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Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer and a Polish Jew, coined the word genocide in 1944. It is a combination of a Greek word genos (meaning "race," "group," or "tribe") and a Latin ending cide (meaning "killing").

The Armenians

The Holocaust was not the first example of genocide in modern history. When some of Hitler's aides expressed concern that killing Polish civilians might rouse public opinion, he answered, "After all, who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Since early times the Armenians had lived in the shadow of Mount Ararat--the famous mountain on which, it is said, Noah’s ark came to rest. The Armenians were the first nation to convert to Christianity; they have their own language, their own folkways, and their own church. But their homeland has often been a part of the Islamic empire, and Muslim rulers have often oppressed the Armenians.

In 1915 the Turks, who ruled over the Armenians, declared that this small people was an "enemy" and must be destroyed. Just as the Nazis would do later, the Turks used war (in this case, the First World War) as a pretext for accusing the Armenians of treason. They arrested many leading Armenians, put the men into slave labor groups, and embarked on a program of genocide. All those men who could not work were put to death. Gradually Armenian workers were also destroyed. Women were given a choice: they could leave their homes and their children to become the wives of Muslims, or they would be deported. Finally the Armenians that remained were driven into the desert where they either died of hunger and exposure or of whippings and wounds. Before the war there were about 1,800,000 Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (later called Turkey). After World War I it was estimated that two-thirds had been killed outright or driven into the desert. As a group the Armenians survived (two million lived in areas outside Turkey), but the slaughter by the Turks remains an example of attempted genocide in history. As Hitler said, few people remembered the slaughter, and not many had spoken out against it. It was not until after World War II that the problem of genocide was addressed by international law.

The UN Resolutions of 1946

After World War II, the Allies, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, shared a dream that the nations of the world could come together to maintain international peace and security. Their creation was the United Nations, pledged in its charter to protect the rights of all individuals no matter what their sex, language, religion, or race.

From the first meeting of the General Assembly, the United Nations had to deal with issues raised by the Holocaust. The UN set forth two resolutions based on the judgments reached by the court at Nuremberg. One declared that the nations of the world should bring to trial those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The second declared genocide to be "a crime under international law." Thus the UN resolution of 1946 brought the word genocide into international law for the first time.

The Genocide Convention

Two years later the United Nations approved a "Genocide Convention," an international treaty that defined just what was meant by the word. Genocide was defined as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Genocide according to this treaty includes killing members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to them, deliberately inflicting conditions of life on them that would bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring the children of the group to another group. And the treaty makes it clear that these actions are considered crimes not only in times of war, but in times of peace as well.

However, since 1948, when the Genocide Convention was approved by the General Assembly, the world has seen or suspected other attempts at genocide. Those in danger are said to include blacks in southern Sudan, Kurds in Iraq, Nagas in India, Chinese in Indonesia, Native Indians in Paraguay, and Ibos in the Biafran War. Recently, attempts at genocide included surfaced in Europe, in Serbia, where it was referred to as “ethnic cleansing.” But the United Nations has proven virtually powerless to take action in any of these cases.

The Weakness of International Law

In general, international law has not been very effective. The international court has little power to enforce its decisions, and not all nations have adopted the treaty. Even after the UN General Assembly approved the Genocide Convention, it still remained for individual member states to adopt it. By 1951 enough members had approved it so that it officially took force. But many important nations, the United States included, have never approved it. Questions of national sovereignty are very delicate. The United States has refused to approve the treaty supposedly because it does not wish to give any foreign power the right to question the actions of the United States government. However, by not approving the treaty, the United States itself has weakened the force of international law.

Recently we discovered again just how weak international law is. When American hostages were taken captive in Iran in 1979, the case was brought before the World Court. The World Court ruled that the hostages should be returned and the arguments between Iran and the United States should be settled by negotiations between the two governments. Iran paid no attention at all to this ruling. And the court had no power to force Iran to submit to its ruling.

It would seem that international law alone cannot as yet offer real protection.

Revealing the Truth

How then can nations prevent events like the Holocaust? Information and education may be part of the answer. Understanding the past has a great deal to do with how we build the future.

For many years the Holocaust was not discussed in Germany. The Holocaust did not appear in German history textbooks. A whole generation of German youth was shocked when the Eichmann trial began, and later when television stations in Germany showed the film series called Holocaust. These young people could scarcely believe that their German parents had done such things. Could it be that their own fathers and mothers had belonged to Nazi youth groups, or that their own grandfathers and grandmothers had taken part in the mass murder of the Jews?

But the more young Germans looked at the evidence, the clearer it became to them that the calculated destruction of the Jews and the deliberate murder of six million other civilians was indeed ordered and carried out by the Nazis. The Holocaust is a fact of modern history--proof that extermination as public policy is possible even in "civilized" nations, especially if citizens do not speak out against it and act to prohibit it.

After the war a Protestant pastor, Martin Niemoeller, was one of several clergymen who signed a document declaring that the Christians of Germany shared guilt with the Nazis for what had happened to the Jewish people. Niemoeller had been one of the courageous few in Germany who spoke out when the Nazis tried to interfere with the independence of Christian churches. In 1945 he wrote:

In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I was a Protestant so I didn’t speak up. Then they came for me: by that time there was no one left to speak up. [Quoted in Philip Friedman, Their Brothers’ Keepers]

Concealing the Truth

With no one to speak up about the truth, and with the press under control, the Nazis were able to use propaganda to cloak their activities. Nazis used euphemisms--special words like "Jewish problem," "Final Solution," "transports," and "work" to conceal programs of genocide and slavery. They encouraged people to believe that death camps were really work camps. They had orchestras waiting to greet the Jews on their arrival at Auschwitz. The light music they played was intended to reassure the Jews and lull their suspicions even though death was planned for them. The Nazis referred to "showers" and gave the Jews bars of soap as they ushered them into the gas chambers. They used language and misdirection to deceive and confuse their own people and their victims at one and the same time.

Perhaps no other time in history has taught us so much about the power of words to conceal facts. For a long time even the Jews caught up in the Holocaust believed what the Nazis said. They did not want to see that they were being led to slaughter. Softer words were easier to accept. German non-Jews also preferred to go along with what the Nazis told them. They did not consider that they were stealing from their neighbors, betraying people they knew, or allowing innocent people to die. Instead they accepted Nazi propaganda: the Jews were inferior, Jewish blood was tainted, and the Jews were enemies of Germany. And they preferred to believe that the Jews were being transported to the east "to work." Even those who knew the facts chose to close their eyes.

Afterward, when the war was over, many of these people went right on accepting the Nazi line. Even today there are Nazi groups in Germany still teaching Hitler's ideas. And they are at work in France, in the United States, in South America, and around the world, still spreading the same message. They are called neo-Nazis, but what they preach and what they are has not changed. And they are not alone. Many other organizations exist today that spread racist ideas using the same propaganda techniques the Nazis used.

The Need for Vigilance

The Holocaust was unique, and it is one of the best-documented tragedies in human history. Studying it is like passing a beam of light through a prism. Suddenly it becomes clear that the Final Solution was not one simple event, but a whole range of decisions, actions, and effects--a spectrum of the evil that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.

Today we see no immediate threat of another Holocaust. But familiar warning signs--the selection of a scapegoat, telling the Big Lie about that scapegoat, and directing people's anger toward that scapegoat--still crop up in today’s world. Only the vigilance of an informed public and the willingness of people to demand justice from their governments can guarantee that these symptoms will not come together once more to produce another tragedy for mankind. The Holocaust happened once; it could happen again.

Order The Holocaust at Amazon

The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End to Innocence is now available
in paperback and Kindle.

“Seymour Rossel, a long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.”David Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York

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