WASHINGTON, April 24, 2017 — From 1915 to 1922, the Ottoman Empire exterminated about 75 percent of the Armenians on Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian soil. Estimates put the death toll at 800,000 to 1.5 million people.
At the same time, the Ottomans killed about half a million Greeks and as many Assyrians.
In 1932 and 1933, the Holodomar, the engineered famine in Ukraine, killed at least 2 million, with estimates as high as 7 million.
Genocide was nothing new in the 20th century. The Zunghar genocide in the late 1750s killed half a million people in Central Asia. Stories of organized efforts to wipe out entire populations go back at least to the Old Testament, where Israeli leaders from Joshua to Saul are commanded to kill every man, woman and child in the lands that God has given them, sparing not even the domesticated animals.
New in the 20th century were the scale and efficiency of the killing. But it took more than that to put modern genocides in a category of their own.
Earlier mass killings—the word “genocide” was coined only in 1948 as a hybrid of the Greek word génos (race or people) and the Latin suffice –cide (killing)—were attributed by Westerners to less civilized races like the Oriental Turks or the Slavic Soviets, or treated as the product of barbarous but remote antiquity.
The Nazi genocide of European Jews, The Holocaust, forced us to reconsider the nature of genocide and the conditions that make it possible. The Germans weren’t Asian barbarians, but the most cultured of Europeans. Germanic states gave the world Bach and Beethoven, Schiller and Heisenberg, Dürer, Klee and Martin Luther. Germans had as big a part in creating modern Western art, science, and literature as any other people. German civilization is at the heart of Western civilization.
And it was brutal and murderous.
That shouldn’t have been a surprise. In the 1800s, Belgium under Leopold II went into Congo and perpetrated atrocities that are nauseating even in these cynical, post-Holocaust times. But Africa was far away, and the atrocities were against Africans. Leopold the butcher was honored in his day as a great humanitarian by people who didn’t know or didn’t care about the horrors of Congo. It was as remote in relevance and imagination as the Spanish destruction of the Aztecs and the Incas, or the U.S. destruction of the Indian tribes of North America.
The Holocaust didn’t happen in distant lands to distant people. It was perpetrated in the cradle of our civilization by cultured people against their cultured neighbors.
But it was worse than that. When Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem in the 1960s for his part in The Holocaust, he argued that he did his duty. He obeyed orders, and he obeyed the law.
His defense included an appeal to Immanuel Kant.
“I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws.” According to Hannah Arendt,
“Upon further questioning, he added that he had read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. He then proceeded to explain that from the moment he was charged with carrying out the Final Solution he had ceased to live according to Kantian principles, that he had known it, and that he had consoled himself with the thought that he no longer ‘was master of his own deeds,’ that he was unable ‘to change anything.’ … He had distorted [the Kantian formula] to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or of the law of the land … ‘Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action, would approve it.’”
The law was the law.
Eichmann did more than present the defense of obedience to orders. His argument was a justification of the bureaucratic state in which the rules are the law are an obligation, and in which “small” people must put aside their own morality in obedience to the law.
Arendt subtitled her book on Eichmann’s trial, “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” and that’s what it was.
The horror of The Holocaust wasn’t its magnitude or the efficiency with which it was carried out, but the moral and legal normalization of evil, and the ease with which cultured and intelligent men and women could be swept along with it.
The truth of genocides is that they are barbaric, but they are committed by the barbarian next door, the barbarian in the church choir, the barbarian at your dinner table and the barbarian who stares back at you from your bathroom mirror. The victims aren’t just backward people who live in other places and who are of other races, but the guy in the next cubicle and the lady who serves your lunch.
Police officers sometimes say that anyone is capable of murder. All that’s necessary to make a decent person into a killer is the right lever. Any nation can be genocidal, anyone can be swept up in a genocidal movement and anyone can be its victim. We need only find the right levers.
The Holocaust stands not just as a blot on the German character, but as evidence of the frailty and weaknesses of civilization – all civilization. Civilizations are built on violence, and violence can never be far below the surface. The hypothesized explosion of Aryan people out of Central Asia into India and the Mediterranean gave the world cultures of towering achievement, but also religions that justified horrible violence.
It could not be otherwise; no great religion and no great culture is built on foundations of love and peace. Peace is only a happy accident at times of stability, and brotherly love extended beyond family and clan a luxury of wealth.
The remembrance of The Holocaust today is not a time to sneer condescendingly at other nations or score political points. We can say “never again,” but we should ask instead, “when and where next?” There have been genocides since The Holocaust, and there will be more. The morality of our civilization today imposes on us a duty to be vigilant. But morality changes and vigilance flags.
Remember the victims of the past, but weep also for the generations who will come, the victims and the victimizers. They are just like us.
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