Holocaust education is essential for the survival of humankind

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Today the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme of the United Nations’s Department of Global Communications and UNESCO, together with the World Jewish Congress, provided an internal briefing on Holocaust education and remembrance for U.N. and UNESCO missions and delegations in New York, Geneva and Paris. This event followed the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution condemning Holocaust denial and distortion.

Why was such a session necessary? Because, in light of resurgent neo-Nazism, antisemitism, white supremacism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and related ethnic and religious hatreds across the globe, the diplomatic community must be reminded of its obligation to keep genocide and crimes against humanity from taking place. This fundamental duty, often referred to the “responsibility to prevent,” or R2P, is firmly rooted in the world’s failure to stop Nazi Germany and its multinational accomplices from perpetrating the deliberate, state-sponsored annihilation of approximately 6 million Jews.

The Holocaust stands apart as a transnational genocide, carried out across virtually an entire continent and encompassing all European and North African countries occupied by or allied with Nazi Germany. Other genocides — while no less horrific — have been predominantly localized, committed by one national or ethnic group against another in a geographically confined area. For example, during the past 30 years alone, the Rwandan genocide was the killing of Tutsis by Hutus within the geographic confines of one African nation, and the Srebrenica genocide was the killing of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) by paramilitary Bosnian Serb forces in and around a particular town. 

In sharp and dramatic contrast, the perpetrators of the Holocaust neither respected nor were restrained by national borders. Jews were transported to death camps in German-occupied Poland not just from within that country but from Germany, France, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere.

Eighty years ago, on Jan. 20, 1942, a group of German mid-level government bureaucrats met in a lakeside villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan the extinction of European Jewry. Reinhard Heydrich, the senior SS officer in charge of what was referred to euphemistically as the “Final Solution of the Jewish question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage), had convened the gathering to coordinate the efficient deportation and mass-killing of Jews from across Nazi-controlled Europe. Among those present were the deputy head of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, as well as representatives of the Third Reich Foreign, Justice and Interior Ministries and the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Adolf Eichmann took notes. At the end of the meeting, Cognac was served.

The decision to murder Jews had been made earlier by Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Goering, and the process of mass killings was well underway. But it was at Wannsee that the fate of European Jewry was effectively sealed. Dispassionately, the participants in what has become known as the Wannsee Conference discussed the various measures that needed to be taken to implement the most systematic genocide in history.

“Regarding the handling of the final solution in those European countries occupied and influenced by us,” Eichmann’s protocol recorded, the German Foreign Office was charged with a key role in this process. It was anticipated that “[i]n occupied and unoccupied France, the registration of Jews for evacuation will in all probability proceed without difficulty,” and the Foreign Ministry “sees no great difficulties for southeast and western Europe.” Foreign Minister Unterstaatssekretär Martin Luther warned, however, that “in some countries, such as the Scandinavian states, difficulties will arise … and that it will, therefore, be advisable to defer actions in these countries.” 

The grim reality is that the Holocaust was possible only because the men at Wannsee and others like them discarded all scruples and willingly turned the elaborate infrastructure of Nazi Germany into an integrated, meticulously efficient mass-murder machine.

It is true, of course, that all genocide and all crimes against humanity are, by definition, extreme violations of the fundamental norms and precepts of civilized society. I refuse to engage in comparative suffering, or to consider one barbarity more heinous than another. I regularly tell my students that, from the perspective of the victims, it makes no difference if they were killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz, by machetes in Rwanda, or by gunfire executions at Srebrenica in Bosnia.

All victims of such atrocities deserve the dignity and respect of having their own agony and suffering recognized and remembered. Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel taught that “the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, albeit with universal implications.”

I believe each genocide and crime against humanity must be seen as a unique event from the perspective and through the prism of its victims — but always with universal implications.

One principal reason we must remember the darkest episodes of history is so that they are not repeated. Sadly, even with the Holocaust as context, the international community has utterly failed to protect the victims of genocide in places such as Darfur, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Myanmar. We can — we must — do better.

It is only by making sure that past barbarities are integrated into our collective consciousness that we have at least a chance to prevail against the forces of darkness — that is, bigotry, racism, antisemitism, white supremacism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and hatred generally — that threaten humankind as a whole yet again.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the associate executive vice president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities, and served as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council from 1994 to 2004 and 2010 to 2020. He is the author of “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (Kelsay Books, 2021).

Tags Genocide Holocaust education Menachem Z. Rosensaft The Holocaust

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