Today the UN and the UNDP and UNESCO Department of Global Communications together with the World Jewish Congress held an internal briefing on Holocaust education and remembrance for UN and UNESCO missions and delegations in New York, Geneva and Paris. . This event followed the adoption by the UN General Assembly of a resolution condemning the denial and distortion of the Holocaust.
Why was such a session needed? Because in light of the resurgence of neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and related ethnic and religious hatred around the world, the diplomatic community needs to be reminded of its duty to preserve its crime. This fundamental duty, often referred to as “responsibility for prevention,” or R2P, is firmly rooted in the world’s inability to stop Nazi Germany and its multinational accomplices from deliberately exterminating approximately 6 million state-funded Jews.
The Holocaust stands out as a transnational genocide that spans almost the entire continent and encompasses all countries of Europe and North Africa occupied by Nazi Germany or allies with it. Other genocides – though no less horrific – were predominantly localized, committed by one national or ethnic group against another in a geographically limited area. For example, in the last 30 years alone, the genocide in Rwanda has been the killing of a Tutsi Hutu within the geographical boundaries of an African nation, and the genocide in Srebrenica is the killing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries in and around a particular city.
In stark and dramatic contrast, Holocaust perpetrators did not respect or restrain national borders. Jews were transported to death camps in German-occupied Poland not only from that country but also from Germany, France, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and other countries.
Eighty years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of middle-ranking German government officials gathered at a lakeside villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan the disappearance of European Jewry. Reinhard Heydrich, a senior SS officer responsible for what was euphemistically called the “final solution to the Jewish question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage), convened a meeting to coordinate the deportation and massacre of Jews from various Nazis. controlled Europe. Among those present were Hitler’s deputy head of the Reich Chancellery, as well as representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Interior of the Third Reich and the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Adolf Eichmann noted. Cognac was served at the end of the meeting.
The decision to kill Jews was made earlier by Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, the process of mass murder was full. But it was in Wannsee that the fate of European Jewry was actually decided. Participants in what became known as the Wenceslas Conference impartially discussed the various measures that needed to be taken to carry out the most systematic genocide in history.
“As for the final decision in those European countries that are occupied and under our influence,” – said in the Eichmann Protocol, a key role in this process is entrusted to the German Foreign Ministry. It was expected that “[i]In occupied and unoccupied France, the registration of Jews for evacuation is likely to be “without difficulty,” and the Foreign Ministry “sees no great difficulty for South-Eastern and Western Europe.” However, Foreign Minister Martin Luther warned that “in some countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, difficulties will arise … and therefore it would be appropriate to postpone action in these countries.”
The grim reality is that the Holocaust was possible only because the people of Wannsee and others like them dismissed all doubts and willingly turned the sophisticated infrastructure of Nazi Germany into an integrated, thoroughly efficient machine of mass murder.
It is known that all genocide and all crimes against humanity, by definition, are extreme violations of the basic norms and precepts of civilized society. I refuse to engage in comparative suffering or find one barbarism more disgusting than another. I regularly tell my students that in terms of victims, it makes no difference whether they were killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, a machete in Rwanda or the shootings in Srebrenica in Bosnia.
All victims of such atrocities deserve the dignity and respect of recognition and remembrance of their agony and suffering. Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Eli Wiesel taught that “the Holocaust was a unique and exclusively Jewish event, albeit with universal consequences.”
I believe that every genocide and crime against humanity should be seen as a unique event in terms of and through the prism of the victims, but always with universal consequences.
One of the main reasons we need to remember the darkest episodes of history is to keep them from happening again. Unfortunately, even in the context of the Holocaust, the international community has failed to protect the victims of genocide in places such as Darfur, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Myanmar. We can – we must – do better.
Only by making sure that past barbarisms are integrated into our collective consciousness do we have at least a chance to defeat the forces of darkness – that is, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, xenophobia and hatred in general – threaten humanity again.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the Assistant Executive Vice President and General Adviser to the World Jewish Congress. He teaches genocide law at Columbia and Cornell Universities, served as a member of the Holocaust Remembrance Council in the United States from 1994 to 2004 and 2010-2020. He is the author of “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen”. (Kelsay Books, 2021).