Monday, April 8, 2013

An Essay on Holocaust (2012)

This week each year it has become customary to memoralize those lost in the Holocaust of the Second World War.  Today I spent most of my non-teaching time writing an essay to present this Wednesday on the campus of the University of Virginia's College at Wise, which I will share after its first reading, but I thought it would be appropriate to share the essay I wrote last year for the same purpose.  Below is what I call, simply, An Essay on Holocaust, delivered in 2012.


As I teach my students about the politics that transpire both between and within nations, gradually, over days or weeks or months, you can see them building to the inevitable questions that have no satisfactory answers. 

There is a process, you see, by which a dissonance emerges, when what they know about human political nature begins to conflict with what they believe about ethics and justice; a moment when this irreconcilable intellectual the scientist must step aside for the human.   

I spend my days teaching young people, people who have spent their entire lives being taught to love, to share, to obey the rules, to embrace difference.  I teach these young people, primarily and preeminently about evil.  I teach them about our capacity for destruction and cruelty and violence, our innate desire to dominate and rule and objectify one another, our monstrous, innate desire to obliterate that which is alien, dissimilar, and distinct.

Dr. Smith, they ask, how could people do that to other people?

Dr. Smith, they ask, how could people let them do that to their families, their friends?

Dr. Smith, they ask, are they all gone?

How do you respond?  How should I respond? 

They need to know the truth, I conclude, unfettered, unbleached.  The truth, it liberates us, prepares us to defend our fellow human and, when feasible, our principles.  But I know that the truth is horrible and simple, and sits in your belly like an iron walnut. 

If I am feeling morbid and a little funny, I quip something – humans are monsters, perhaps, and I allude to Charybdis or the Beast of Gévaudan.  If I am feeling like an apologist, I will try to convince them (and myself) that humans are ethical beings, capable of profound good and creativity and sensitivity and that this propensity, somehow, counter-balances our fouler humors.  But if I am honest, I say a prayer for the Melians, and I begin to quote Thucydides. 

You may not know about the Melians – this is understandable, for as a people they were utterly destroyed, their women and children sold into slavery, their men slain, their city colonized by men and women of foreign lands.  This was done to them by our intellectual ancestors, the civilization that, more than any other, is typically regarded as the wellspring of everything ethical that constitutes that culture we call “the West”: Athens, the Mother of Democracy.  I won’t bore you with the details – you can easily find them in any copy of The Peloponnesian War – but I will tell you that the Athenians were kind enough to explain to the Melians, before besieging them and putting them to the sword, why they must choose between the loss of their state’s freedom or utter obliteration.  The Athenians said:

. . . . the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they [must]. . . . it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can.  This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made.  We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. 

Might is right, it would seem, to many (or most) human beings.  If we are strong or rich or of the right faith or ideology, it is evidence that we are the better beings, our natures’ superior, our actions absolutely justified by the laws of God and nature.  And if we are superior, if we are ideal, then other men and women are hardly men or women at all, but rather they are sub-human, cattle, to be used, diminished, and swept aside when necessary, convenient, or desirable. 




Once upon a time, there was a man named Adolf whose name meant “noble wolf.”
I am not going to humanize him, to spin yarns about his childhood and psychology and drug abuse and repressed emotions.  Not tonight.  Tonight he is beneath this dignity. 

The man named Adolf lived in the time of industry, a time of conquered space and vast bureaucratic machines, and he would bend the technologies affiliated with these to his ends.  Millions of men and women and children, that is to say, human beings, would die at the hands of these technologies, wielded by other men and women who, for whatever reasons (and there were many), served the will of the man named Adolf.  The largest number of these people were of the Jewish faith, though they were not alone, and they were consumed as by a fire or, indeed, within fire.  Every form of torture, every variety of murder, every device of sadism was employed to dehumanize and eliminate the people of the Jewish faith.  And while the man named Adolf was not entirely successful, he nearly was, and the atrocity he and his lieutenants and soldiers and police and bureaucrats and businessmen and engineers and farmers and bakers and maids and mothers and fathers and yes, even children, perpetrated was without equal in all of the thousands of years of recorded human experience.   

This kind of murder, this scale, has its own name.  We call it genocide – the intentional murder and obliteration of a people, both physically and culturally. 

I have said that this genocide, that of the people of the Jewish faith of Germany and the territories occupied by Germany during the 2nd quarter of the Twentieth Century, was unequalled, unlike any other horror conceived of by the minds of men and women previously or since.  And this event is why we are here, together, tonight, in this place; why we leave the luxuries of our homes and intentionally discomfit ourselves; why we cry, why we rage.  It is enough cause for humanity to collectively rend our clothes and wear sackcloth for generations.  It is just that we mourn, that we feel guilt, that we feel anger. 

But it is not enough. 


There were, among the ancient Greeks, two principle forms of sacrifice.  The first, and the most common, was the practice of “dining with the gods.”  In that form of sacrifice the gods would be provided with a portion of a flesh and poured libations of wine.   The remainder would be consumed by those who made the sacrifice. 

More sacred and infrequent, however, was the holókaustos, a term which literally means “the burning of everything,” in which every part of a donation was consumed in fire, leaving nothing behind for the penitent save ashes to be swept from the bed of an altar.  This term came to be adopted by men and women of the Jewish faith in the age of Hellenization as a synonym for the korban olah, the burnt offering made at the Temple of Jerusalem. 

The Jewish people, the users of the strange word holocaust, eventually quit using it in the present tense.  The temple, the only place sanctified for the holocaust, was torn down by an empire which decided that it must take steps to destroy the Jews, who frequently rebelled against their rulers, by obliterating the center of their faith and scattering them to the wind, unwilling migrants across three continents.   The word was not forgotten, however, and the people did not lose themselves. 

This was not easy.  Everywhere the Jewish people went they were persecuted; their clothing proscribed, their movement restricted, their economic opportunities limited.  They were persecuted, libeled, and blamed for natural and economic disasters.  They were tortured and imprisoned, their belongings seized, their places of worship torn down, their holy books desecrated, their lives forfeited.   Yet over and over, they recovered.  Sometimes they hid from their persecutors, sometimes they flew from them.  But always they endured as a people.  And typically, once the plague had dissipated or there was a change of regime, they would be invited to again inhabit the places the formerly populated.

This was the cycle, apparently without end, that marked the years of the Jewish experience after the fall of the Temple and the Diaspora. 

But then, many, many years later, after untold centuries of persecution and exploitation, that evil man I mentioned earlier, the wolf, decided once more to call for the destruction of the people of the Jewish faith.  But his vision was not one of dispersing; he did not seek to force them to integrate into a society or merely deprive them of their property.  He sought Die Endlösung – the Final Solution – an end to the cycle of violence and reconciliation to be achieved by the complete annihilation of the Jews as a faith and as a people.

And every science and art was turned towards the goal of murder with incredible efficiency, and the monsters found it was good. 

Knowing this is still, I fear, not enough.


The murder of millions of people of the Jewish faith, and along with them untold numbers of Romani, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, communists, disabled persons, Slavs, Freemasons, and other folk condemned as Untermenschen, had no meaning.  It was, I fear, the industrial product of profound hate compounded with willful ignorance and logistical genius.  Those men and women and children did not die for some great purpose hidden from our eyes and minds.  They were robbed of their freedom, their innocence, and their lives for absolutely no reason of note.  There is no justification.

But we, the men and women and children who live to see the genocide of the 1930s and 1940s for what it was, we may, if we are wise enough and have resolution enough, endow the loss of these millions with meaning.  Perhaps we have learned something, even if we have not put our learning into perfect effect; we may not be willing to abolish genocide from the face of the earth, but perhaps we at least have the courage to acknowledge it for what it is.  We have given the sin a name, it seems, but only once we, as a species, had experienced it in its full flower, its perfect, terrible form. 

Six million Jewish folk died.  Their deaths we call the Holocaust.   The man named for a wolf did not call it this, nor did his retainers.  We so name it – in recognizing its evil, in recognizing that this horror is, we transform the meaningless into the meaningful, the unholy into the sacred, and we are better for their sacrifice.


These are the genocides of my life, 36 years of mass murder. 

From 1965 until 1990 the Arab government of Chad killed some 10,000 members of the Sara, Hadjerai and the Zaghawa people.  The total number killed isn’t clear, but was clearly in the tens of thousands. From 1968, eight years before I was born, until 1996 the Guatemalan civil war resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people – the military of Guatemala was responsible for almost 95% of these deaths, and almost 85% of the victims were ethnic Maya.  Also, from 1968 until 1979 Equatorial Guinea was the site of the attempted genocide of the Bubi people by the Fang people under the leadership of Nguema regime – there were approximately 80,000 deaths.  From 1972 until 1986 Uganda was torn apart by successive genocides carried out by the government against the Lango, Acholi, European and Asian Ugandans, Karamoja, Baganda, and Banyarwanda – approaching 600,000 are estimated to have been killed.

From 1975, the year before I was born, until 1979 nearly two million people were murdered in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.  Also, from 1975 until 1999 the Indonesian government carried out an active military campaign against the Maubere people, further reinforcing this with intentional efforts to reduce their population by starvation – 150,000 people died.

Between 1978, the year my little brother Trevor was born, and 1991, the Amharic Derg of Ethiopia killed over 100,000 members of the Eritrea, Tigray, and Oromo peoples.  From 1982 until the present day the Matabele people have been seized upon by the Zimbabwean government – at least 20,000 are estimated to have died.  Between 1983 until 2005 Arab Sudanese carried out genocide against the Nuer, Dinka, Christians, and Nuba of the Nuba region, killing some two million people in the process.  From 1986 until 1989 Iraqi Arabs, as part of the al-Anfal Campaign killed some 200,000 Kurds, Assyrians, Shabak, Yazidi, Jews, and Mandeans. 

The peak of this particular episode of violence was on my twelfth birthday when the city of Halabja was attacked using chemical weapons.  Around 5,000 Kurds, mostly women and children, died. 

Between 1990 and 2003 some 100,000 Krahn, Gio, and Mano peoples were killed by various participants in the Liberian civil war. From 1991 until 2005 Algerian Arabs of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) carried out a policy of genocide against Berbers; at least 50,000 were killed.  Between 1992 (when I got my driver’s license) and 1995 Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak, fighting in the former Yugoslavia, killed around 200,000 other Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak.  Beginning in 1993 and continuing until 1995, and then again from 1996 to 2006 the Hutu and Tutsi people engaged in wars of mutual genocide in Burundi – half a million people are estimated to have died.

In 1994, the year I graduated from high school, the Hutu people of Rwanda killed around one million members of the Tutsi people.  Also in 1994 some 80,000 Hutus and Banyamulenge were killed in the Congo by the Kabila and their allies. 

From 1998, the year I graduated from college, until 2003 the Second Congo War raged on.  During that war the Mbuti Pygmies were hunted, killed, and eaten by participants from both sides of the conflict and active campaigns were conducted by the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo who were nicknamed Les Effaceurs – The Erasers.  It is unknown how many died, as no records were kept of the atrocities by either side or by the Mbuti.

Between 2000, the year I received my master’s degree, and 2007, the year I received my PhD, the government of Cote d’Ivoire and the Bete people carried out systematic attacks on the descendants of Malian and Burkinan émigrés, as well as the Dioula and other groups from the southern provinces.  Approaching 10,000 people died.  Between 2003 until the present day, in the region of Darfur, Sudanese Arabs killed some 300,000 Zaghawa, Fur, and Massaleit.

This is not a comprehensive list. 

Such a formal and cold and scientific sentence, eh?  This is not a comprehensive list. 

It does not mention the Tuaregs of Mali; the Sahrawi of Morocco; the Tiv, Hausa, Yoruba, and Ogoni of Nigeria; the Zulu and Xhosa of South Africa; the Küng and Lozi of Namibia and Botswana; the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil; the Aché of Paraguay; the Diola of Senegal; the Maya of Mexico; Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Pashtuni of Afghanistan; Shiites, Christians, Baluchi, and Sindi of Pakistan; Shan and Karen of Myanmar; Uighur and Tibetans of China; Tamil and Sinhalese of Sri Lanka; Acehnese, the peoples of Irian Jaya, Moluccans, and Sulewesi in Indonesia; members of the Muslim faith in India; or the Chechens, Armenians and Azerbaijani throughout the Caucus Mountains. Nor does it list the Cham and Vietnamese and Chinese of Cambodia; the Hmong of Laos; the Kosovar of the former Yugoslavia; the mutual attempts at terror and obliteration by the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Palestinians and Israelis in that strip of land west of the Dead Sea.  Indeed, it mentions not the Karachai, Meshketians, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Ingushi, and untold other peoples of the former Soviet Union, nor the Christians, Druze, Shiites, and Sunni of Lebanon and their efforts to collectively destroy one-another; the Iranian efforts to crush Kurds and Baha’i and concurrent anti-Kurdish efforts by the states of Turkey and Syria. 

I do not even mention the politicides, the killings aimed at destroying ideologies.

I do not mention the mass murder for the sake of sexual identity. 

These are the holocausts that I share a responsibility for, not in their execution, but in my failure to prevent their execution.


Tonight, we stand vigil, here in the quiet ancient mountains, and our minds dwell on the agonies suffered and inflicted on our species by our species.  Tonight we mourn, we lament, we remember things we did not experience directly.  And we remember the sacrifice in hopes that perhaps we, as a species, as a people, can learn to live without such barbarisms.  If you pray, by all means pray.  If you don’t pray, by all means, meditate.  Later, tonight, go home, sleep, rest, find peace.

For tomorrow we fight against those who would demand more victims, more sacrifices.

Thank-you.  Good evening.

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