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Discussion Papers Series
Volume I

Discussion paper #1 [PDF]

On the Holocaust and its Implications

by Professor Yehuda Bauer
Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem and the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research

It was World War II, the most terrible conflict in human history so far, that provided the context in which Auschwitz, the symbol of genocide, could happen, and that war had been initiated by Nazi Germany, largely for ideological reasons: one, the desire to rule Europe, and through it, the world, and thus achieve a global racial hierarchy with the Nordic peoples of the Aryan race on top, and everybody else under them. The second major element in Nazi ideology was anti- Semitism. They saw the Jews as the Satan that controlled all of Germany’s enemies. At one end, in their eyes, stood Hitler, the new Jesus Christ, who would lead humanity, under Germanic rule, to a glorious future. At the other end was the satanic Jew, who tried to prevent this utopia from achieving its aim of global rule. It was in the name of that utopia of a wonderful new racist world that the vast majority of the German people were persuaded to commit mass murders, including three genocides at least: against the Poles, the Roma (“Gypsies”), and the Jews. We should never forget that utopias kill; radical universalist utopias, such as National Socialism, Communism, and today the radicals who support global terrorism, kill radically and universally.

It is no exaggeration to say that World War II, and the death of tens of millions, the destruction of countries and cultures, the torture and death of children and adults, was caused in part by hatred against Jews.

There are two aspects to the Holocaust. One is the specificity of the Jewish fate, the other are the universal implications; they are two sides of the same coin. The Jews were the specific victims of the genocide. But the implications are universal, because who knows who the Jews may be next time.

The main parallel between the Holocaust and other genocides is that the suffering of the victims is the same. Murder is murder, torture is torture, rape is rape; starvation, disease, and humiliation are the same in all mass murders. There are no gradations, and no genocide is better or worse than another one, no one is more victim than anyone else.

The other parallel is that every genocide is perpetrated with the best technical and bureaucratic means at the disposal of the perpetrators. Thus, today’s genocide in Darfur is perpetrated with the help of air bombardments, use of cell-phones, and the government bureaucracy that supports the murderers and prevents effective outside intervention. The Holocaust was perpetrated with the best technical and bureaucratic means at the disposal of Germany. But the difference was that it happened at the very centre of European and world civilization, and that was unprecedented.

During the twentieth century, vast numbers of civilians and unarmed prisoners of war were murdered by governments and political organizations, and many more civilians than soldiers were killed. Of these, close to six million Jews died in the most extreme case of genocide so far. Why is the Holocaust the most extreme case? Why do more and more people show an interest in this particular tragedy, why is there a flood of fiction, theater, films, TV series, art, music, and of course historical, sociological, philosophical, psychological, and other academic research, a flood that has rarely if ever been equaled in dealing with any other historical event?

I think the reason is that while all the elements of each genocide are repeated in some other genocides, there are elements in the Holocaust that cannot be found in genocides that preceded it. The perpetrators tried to find, register, mark, humiliate, dispossess, concentrate and murder every person with three or four Jewish grandparents for the crime of having been born a Jew. This was to be done, ultimately, everywhere in the world, so that for the first time in history there was an attempt to universalize a genocide. Also, the ideology was totally unpragmatic, not like in all other genocides. In Rwanda, for instance, a Hutu supremacist ideology developed from the pragmatic background of a real power struggle within the Hutu establishment and a real military struggle against an invading force of the persecuted Tutsi minority. But with the Nazis, the pragmatic elements were minor.

They did not kill the Jews because they wanted their property. They robbed their property in the process of getting rid of them, first by emigration, then by expulsion, and in the end by murder. They killed Jewish armament workers when they needed every pair of hands after the defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943; they murdered Jewish slave laborers while they were building roads for the German military. If they had followed modern, capitalistic practice, they would have robbed Jewish property and then utilized Jewish slave labor for their own purposes, as they did with the Poles, for instance. But they murdered the Jews because that was where their ideology led them, an ideology that had the character of nightmares.

They believed in a Jewish world conspiracy and in the notorious forgery called the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, produced in the early part of the 20th century by the police in Tsarist Russia, which was used and adapted by the Nazis. They believed in the accusation of ritual murder of non-Jewish children by the Jews. The genocide of the Jews, then, was based on nightmares that turned into ideology. Then, there was the utopia of a global racist hierarchy which had one real satanic enemy, the Jews, who had to be eliminated, although there are no races, because we all are originally from Africa. The Nazis very consciously opposed all the values of European civilization such as liberalism, democracy, socialism and humanitarianism, and wanted to destroy them. They saw in the Jews embodiments of the values which they wanted to eliminate, and the destruction of the Jews followed. All this was without a precedent.

The Holocaust was unprecedented, and we had hoped that it would become a warning, not a precedent. But we have been proven wrong. It has become a precedent, and other genocides have followed it. What does this mean for humanity, what does it mean for the United Nations? What shall we do about the United Nations?

When I was five years old, I said to my mother: mother, pretty you are not, but you are mine. The United Nations is ours; it is the best United Nations we have – we have no other. So, rather than run it down, rather than criticize it out of existence, let us support it, try to improve it, make it more effective in protecting humanity.

Is there any possibility that we may succeed when we try to prevent genocides, using our understanding of the paradigmatic genocide of the Jews, and the comparison with other genocides that must follow from that? I think that humans have in them the instinct to kill, and we are the only mammals that kill our own kind in huge numbers. This may well be the result of the development of our species, when we defend ourselves, our families, nations, and territory from real or imagined enemies by eliminating them. We all could become mass murderers. But if that is so, is there any realistic way of preventing outbreaks of genocidal murders? The Holocaust can provide an answer to this question: at Yad Vashem we now have over 21,000 names of individuals and groups that rescued Jews. They show that there is an alternative, that there is in us also the possibility of coming to the rescue of other humans at the risk of our own lives.

It is these stories that show us that there is an alternative, that the attempts made at prevention of genocides, as for instance by the office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, and by various NGOs and governments, are not a hopeless task. But the failure to deal with the ongoing genocide in Darfur shows how tremendously difficult it is. If we do not stop the genocide in Darfur, it will spread, there will be more genocidal massacres, and the price for the world will be heavy indeed.

Politics that are not based on moral considerations are, at the end of the day, not practical politics at all. It is out of these considerations that I beg you to permit me to repeat here what I said, exactly eight years ago, in a speech to the German Bundestag: I come from a people that gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Let us agree that we need three more commandments, and they are these: thou shalt not be a perpetrator; thou shalt not be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander.

Discussion Questions

  1. What lessons can be learnt from the Holocaust in the midst of the Second World War in terms of: (a) Preventing future genocide? (b) Stopping such killings as they happen?
  2. What are the consequences on an individual and on a society of being a bystander?
  3. What are the signs that a genocide is being prepared? Is the study of the genocides during the Holocaust and in Rwanda sufficient to warn of an impending genocide?
  4. During the World Summit in 2005, world leaders called for the acceptance of a universal principle of the responsibility to protect civilian populations from crimes against humanity when Governments are unwilling or unable to do so. How can this commitment be implemented so that the world does not witnesses another genocide unfold?
  5. How do States and leaders that commit and support genocide come to believe that they could proceed without challenge from the international community?

    The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
    The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

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