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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End of Innocence
is now in preparation.
“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