…Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
– from ‘First They Came’ by Martin Niemöller
On 27 January each year Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK (also International Holocaust Remembrance Day) marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945, 70 years ago. Though this serves primarily to commemorate the victims of Nazi atrocities, it also stands as a reminder of other 20th-century genocides and a warning for the future.
Though Holocaust Memorial Day was instituted only in 2001, the widespread feeling across Britain, Europe, and the Western world since the Second World War is that genocide is something so terrible, so shameful that it must forever be remembered, that it must not be allowed to happen again.
The leading perpetrators of the Final Solution – the systematic extermination of Jews and other undesirables by the Nazis – were held to account at the Nuremberg Trials after the War and many were put to death. Since then the United Nations has acted to investigate later atrocities, establishing International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (1993), following the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and Rwanda (1994) in the wake of the horrendous genocide there. In 2002 the International Criminal Court was set up to deal with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, across the world.
These institutions sadly can react only to crimes committed: they can only attempt to bring the perpetrators to account, to justify the loss of the victims, to begin to heal societies that have torn themselves apart. The great yearning, however, is for a way to prevent genocide occurring in the first place.
What haunts the Western mind more than anything else is how the Holocaust could have happened in Germany in the middle of the 20th century. Other genocides can be (though they should not) be explained away as the result of primitive tribalism, as the acts of societies that do not subscribe to ‘our’ standards of civilisation. But Germany after the First World War was a free democracy, …
The recent British Museum exhibition, Germany: Memories of a Nation, created alongside Neil MacGregor’s book and radio series of the same name, attempted to look at German culture in broad perspective. It took the British viewer away from the conventional stereotype of Germans as Prussian warmongers (in the First World War) and conscienceless killers (under the Nazis). It showed that Germans have left wonderful and indelible cultural marks on the Western world. Germany gave us Kant and the philosophers, the art of Dürer and Holbein, Goethe’s poetry, beer and sausages. Germany gave us, for better or worse, the conservatism of Bismarck and the radical theories of Marx. The Germans gave us the printing press; without Gutenberg the world would lack the spur to literacy, to the affordable and widespread dissemination of news and ideas.
How can we then understand how an enlightened and educated society could either passively or by participation condone the extermination of millions of their fellow humans, of innocent men, women, and children whose only crime was to have been born a Jew, a gypsy, a homosexual, or disabled? The British Museum exhibition does not have the answer. The signs in the galleries do not hide the fact that ‘the Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.’ The curators admit that ‘there is no narrative that can encompass it.’
Perhaps the only way that genocide can be stopped is by attempting to understand the steps a society must take between peaceful coexistence and the ruthless extermination of its own people. To that end Gregory Stanton, an American legal academic, produced a paper on the stages on genocide in 1996. With wide experience in this field he established the Genocide Watch organization. Initially his theory consisted of 8 stages, but now comprises 10 steps.
Below I summarise Stanton’s findings and how he proposes to prevent the escalation to genocide, while I illustrate how they apply to the Holocaust situation.
All societies categorize different strata or groups, but problems arise where there is a lack of common identity. Promoting a common language or religion can help to minimise such differences. In Germany in the 1930s there was already a long and widespread culture of anti-semitism, according to which Jews were thought of as ‘other’.
This again is a natural process that arises in most societies, whereby the differences between groups are identified by naming them, or by using visual symbols to distinguish ‘them’ and ‘us’. Stanton suggests that to control this particular hate symbols can be made illegal, and a conscious effort to prevent pejorative symbolization can be effective. The Nazis identified themselves and their followers by the Swastika, while Jews were made to wear yellow badges as a negative identifier.
Legal processes are used to deny or restrict victim groups’ rights. This may be tackled by preventing discrimination on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion. The same rights must therefore be guaranteed for all. After Hitler’s rise to power the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in 1935 which removed German citizenship from Jews and prevented them from securing government or academic employment.
By denying that the victim group is human it becomes psychologically easier and politically acceptable to treat its members with cruelty. Hate propaganda often breeds disgust for the victim group. To combat this leaders at a local and international level need to condemn hate speech, while financial and travel sanctions can be imposed on offending leaders. The Nazis referred to Jews in their propaganda as vermin, as rats. Later in the progress towards genocide they would be concentrated into camps and ghettoes, stripped of their identities, assigned numbers.
Genocide needs organization to succeed, provided either directly by the state or by interdependent militia groups. Membership of militias identified as genocidal can be outlawed and sanctions imposed on countries that permit them to exist. Under the Nazi regime camps were generally overseen by the SS, a paramilitary organization separate from the army and staffed by those with an explicit political commitment to Hitler’s government and its discriminative policies.
Propaganda seeks to increase the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, while moderates among the perpetrators may be threatened or liquidated to emphasise cultural and ethnic differences. Colourful, persistent and effective propaganda was used by the Nazis to demonise the Jews, to blame them for Germany’s misfortunes, to reemphasize that they were not part of society.
Planning for further more extreme steps is undertaken by senior figures in the genocidal society. The language used is often innocuous, referring to ‘ethnic cleansing’ rather than murder or genocide. Prosecution for incitement to genocide could be encouraged, Stanton suggests, along with embargoes on arms. The Nazis began to bureaucratically identify victim groups, which would later aid the efficiency of transporting and exterminating them.
Individuals amongst the victim group are identified and they may be transported and interned. Property is often confiscated and victims are forced to wear identifying symbols. Genocidal murders begin. A Genocide Emergency must be declared and with the support of the UN armed intervention must be considered. Concentration camps were built in Germany from 1933 to house political opponents of the Nazis, then later groups of Jews and others unacceptable to the regime. During the Second World War Jews in Eastern Europe were confined to small areas of cities (ghettoes), following in a long-standing tradition of secluding Jewish populations in ghettoes; these were cleared in 1943 and the inhabitants transferred to concentration camps. Many died from disease and malnutrition in the camps and ghettoes, others were removed and shot in groups.
The killing of members of the victim group becomes systematic rather than random or sporadic. The killers look at this as ‘extermination’ as they have already denied the humanity of their victims. Stanton warns that only immediate and large scale armed intervention is effective at this stage. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942 senior Nazis determined that the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question was to be systematic extermination. Special death camps were erected or expanded existing concentration camps. Auschwitz, a combined concentration and extermination camp, is perhaps the most notorious of these; the inmates were gassed and their corpses cremated.
Denial begins during the genocide and persists after it has finished. The perpetrators attempt to conceal any physical trace of what they have done. International tribunals are the remedy to uncover what crimes have in fact been committed. Towards the end of the Second World War, camp commandants were ordered to destroy evidence of extermination including archives. Himmler, in a series of speeches in 1943, made it clear that the Holocaust was never to be spoken about.
The crimes of the Holocaust almost defy description or comprehension. That they happened is a chilling illustration of the frailty of freedom and of civilization. We cannot guarantee that this will never happen again, but the knowledge of how these situations arise is a major aid to preventing future genocides. On Holocaust Memorial Day we should remember the victims and reflect on how we can combat division and discrimination in the world today.