The Underside of Genocide

The massacre of the last 98 Americans on Wake Island in 1943 did not constitute genocide, but I wonder where the line is crossed between war crimes committed against civilians and acts of genocide committed against civilians. I recently gave a talk on genocide and dictatorship and during my research found that crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide do not have clear lines of separation, even in international law.

The concept of genocide arose with the unprecedented horror of Holocaust in WWII. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, coined the term in his 1944 book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” calling genocide the systematic, planned extermination of an entire group of people categorized by religion, race, ethnicity, or nationality. The United Nations adopted the term in its UN Genocide Convention of 1948, defining as a crime in international law “acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part” a group defined by those four categories. Signatories to the convention have agreed to prevent and punish such crimes, and the International Criminal Court investigates and prosecutes cases (28 cases have gone to court since prosecution began in the 1990s and many remain open).

Genocide is driven by a vision to create a homogeneous society of the same race or religion by eliminating others as obstacles or threats to a given vision of purity. It follows a racial or religious ideology to the extreme. Systematic acts of removal or extermination require planning, propaganda, and mobilization. Genocide is often – though not always – directed from above by a dominant central authority or dictator, but also requires willing participants and perpetrators within the population.

Human history is full of killing. Our species has engaged in countless battles and wars among ourselves and caused extinctions of countless animals, birds, and other species. What we now call genocide has likely taken place many times in the past, though enslavement was often the more practical solution for dealing with enemies. Genocidal acts were often perpetrated in the name of religion, including Catholic Church crusades against heretics and spasms of pogroms in Europe and Russia against Jews.

We don’t have to look further than our own back yard for harbingers of genocide. In the mid-nineteenth century westward expansion was driven by a sense of “manifest destiny” – the God-given right and duty to spread the benefits of white civilization and progress from sea to shining sea – but Indians stood in the way. Federal Indian policy did not call for the systematic extermination of Native Americans; rather it sought to remove them and open up their lands for white use. The government made (and broke) treaties with tribes, established reservations, and made war with tribes that resisted.

By the late 19th century Indian policy had moved more toward assimilation, dividing reservation land into allotments and forcing Indian children to adopt white ways in boarding schools (to “kill the Indian in him and save the man”). Still, authorities either condoned or turned a blind eye to episodic attacks, such as the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre when Col. John Chivington led a group of drunken volunteers to massacre a large encampment of Cheyenne families near Denver: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little. Nits make lice.” In 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, federal troops mowed down two hundred Sioux men, women, and children with rapid-fire Hotchkiss guns. Twenty soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service.

During the twentieth century documented cases of genocide occurred in a dozen countries including Turkey, the Soviet Union, Nazi-occupied Europe, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Iraq. Some cases are complicated by the context of war and others, aimed at social or political groups but no less vicious, fall outside the UN genocide definition. To this day Turkey refuses to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian Genocide that killed 1.5 million and U. S. administrations have backed down from condemning it because Turkey is a key ally in the Middle East.

The Nazi-driven Holocaust is the most horrific and best-known genocide. Twelve million people were killed in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1941 and 1945, including six million Jews and another six million Roma, homosexuals, Poles, Russians and other “undesirables.” Anti-Semitism has an ugly, centuries-long history across Europe. Even the United States, which knew about escalating persecution in Germany, was unwilling to revise immigration quotas to enable Jews to flee to America. By the time Allied troops reached the gates of the concentration camps and Germany surrendered in the spring of 1945, Adolph Hitler had committed suicide. The Nuremburg trials would prosecute other high-ranking figures in the Nazi regime, but historical responsibility for this ultimate crime against humanity weighs most heavily on Hitler the dictator. Never again and surely never here, we think.

Jim Powell, historian and fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote an article in the 2/4/2013 issue of Forbes Magazine titled “How Dictators Come to Power in a Democracy.” Powell traces Hitler’s rise in post-WW1 Germany as his Nazi party riled up bitter Germans, mired in crisis from the vindictive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which he blamed on Jews and the current government. Nazi popularity rose with economic crisis, waned during a brief recovery, and then expanded dramatically with the global Great Depression of the early 1930s. Powell argues that Hitler temporarily downplayed anti-Semitism as he built a wide base of support. Determined to rise to power legally through the ballot box, he would quickly get rid of the very instrument of his success. He railed against weakness and promised to Make Germany Great Again, feeding the public hunger for hope and thirst for nationalist pride.

When the Nazis became the biggest political party in the Reichstag in 1933, the Weimar president offered Hitler the chancellorship [the role Angela Merkel now holds in the Bundestag]. He quickly consolidated power, suppressing other political parties and leaving the Nazis the only legal party. Hitler replaced the feeble federal structure with a centralized state structure by purging the judiciary and civil service and abrogating constitutional and civil rights. Taking control of the police and media, he effectively turned Germany into a single-party dictatorship.

Now secure in power, the Nazis put racist ideology to work to improve quality and quantity of the German race by rewarding German births, sterilizing the disabled, and even “euthanizing” so-called inferiors, all to purify the superior German race. To purge the nation of other “pollutants,” anti-Semitism went from tool to machine. Jews were scapegoated as the cause of all problems, humiliated, persecuted, and segregated. The Nazis stepped up the dehumanization propaganda in frequent rallies, unleashed street violence, and passed increasingly discriminatory laws to spur Jewish emigration – the “official goal” being removal – and by 1938, 250,000 had left Germany. Meanwhile Hitler was making policy changes that would pave the road to war: rearmament in defiance of treaty restrictions, withdrawal from the League of Nations, territorial expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia, making a secret pact with the Soviet Union, and constructing war plans to dominate Europe. Once they started the war, the Nazis moved to active separation and exclusion of Jews into ghettos, and then to the Final Solution and the full-scale extermination plan.

Hitler and the Nazis didn’t do it alone. The Holocaust depended on the passive and active support and acquiescence of the German people and those in Nazi-occupied countries. In the core nation Hitler had prepared the people to accept genocide by playing to their national greatness and fear and hatred of anything or anyone undermining it. We are all susceptible to the seduction of nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism), which claims superiority over others.

Dr. Powell concludes his Forbes piece by arguing that the U. S. constitutional system’s separation of powers, including checks and balances on each of the three branches of government, protects Americans from the rise of a dictator. He cautions that escalating use of national emergencies, executive orders, and government shutdowns circumvent the constitutional safeguards (and remember, he was writing this in 2013). Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to remain vigilant, monitor policy changes, watch out for steps taken against personal liberty and human rights, and to speak up.

Americans may be able to avoid dictatorship, but involvement in war appears to be fairly constant. And war slips quickly into the zone where any act of war can be justified by the necessity of beating the enemy. The Turks justified the elimination of Armenians in 1915 by claiming they sided with the enemy (Russian in WWI) and posed a “fifth column” danger, the same rational the U. S. took in the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII. Firebombing entire cities in Europe and Japan was seen as a justifiable act of war by both sides in WWII.

In 1947, facing the U. S. Navy War Crimes Commission gallows for the war crime on Wake Island, Japanese Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara reportedly stated that his executors, having deployed the atomic bomb over whole cities of Japanese civilians, lacked the moral authority to condemn him to death for executing war prisoners. We humans have many words to call killing: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, murder; would that we could come up with more words and ways for not killing.