"Sadly, the Jews are not alone" – Remembering two other genocides

Purpose statement

To demonstrate that the Jewish Holocaust was unfortunately not an aberration of history and raise the question of why we remember it almost exclusively.

Thesis

While there have been other episodes of mass killings in the last century, the Jewish Holocaust has been remembered above all others.

Introduction

Since you surprised me last week with your favorable response, I'd like to tackle a related but difficult issue. One of the questions raised by the dispossession of the Palestinians is how the Israelis have been able to "get away with it". What is it that makes Israel's invasion and occupation of Arab land any different from Germany's invasion of Poland or Iraq's invasion of Kuwait?

I suggest it is because the Jews are seen as having suffered uniquely and so they therefore deserve our sympathy, even support but today I want to point out that sadly, the suffering of the Jews is not unique. I want to share with you some of what I've learned about other national groups that have been traumatized and yet their national nightmares have been largely forgotten. In particular, we'll look briefly at just two:

  • the man-made famine in the Ukraine of 1932-33, and
  • the genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915.

Then I'll suggest some reasons why we do remember the Holocaust and not the others.

Before I start though, let me make it absolutely clear, lest there be any misunderstanding, that in no way do I seek to minimize the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. It was a tragedy of mind-numbing proportions and I accept the figure offered on the web site of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum that 6 million Jews perished under the Nazis. However, I do believe we do need to spare some thoughts for other victims of tyranny too and recognize that Israel may have an interest in keeping the memory of their Holocaust alive.

Body

OTHER NATIONAL TRAUMAS

Since it happened only 6 years ago, I'll assume you know of the Rwandan genocide and lack of time prevents us remembering the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge 1975-78, the evil that Pakistani troops brought upon what is now Bangladesh in 1971, the massacres of Communists and their families in Indonesia in 1965, China’s "Great Leap Forward" of 1958-61 which left somewhere between 20 and 30 million people dead and the atrocities of the Japanese in China, particularly the "Rape of Nanjing" in 1937. Of course, there were others in earlier times too.

THE MAN-MADE FAMINE IN THE UKRAINE OF 1932-33

  • MAP
  • While the Cambodian crisis was known to the outside world to some degree, the famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 was largely hidden
  • Ukraine is now an independent country but it was part of the former Soviet Union
  • At various times in its history it has been controlled by Hungarians, Poles and Russian but it won its independence in 1918 and was able to hang on until 1921 when it was incorporated in to the Soviet Union.
  • To cope with the Ukrainians and other national groups, the Russians in the 1920s adopted a policy of granting some freedoms to the areas they controlled to give them the appearance of nationhood while real power was retained by Moscow.
  • Unfortunately, this policy worked too well for the Russians. Prominent Ukrainian leaders returned from exile and Ukrainian culture blossomed. Even the Ukrainian Communist Party started agitating in Moscow for better representation in the government and a more equal relationship with Russia.
  • This situation was intolerable to Stalin, so he set out to crush Ukrainian nationalism by killing Ukrainians.
  • As well as the arrest, deportation and execution of the cultural elite, production quotas for agricultural commodities were boosted beyond what could be produced.
  • No food kept for local consumption until the requirements of the Procurement Plan had been met. Seed to be planted for the next crop was confiscated and communist party officials scoured the countryside looking for hidden supplies.
  • Ukrainian borders were sealed so that it was not possible for Ukrainians to get out, or food to come in.
  • In a report to the US Congress in 1988, the Commission puts the death toll "in the millions". Various figures between 3 and 8 million have been given, putting it on the same scale, perhaps larger, than the Jewish Holocaust.
  • However, it is very difficult to get an accurate picture. Soviet statistics of the time were as much for propaganda as keeping records. After the 1937 Census found too few people, the managers of the operation were arrested and some were executed. Those who conducted the 1939 Census were not shot, so it is reasonable to assume that their figures were more to Stalin's liking.
  • Overall though, Stalin's campaign against the Ukrainians was only part of his ongoing terror that lasted decades. In a paper published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, it is estimated that Hitler caused the death of 16 million people, not including combat fatalities and this includes the 6 million Jews of the Holocaust. As monstrous as this is, it is estimated that more than double that number, 34.4 million, or more than the entire population of California, perished in Mao's China, while an incredible 42.7 million died under Stalin, the population of California, Oregon AND Washington.
Modern Ukraine.

THE GENOCIDE OF THE ARMENIANS BY THE OTTOMAN TURKS IN 1915

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  • The prelude to both Hitler and Stalin was the suffering of the Armenians under the Ottoman Turks in the years leading up to 1915. Indeed, without the Armenian Genocide, the others may not have occurred. Hitler is quoted in 1939, before unleashing his terror on Eastern Europe that, "After all, who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?" He was expecting no opposition.
  • Like Palestine, what is now Armenia, was controlled by the Turks during World War 1.
  • Persecution of the Orthodox Christian Armenians by the Muslim Turks started well before the war but when war came, there was concern that the Armenians might turn against them. The war then provided the pretext for the Turks ridding themselves of the "Armenian question" and so in 1915, they drove the Armenians from their homes at gunpoint and started them on a death march east toward Syria and Mesopotamia.
  • Henry Morgenthau, the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time said, "The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915½.
  • Testimony in 1996 to a hearing before the Committee on International Relations, says that 1½ million died along the way. This out of a pre-war population of about 2 million.
Modern Turkey. Modern Armenia is on its eastern border.

WHY THE OTHERS WERE FORGOTTEN

What makes the Holocaust unique then? It sadly wasn't the only genocide, the first, or even perhaps the largest. I believe the Holocaust is unique and we remember it for these reasons:

  • The killing of the Jews was concentrated and mechanized. In other cases, people starved in their homes and were worked to death in the fields or shot by the side of the road. Though there were prison camps and execution centers such as the notorious "S 21" in Cambodia, they were not on the scale of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The end result was the same though not so easy to photograph.
  • The Jewish Holocaust was very well documented and it was documented at the time. The Allies overran the concentration camps at the end of the war and many prisoners were still alive. There was no way to hide what had happened. This was certainly not the case for the other major episodes this century. The Nazis also kept meticulous records which helped. The perpetrators were brought to justice and a deliberate effort was made to understand what happened. Sadly there was no equivalent of the Nuremburg Trials for the other mass killings. Stalin and Pol Pot both died of natural causes. We should welcome then efforts by the United Nations to bring to justice those who committed "crimes against humanity" in the Balkans and Rwanda. These efforts are long overdue and may discourage future tyrants.
  • At the risk of criticism, I suggest to you that the Holocaust is promoted for political ends. You may find this concept offensive. So do I. However, it serves Israel’s national interest to be thought of as a victim, so that human rights abuses against the Palestinians and confiscation of their property can be portrayed to the uncritical as being necessary for defence.
  • I mentioned earlier that 16 million non-combatants died under Hitler. We remember the Holocaust as a Jewish experience but the Nazis also killed 3 million Soviet POWs, 2 million Soviet civilians, a million Poles, a million Yugoslavs, plus Gypsies, handicapped people and homosexuals. Why don’t we remember them too? Possibly it is because we are not constantly reminded.
  • According to the Center for Responsive Politics, "pro-Israel" groups made political contributions of $5.3 million in the 1998 election cycle. The figures for the current election are not available yet. This is more than double what the gun-lobby gave in the same period. One can argue that in addition to securing economic and military aid for Israel, it also buys government funds and recognition for the Holocaust Memorial Museum. To my knowledge, there is no similar museum for other victim groups.
  • Indeed, it seems the Israelis fight any comparison between their suffering and that of anyone else, lest their Holocaust no longer be seen as unique. You might have thought they, more than anyone, would be sympathetic to the Armenian cause but there was an article in the Jerusalem Post last year titled "Armenia asks Israel to recognize Turkish genocide".
  • A visit to the Holocaust Museum in Israel is an expected stop on the visit of every foreign dignitary to the country. You’ll recall that the Pope went there on his visit. Conversely, Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, created an uproar when he visited Har Homa in 1998, a Jewish housing project in occupied East Jerusalem, drawing attention to illegal settlements. This was not the image that Israel wants to project to the world.
  • We are often reminded of the plight of the Jews in the news, movies such as Fiddler on the Roof, Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful and events such as the recent exhibition at the Denver Museum of Natural History. I wish I had time to investigate this further. Other groups don’t get such extensive and ongoing publicity but then, they don’t have such an interest in making sure we don’t forget.

Conclusion

We must remember the Holocaust and the Jews who died in it. To be human demands that we be able to recognize the suffering of others. However, we must realize that the Jews are not alone in their misfortune and that concentrating on their suffering diverts our attention from their oppression of the Palestinians.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all the episodes of mass killings is how "ordinary people" like us, have taken part in the massacres, either directly in the shootings or denials of another’s rights, or indirectly by turning away instead of confronting evil. Martin Luther King wrote in his "Birmingham Jail letter" that, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.".

Let us remember them all. We must be on our guard against anyone promoting ideas that our problems are caused by some other group, whether they be blacks, Moslems, Jews, immigrants or whoever. Never again.

Bibliography

Government Document
"Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine, 1932-33: Report to Congress [The] Commission on the Ukrainian Famine"
22 April 1998
US Government Printing Office (ISBN: 0-16-052947-6)

Book with more than one author
Robert Conquest, Dana Dalrymple, James Mace and Michael Novak
"The Man-Made Famine in the Ukraine"
1984
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
(ISBN 0-8447-3552-3)

Book with more than one author
The Editors of the Ukrainian Weekly (yes, they could be biased)
"The Great Famine in the Ukraine: the unknown holocaust"
1983
Svoboda Press

Internet web site
Gerald W. Scully, "Murder by the State"
National Center for Policy Analysis
September 1997
http://www.public-policy.org/~ncpa/studies/s211/s211.html

Government Document
"The History of the Armenian Genocide: Hearing before the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives."
15 May 1996
US Government Printing Office

Book with more than one author
Haim Bresheeth, Stuart Hood, Kitza Jansz "Introducing the Holocaust"
1997
Totem Books

Internet Web Site
Author not cited. "Affirmation of the Armenian Genocide".
Published by the Armenian Assembly of America (yes, they have a bias)
1999
http://www.aaainc.org/genocideintro.htm

General resource for Armenian genocide:
http://oingo.com/topic/47/47094.html
links to everywhere.

Internet Web Site
The web site for the United States Holocaust Memorial
http://www.ushmm.org

Internet Web Site
Marilyn Henry. "Armenia asks Israel to recognize the Turkish genocide".
Origninally published in the Jerusalem Post, 22 April 1999
http://www.post-boks.dk/mrw/armenia_asks_israel_to_recognize-e.html

Internet Web Site
Author not cited. "British official's Jerusalem visit creates uproar".
CNN
March 16, 1998
http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9803/16/israel.tensions/index.html

Internet Web Site
Joseph Fitchett. "U.K.-Israel Tiff Puts Settlements Back in Spotlight".
Originally published in the International Herald Tribune
Undated but around time of Robin Cook's visit, March 1998
http://www.http://www.iht.com/IHT/DIPLO/98/jf031998.html

Internet web site
Author not cited (no text, just figures and standard footer)
"Pro-Israel: Long-term contribution trends"
The Center for Responsive Politics
http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.asp?Ind=Q05

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