URL http://www.ushmm.org/misc-bin/add_goback/lectures/reich.htm Lands Bathed in Blood Bosnia shows we haven't learned the Holocaust's lessons about genocide The soil of Europe heaves again with the bodies of massacred dead. By Walter Reich --------------------------------------------------------------------------- Only five decades after the Germans expunged from the continent's face 6 million Jews, and in the process killed millions of others whose only crime was who they were or what they believed, warring parties in the former Yugoslavia have slaughtered, on a far smaller scale but with focused brutality, civilians whose mere ethnicity marked them as suitable subjects for hatred and extinction. The soil of Srebrenica yields, to the shovels of probing investigators, and to the expectant horror of already-grieving loved ones, the remains of human beings whose killers thought their crimes would lie forever hidden. The continent weeps, the world weeps, as we all expect, some day, in some corner of the planet, new ethnic massacres, new cadres of hating killers, and new zones of heaving soil. . How can this still be? What brings us to this, whether in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, or anywhere else? How do we, as individuals and societies, regularly justify, and regularly carry out, such barbarities? In the past few years, and especially in the past few months, the Holocaust itself, the most horrendous genocide of all, carried out by a society proud of its civilization and culture, has been studied with particular scrutiny in the struggle to answer these questions. The answers most frequently offered, never fully satisfying, have been of a psychological sort. They have focused on the ways in which human beings who live ordinary lives during ordinary, times find ways to justify killing other human beings during extraordinary times. Most of these explanations have focused on what have been called "mechanisms of moral disengagement" -- the ways people who do evil can disengage their murderous actions from their usual personal rules of morality and convince themselves that what they are doing is not evil, and may even be good. Social psychologists call one of the simplest such mechanisms "euphemistic labeling" -- the use of language to suggest that what a person is doing isn't quite as bad as it really is. In the Holocaust, people who were sent to extermination centers were described as being "deported"; when they were gassed, they were being subjected to "special treatment." Using these terms made it easier for functionaries and soldiers to go about their grisly business. And, more recently in the former Yugoslavia, as during the Second World War in that area, "ethnic cleansing" was a term that sounded as if people were engaged in an act of public health. Another psychological mechanism that helps individuals harm others and still feel that the harm is justified is to believe that the persons authorizing it are right due to their elevated knowledge, wisdom and status. If the state says that it's good to kill Jews -- or if warring military officials say it's good to kill Boshinn Muslims or Croats or Serbs -- then it must be good. After all, don't such authorities have more knowledge than we do? And haven't they accepted ultimate responsibility for our acts if we follow their orders? Yet another psychological mechanism that makes it easier to harm others is to feel that you are only a cog in a large machine. That large machine may, in the end, spew out mounds of human carcasses. But no one involved does it all; everyone plays only a partial role, whether it's confining Jews into ghettos so that they're ready for "deportation" or loading cattle cars full of Jews to transport them "to the east." Even in the former Yugoslavia, where the carnage has been much less than in the Holocaust, some killers were truck drivers transporting innocent victims, and others were the rapists and trigger men. And it's easier to harm others, of course, if we feel that they're less human than we are -- if they're "subhuman," as Germans termed Jews, or "useless eaters," as they termed the physically and mentally handicapped persons they killed. After the Srebrenica massacre of Muslims in Bosnia, according to news reports, one of the Bosnian Serb killers noted with satisfaction, "That was a good hunt. There were a lot of rabbits here." To that soldier, the victims were living creatures, to be sure, but not quite as human as he, and suitable subjects for killing. In sweeping through parts of Croatia long populated by Serbs, Croatian forces, in a massive "ethnic cleansing" operation, methodically shot elderly Serbs in the back of the neck or slit their throats, also seeing them as less human than they, and as less worthy of life. And even Muslim forces at times engaged in atrocities against civilians of other ethnic backgrounds. The brutal killing, although not equal among the warring parties in magnitude, was shared, often carried out with energy and satisfaction. Not all killers during ethnic wars or state-sponsored mass murder operations find the enterprise satisfying or even easy. The architects of the Holocaust understood that some Germans might find killing Jews day after day distasteful even if they did it and, after trying various methods of killing, these architects organized the murder operations so that the process would run efficiently, smoothly and quietly, and be as untaxing psychologically as possible on the killers themselves -- at least on the killers who, in fact, found it taxing. Interestingly, in a book that has received considerable notice in recent weeks -- Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust -- the author, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, argues that, in general, Germans didn't find killing Jews to be as taxing as most have assumed. He also argues that far more Germans participated in the killing operations than most have believed, and that many of these Germans didn't have to be coerced, psychologically or socially, to do it. Dr. Goldhagen paints a picture of a German society so distorted by a murderous, virulent, eliminationist and ultimately exterminationist anti-Semitism -- developed over many years from the traditional roots of anti-Semitism, but accentuated and rendered official by the Nazi state -- that killing Jews was seen not only as something that was not evil but even as something that was good and necessary. And this permission to kill was accepted so broadly, he argues, that many Germans ultimately killed Jews with pride and pleasure, and even killed when they didn't have to do so -- not only SS. officers but also ordinary soldiers and police, and with the widespread knowledge of the German population as a whole. Germany became, he suggests, an assenting genocidal community during the Nazi era. For presenting this scathing and unrelenting thesis, Dr. Goldhagen, an assistant professor at Harvard, has been widely hailed and widely criticized. His scholarship is being subjected to considerable scrutiny, and ultimately the bar of scholarly opinion will pass judgment on his work. But even if one is discomfited by Dr. Goldhagen's explosive and unremitting indictment of German society during and before the Nazi era, he stresses a dimension of explanation that is often left out by theorists who try to account for the Holocaust in purely psychological terms. None of the psychological mechanisms that have been described would make people into killers unless these mechanisms were used to make it possible to carry out acts that were justified on ideological grounds. For one group to kill another, the killers must feel that their victims deserve death, that their victims are evil and dangerous, and that if those victims are not killed then they, in turn, will harm the killers, the families of the killers and the societies of the killers. Leaders of various warring factions in the former Yugoslavia have stressed to their populations the dangers posed by their ethnic enemies and so did tribal leaders in Rwanda, who incited widespread ethnic massacres two years ago by using the argument that the other tribe had harmful designs on theirs. These are the kinds of beliefs that are fostered by prejudice, most stunningly, hatefully and murderously by the kind of anti-Semitism that was promoted in Germany. And these are the kinds of beliefs that are promoted by various national groups that carry out forms of "ethnic cleansing" to rid their areas of "foreign elements" that might harm the interests of the killing group. Once this ideology of hatred and irrational fear takes hold in a country such as Bosnia or Rwanda, the psychological mechanisms previously described make it easier to do the killing, to feel that one has not done something evil, and even to feel that one has done something virtuous. All this is strange, and all too human. Although the Holocaust remains unique in its supposedly scientifically sanctioned racial focus, its mechanized ferocity, and the degree to which a culturally advanced civilization sank to the most profound depths of human depravity, it teaches resonant lessons about the ways that ideological hatred and psychological mechanisms, given free rein by the systematic dismantling of democratic freedoms, can result in mass death. It is for this reason that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington explores deeply the roots of prejudice, shows how democratic institutions and practices can be taken apart and explains how leaders bent on anti-human practices can bring them to murderous reality. The genocides in the former Yugoslavia were very different from the Holocaust in scale, method, ideology and organization, but we can learn a great deal about them by learning about the Holocaust. This is why the Holocaust Museum seeks to understand the genocidal process. And this is why it pays close attention to signs of burgeoning genocide around the world and has just established the Committee on Conscience to alert the world to possible genocides and crimes against humanity. And this is why it seeks to help Americans as well as others appreciate the value of democracy, which, in the end, is the political system that most stoutly protects our lives and our society from the development of ideologies of prejudice that can turn vibrant civilizations into societies of hatred and machines of automated murder. It's impossible to guarantee that the earth's soil will never again heave with massacred bodies. But it's unacceptable not to try. --------------------------------------------------------------------------- Walter Reich, a psychiatrist, is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington This article was originally published in the Dallas Morning News on 28 April 1996.
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