Many people believe that the Holocaust was the worst genocide in history, and that such an event will never be repeated.
The above claim is much more complex than it first seems to be. I hope to demonstrate this by exploring genocides that occurred after the Holocaust such as Cambodia (1975-9) and Bosnia (1993 onwards).
The first obvious question is: what lessons did humanity need to learn from the Holocaust? The first obvious one is that you can’t get away with cruelly and mechanically gassing innocent victims. Also, the recognition that the international community needs to – and did – stand up to psychopathic and ruthless dictators. From an academic viewpoint, the Holocaust has highlighted the need to produce research to fully understand what happened and why. This has given rise to more university courses that teach the Holocaust, especially at Master’s level, for example Royal Holloway offer an MA in Holocaust Studies.
It could be argued that despite the awareness raised regarding the horror of the Holocaust, especially in education, recent atrocities have demonstrated that this heightened awareness has actually resulted in very little change in global attitudes toward genocides. From 1993 onwards, Bosnian Serbs ethnically cleansed Serbia of Bosnian Muslims, to the extent that these two ethnic groups “could never again live together” (quote from Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction Second Edition). Although a incredibly complicated issue, this event largely happened because Bosnian Serbs wanted to remain part of Soviet Yugoslavia, which conflicted with the demands of Bosnian Muslims (Bosnia became an independent country in 1992). Although 25,000 Bosnians Muslims were killed during the war, compared to 3 million Jews, the principle still remained that a specific ethnic group was targeted. Yet currently this view is fiercely contested, including amongst world bodies such as the United Nations: in 2007, the main legislative body of the UN (The International Court of Justice) ruled that although the violence have amounted to war crimes, it did not amount to genocide.
What is more possibly more shocking in Bosnia, was that the response from the international community was extremely lethargic. For example, it took just over a year for the UN to finally allow NATO to conduct military campaigns against Bosnian Serbs, after it was finally realised that the six safe UN safe zones (set up in 1993) in Yugoslavia had failed – this being highlighted through massacres of Bosnian Muslims, such as in Srebrenica in 1995.
From this recent example in Bosnia, a similar tale of the international community’s slow response can surely parallel how the Allies could have prevented the Holocaust earlier in the war, through a more defiant response to Hitler’s anti-Semitic views. For example in July 1932, Churchill spoke directly to one of Hitler’s earliest friends- Ernst Putzi Hanfstaengl in Munich. Although Churchill did express concern over Hitler’s anti-Semitic views, it is possible to argue that his comments were not harsh nor direct enough: he is reported to have said “anti Semitism may be a good starter , but it is a bad sticker.” This statement completely and dangerously trivialises the serious nature of Hitler’s growing power.
Yet, alternate points of view would argue that lessons have been learnt from the Holocaust in recent genocides. For example, before the Bosnian Genocide the UN decided on the creation of six zones in Bosnia where Muslims in the region would be safe. This vision became a reality when 60,000 NATO peacekeepers acted as guards in these regions. Other pieces of evidence also point towards progress. For example, General Krstic (a former general-major in the Bosnian Serb army in the 1990s), was captured in 2008 and then went on trial only a year later. Therefore progressive actions have been implemented much more quickly compared to the Holocaust. Indeed some Nazi guards have only very recently been put on trial, such as 93 year old Hans Lipschis who was arrested in 2013. Obviously the reasons for arrest vary case by case. But in this specific case, new evidence had recently come to light (reported by the BBC in May 2013 ), that Mr Lipschis’ wartime identification papers revealed his personal involvement with the Waffen SS in conducting genocide.
Of course we all hope that lessons from the Holocaust have been learnt. It is harder to recognise that there have been various genocides after the Holocaust, which have even affected more people than the Holocaust; as in the Cambodian Genocide under the Khmer Rouge (1970s), only 3,000 out of 60,000 Cambodian Buddhists monks survived the regime. This heinous phenomenon clearly demonstrates how specific religious groups have been targeted since the Holocaust. Although there may have been less total victims than in the Holocaust (1.9 million deaths in Cambodia), the inhumanity is no less atrocious. Similarly in Bosnia, the horror of young vulnerable Muslim women being raped (such as at the ordeal of the women in Kalinovik in the south east of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as reported by the Independent in 1993), points to the gravity of the Bosnian Genocides. These two examples of modern genocide (and there are more) highlight that modern nations still have not totally learnt how to tackle genocides.
Overall it is fair to say that the modern world has tried to learn lessons from the Holocaust in order to understand how to prevent the reoccurrence of similar atrocities. Yet this aim has not always succeeded. This is partly due to a lack of media coverage of modern day genocides – in June 2014 only Al Jazeera and a couple of other international bodies (such as Amnesty International ) actually acknowledged that the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic could be on the cusp of becoming a genocide. We need to realise that there is more to preventing genocide than studying the Holocaust (which nevertheless remains important); and modern examples of genocide should be equally as emphasised.