie Wiesel has reminded us, the world ignored and even hid the story of the true Wallenberg for years – lest it embarrass us all – lest it demonstrate that one can confront evil and prevail.

The lesson here is that each of us has an indispensable role to play in the indivisible struggle for human rights and human dignity.

Each one can and does make a difference.

If we ever get tired or fatigued – burnt out – then let us remember that this one Swedish non-Jew named Raoul Wallenberg saved more Jews in Hungary than did any government; that one Andrei Sakharov stood up against the whole Soviet system and prevailed; that one individual, Nelson Mandela, for 28 years in a South African prison, nurtured the dream and emerged to bring about the dismantling of apartheid; that one courageous woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, has emerged from decades of house arrest and imprisonment to yet again aid the Burmese people in their struggle against repression.

The cliché, while somewhat banal, is also true: one person can – and indeed does – make a difference.

CONCLUSION We should reaffirm today that never again will we be indifferent to racism and hate; that never again will we be silent in the face of evil; that never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable; that never again will we acquiesce in the face of mass atrocity and impunity. We will speak and we will act against racism, against hate, against anti-Semitism, against mass atrocity, against injustice – and against the crime whose name we should shudder even to mention: genocide.

May International Holocaust Day be not only an act of remembrance, which it is, but a reminder to act, which it must be.

And may these unlearned lessons of history begin to be acted upon in 2012. As Lord Tennyson put it: “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

The writer is the former Canadian minister of justice and attorney general and is a law professor (emeritus) at McGill University. He has written extensively on international human rights law and genocide prevention.

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