After Lemkin: Genocide, the Holocaust and History

After Lemkin: Genocide, the Holocaust and History

From the Winter 1994/95 issue


It is exactly fifty years since a Polish-Jewish lawyer called Raphael Lemkin coined the word ‘genocide’. “New conceptions require new terms”, he noted briefly. Three years earlier, in 1941, he had fled to the United States after a gruelling eighteen-month journey which took him from occupied Poland via Lithuania, Sweden, the Soviet Union and Japan. In Washington, the horrific news from Europe and the sense of being surrounded by a ‘conspiracy of silence’ impelled him to make the first systematic analysis of Nazi occupation policies. By day he worked for the American war effort; by night he was haunted by images of the suffering of his parents, trapped in eastern Poland. “In the light of the…material which I found,” he wrote, “the picture of destruction of peoples peered at me frighteningly”.

Note the plural – ‘peoples’ – for Lemkin was not, and had never been, concerned exclusively with the fate of the Jews. As a young lawyer in inter-war Poland he had been moved by news of the massacre of the Assyrian Christians, and by the plight of Armenian refugees from Turkey; upon arriving in the American South in 1941 he was shocked by racial segregation and the second-class status of American blacks. News that his family had been murdered by the Nazis seems only to have strengthened his universalism. After 1945 he mounted a remarkable and ultimately successful one-man crusade to transform international law: the United Nations Genocide Convention was the result.

At the time of his death this single-minded, not to say obsessional, man had embarked upon a sweeping survey of genocide which stretched back to ancient times. Interestingly, he saw no incompatibility between this broad historical and comparative perspective and his sense of the need for ‘new terms’. War-time Nazi policies had led him to the concept of genocide; armed with this, the scholar could interrogate the past and find parallel if not analogous cases.

Lemkin’s approach raises issues basic to the study of the Holocaust – its relationship to other instances of genocide and, more broadly, to historical enquiry itself. It contrasts sharply with that of those scholars who insist upon the particularity of the ‘final solution’ and reject any attempt to ‘historicize’ it. Yehuda Bauer, for instance, has contrasted genocide (“forcible, even murderous denationalisation”) with what he terms the “uniquely, unique Holocaust”. The first volume of Steven Katz's vast ongoing enquiry into The Holocaust in Historical Context argues that “the Holocaust is a singular event in human history and develops the philosophical and theological implications of that uniqueness”. Katz's overall work is advertised as “showing that the Holocaust is the only example of true genocide”.

Am I alone in feeling some disquiet at this sort of thing? When Professor Katz investigates the massacres in Rwanda and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia only to conclude that neither – in the light of the Holocaust – can be regarded as ‘true genocide’, it is as though his investigation of Nazi mass murder has closed rather than opened his sympathies and understanding. The Holocaust has been turned into a standard against which all other instances of suffering can be measured and found wanting. “A singular event in human history” – fine words, but what do they mean? Every event is unique; but every event exists in a historical context. The question is: within what context should we try to understand the extermination of the Jews?

Difficulties, as always, begin with words. Since the 1960s, the ‘Holocaust’ has come to refer specifically to the mass murder of the Jews. It is a shock to encounter, as I did recently, an invitation to a historical conference on the Second World War which invited papers on ‘Holocausts’. The power the word exerts is evident when a scholar of Nazi policies against the Poles chooses to call his book Forgotten Holocaust. But what terms are available if one seeks a comparative view? Christopher Browning has been powerfully criticized for using the concept of ‘race war’ in order to compare German attitudes towards the Jews with American views of the Japanese and Vietnamese; others have criticized the use of the term ‘genocide’ as well.

Many of the hesitations and doubts expressed at attempts to ‘historicize’ the Holocaust can best be understood in the light of the highly politicized debate which took place in West Germany during the 1980s. As an attempt to locate Nazis crimes in a historical context, the Historikerstreit must be accounted a failure. When the highly-respected historian Andreas Hillgruber yoked together the extermination of the Jews with the ‘catastrophic’ experience of German soldiers retreating from the East in 1944-45, he produced little more than apologetics. For Ernst Nolte, who argued that the Nazi genocide took its cue from Bolshevism, the important thing was to demonstrate that German crimes were neither unprecedented nor unique. Both men seemed to be searching for events to equate with the Holocaust. Both used the term ‘genocide’ to refer not only to the Holocaust but also to the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe. This came close to implying that the victorious Great Powers of 1945 were as morally bankrupt as the defeated Third Reich. For many conservative German historians in the 1980s ‘relativizing’ the Holocaust was basically a means of exorcizing the ghosts of the past in order to usher their compatriots into a more self-confident era.

‘Relativizing’ the Holocaust, though, is one thing; setting it in an appropriate historical context is quite another. This is what Martin Broszat once called for, and what many historians, in one fashion or another, have begun to attempt. Charting the development of the gas vans, for example, Christopher Browning showed how their use in the mass murder of Jews was connected to both the Wehrmacht’s war against partisans in Serbia and to the euthanasia campaign against the mentally ill. Christian Streit has revealed that Russian POWs were used as guinea-pigs at Auschwitz before the mass murder of the Jews began. Thus the immediate origins of the Holocaust are linked to the crusade against Soviet Russia as well as the murderous biological politics of the Third Reich.

The first generation of scholars to investigate the Holocaust highlighted the long tradition of European anti-Semitism. Lucy Dawidowicz entitled her best-selling work The War against the Jews; earlier, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt had isolated anti-Semitism as one of the primary influences on modern politics. Now, however, it can be seen in the context of the complex of racial fears and policies which existed in pre-war and inter-war Europe: the spectre of population decline, the rising prestige of racial scientists, the supposedly dysgenic impact of the First World War, as well as horror at the fertility of lower and less desirable classes and groups all combined to create an interest in eugenics and scientific racism across the continent.

Indeed this interest stretched across the Atlantic too, and a new study has no difficulty in demonstrating the very close ties which bound researchers in the Third Reich and the United States. The American Eugenics Society hailed Hitler's race policy as early as 1933 and informed the press that “sterilisation and race betterment are…becoming compelling ideas among all enlightened nations”. The following year, an exhibition of the Reich’s sterilization programme was displayed at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, and shown to the public at the Los Angeles County Museum. The trail from Dr Mengele, standing at the ramp at Auschwitz, leads us back to the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics in Berlin, and this in turn leads us back to the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations, the American eugenics movement as well as the research of colonial anthropologists before 1914 into the dangers of ‘race mixing’.

If we take anti-Semitism, not as an isolated cultural tradition, nor as a manifestation of volkisch German irrationality, but rather as one aspect of racial prejudices and theories common throughout the West in the early twentieth century, the following question presents itself: to what extent can we see the ‘final solution’ in the light of the growing acceptability of racial violence created by European expansion overseas? It is a tribute not only to the difficulty of the issues raised but also to the limited horizons of professional historians that the question has barely been posed, let alone answered. Possible connections between the European conquest of the Americas, Australia and Africa, and Nazi genocidal policies remain unexplored, and many people would still regard references to the ‘holocaust’ suffered by native Americans as sensationalist.

Yet it was in the context of colonial settlement outside Europe that the modern scientific language of mass killing first emerged. Take the case of the pioneering British Africanist, Sir Harry Johnston, writing in 1908 on ‘The Empire and anthropology’. We may laugh at his confident assertion that “anthropological researches…would show the results of town life under present conditions on this or that racial element in the British population: how, for example, tall blondes are best suited to a life in the country, while brunettes are better adapted to resist the bacteria of towns”. But it is less amusing when he asks calmly: “What is to be done with the black Australian and the Papuan? Is fusion, extrusion or isolation to be fostered in this case? Is their extermination (assuming such to be contemplated) to be allowed to proceed without remonstrance from the Metropolis?”

Johnston himself was agnostic on the question of ‘race mixing’. Another Africanist and man of science, however, had no such doubts. In the early 1940s Dr Eugen Fischer was a senior adviser to the SS on its colonization plans for Eastern Europe. But in 1913 he had published the book which established his professional career – a study of miscegenation in German South-West Africa, in which he predicted the ‘decline and destruction’ of people of mixed blood. Then there was Fischer's colleague, Dr Theodore Abel, who was implicated in the sterilization of coloured German children (the so-called ‘Rhineland bastards’), and wrote learned articles ‘On matings of Moroccans and Indochinese with Europeans’ before joining the SS. By 1941 Abel was suggesting the extermination of the Russian people in order to safeguard German control of the eastern territories. Once the Nazi empire took shape in the minds of Hitler and his entourage, this colonial ‘expertise’ was available and used.

If one thing is clear it is that the Nazi New Order was essentially a project of imperial conquest. Precedents loomed large in the minds of the German leadership, offering parallels and warnings. One vague model was North America. SS leaflets talked about turning the Ukraine into the ‘California of Europe’. Hitler himself was evidently fascinated by Karl May's stories of the Wild West. “I owe him my first notions of geography”, he later recalled; “he opened my eyes on the world”. Discussing how to govern the eastern territories, the Fiithrer commented: “There's only one duty: to Germanise this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins”. And he continued:

In this business I shall go straight ahead, cold-bloodedly... I don't see why a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.

Penned into their reservation around Lublin, eventually to be eradicated and remembered only through the Museum of a Defunct Race envisaged by Nazi race scientists, the Jews were to suffer a fate which cannot but remind us of that of the native Americans. “Belching black smoke, the train crosses the desert into the far distance, and we think of other rail journeys, of smoking chimneys, and a later attempt to dispossess and exterminate a race of people”, writes Philip French of the new Western, Geronimo.

The analogy with India attracted Hitler even more. “The Russian space is our India”, Hitler remarked in September 1941. “Like the English, we shall rule this empire with a handful of men”. And ruefully, a little later: “To exploit the Ukraine properly – that new Indian Empire – I need only peace in the West”. To be sure, Hitler criticized the British for having allowed a class of educated Indians to come into existence; he resolved not to make the same mistake with the conquered peoples in the East. They would be given only the most basic schooling and deprived of all health care, to prevent them breeding.

The differences are obvious enough between British imperialism (or the American experience) and Nazi rule in Eastern Europe; but some of the similarities may also bear examination. Even before the war, the Nazi regime tried to exploit these for its propaganda: “The Negro would be well surprised”, wrote the Berliner Borsenzeitung in 1939, “that the white American becomes outraged at the elimination of Jews from German universities, while they do not even consider the exclusion of Negroes from many American universities”. An article entitled ‘Double standard in the US’ in a Nazi Party paper insisted that US claims to democracy were riven with hypocrisy.

During the war itself, as Gunnar Myrdal noted, “the principle of democracy had to be applied more explicitly to race…in fighting fascism and nazism, America had to stand before the whole world in favor of racial tolerance…and equality”. Not surprisingly, many Americans (black and white) were struck by “this strange and curious picture, this spectacle of America at war to preserve the ideal of government, yet clinging to the social vestiges of the slave system”.

Britain, too, felt the need to distinguish Nazi efforts to build a ‘slave empire’ from the British version – “a commonwealth, a family of free nations”. The democracies were thus forced to a ‘self-examination’ between their professed ideals and reality. Perhaps in the longer term the war against Nazism did help pave the way, for post-war moves towards decolonization and legislation for racial equality; but the anthropologist Robert Redfield was undoubtedly correct when he predicted that the western democracies were perfectly capable of postponing indefinitely any resolution of the obvious ideological inconsistencies and hypocrisies of their position. Black GIs returning home to a segregated South could easily have backed him up.

Seeing the ‘war against the Jews’ in the context of Hitler's imperial dreams also requires us to take account of the extensive plans drawn up in Berlin for urban planning, colonization and the resettlement of Germans in the East. The mass murder of the Jews was planned alongside grandiose schemes for a complete racial restructuring of the continent. It comes as a surprise, for example, to learn that Nazi town planners wanted to turn the Polish Oswiecim into Stadt Auschwitz, a nucleus for German colonists, with orderly streets and rich fields regained from the marshes surrounding the town. While one branch of the SS was tackling the vast logistical problems involved in expropriating, deporting and ultimately killing millions of people, another was arranging the transportation of hundreds of thousands of Volksdeutsche to new homes and colonies.

A couple of studies now some thirty years old pioneered the study of the Holocaust within this broader context of massive population displacement and resettlement. But it is only relatively recently that scholars have begun to demonstrate how closely the planning and evolution of the ‘final solution’ were linked to the debate inside the SS about the Nazi colonization policy in the East.

The tension between the ideologies of racial exterminism and economic exploitation produced some of the fiercest policy disputes of the war within the Nazi leadership: with regard to the Ukraine in particular a fierce battle was waged between those racial hardliners (ultimately backed by Hitler) who favoured terrorizing and murdering the native population into submission and those who believed that terror was incompatible with a functioning economy. One group saw the war as an opportunity for pursuing its racial goals; the other saw it as necessitating economic efficiency and rationality. The administrators of the concentration camps faced a similar dilemma. But it was a dilemma which in its essentials did not confront the Nazis alone: the conflict between the dictates of racial policy and economic production was basic to other societies in the age of empire, notably in African colonies. Charting the diversity of responses to this dilemma—from genocide at one extreme, via apartheid to managed capitalism—offers us a way of assessing the specific characteristics of the Nazi regime alongside the ideologies which motivated the British, Belgians, Portuguese and, later, the Afrikaners in their rule over ‘racial inferiors’.

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that it is not only excessive professional specialization, or the genuine differences of scale, technique, ideology and intention, which have inhibited research into comparative dimensions of Nazi policy. I think there may also have been a widely-held unspoken assumption that the mass killing of African or American peoples was distant and in some senses an ‘inevitable’ part of progress while what was genuinely shocking was the attempt to exterminate an entire people in Europe. This assumption may rest upon an implicit racism, or simply upon a failure of historical imagination; it leads, in either case, to the view that it was specifically with the Holocaust that European civilization – the values of the Enlightenment, a confidence in progress and modernity – finally betrayed itself.

This view claims both too much and too little. If there had indeed been such a betrayal, had it not occurred rather earlier, outside Europe? But perhaps the betrayal only existed in the minds of those with an overly sanguine view of European civilization itself. I do not feel in a position to judge the numerous philosophers, theologians and sociologists who have written about the impact of the Holocaust on ‘modernity’. As a matter of historical fact, the terrifying experience of Nazi rule in Europe did generate profound changes in human values and beliefs, although these changes remain as yet largely unresearched. But to claim that they amount to an wholesale repudiation of Enlightenment virtues seems to me misguided: history can still offer us lessons, whether or not we are willing to learn.

No one can doubt the central significance of the Holocaust for the modern world, which is why David Cesarani is surely right to call on British educators to recognize its importance. The question is how to discuss and teach it. Here Raphael Lemkin seems to me to provide a model of how to draw out its wider implications. If the extreme violence of the Holocaust did indeed undermine the self-confident certainties of ‘civilization’, it also drew attention to the earlier history of that violence. To ignore this earlier history—or, for that matter, what has happened since—seems to me to replicate that indifference which was such a striking feature of world opinion during the Holocaust itself. Nazi violence lies in the past; but genocide does not. Rather than constantly emphasizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust, we should seek to explore what it tells us about our century more generally. The war ended half a century ago, but the fight against intolerance and racial persecution continues.