Blind spots of history

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Blind spots
Illustration: GuruG

Recently, the gunning down of a group of villagers was termed a ‘genocide’ by the West Bengal Chief Minister. Whether the term was used accurately is beside the point, but what is germane is the historical continuities or changes in the semantic scope of concepts and terms (a field called ‘conceptual history’) employed.

The latest usage of the term, first written up in the form of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), calls upon us to see how historical events get elided in later narratives.

Nuremberg Trials 

The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal of 1946 remains the iconic moment of a transnational campaign for justice against an entire nation-state – Germany – for ‘crimes against humanity’. In fact, the Trials were legalised actions by a set of victorious nations against a losing nation. As the stirring speeches of François de Menthon, the French lead prosecutor, Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor, and others sought to convince everyone, this was the greatest trial in human history because, as Jackson put it, ‘This trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspirations to do justice’ (see hisThe Case Against the Nazi War Criminals: Opening Statement for the United States of America, 1946).

Thus, the Trial was for humanity, for posterity, and against a specific nation-state. The scope of the Trials was expanded so that History (with a capital H) would judge not only the events and actions of the Nazis but also of those trying to ensure justice, as Jackson’s statement implies. It sought to show that the Nazi crimes were singular, unheard of and precisely, therefore, unforgivable.

While in no way mitigating the crimes of Nazi Germany, the blind spots of history when assuming the Nazis were unique in what they did, as the Trial’s prosecuting documents and speeches emphasise, are rather awkward, and are the blind spots of history.

Again and Again

Modern-day genocides did not, as is commonly believed, originate with the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan in their book, The Spectre of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective (2003) begin their account of 20th century genocide, appropriately, with the Armenian one (1915-1917), and go on to list several after Nazi Germany.

The Armenian demand that their massacre be termed a ‘genocide’ has met with stiff resistance from the Turkish government. In a different key, the enforced famine (1932-33), called Holodomor, in the Ukraine during the Stalinist regime, resulted in the death of six million – and the Ukrainians have been asking for it to be termed a genocide.

The tragic irony of modern human history is  that the slogan raised after the Holocaust ‘Never Again’ has also been repeated time and again, in the form of Nunca Más, Argentina’s report of the same title on the disappearance of thousands of citizens during the ‘Dirty War’ (1976-1983). The report, Brasil: Nunca Mais about Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-79) echoed the Argentinian text. The slogan was employed later in Rwanda as well (1994). The ‘Never Again’ obviously was never a slogan humanity has believed in.

Pre-Nazi Camps 

Among the most sustained images of the Nazi state are its notorious concentration camps. But even a cursory glance at the Wiki entry will tell us, such camps existed long before the Nazis ‘popularised’ it. The Smithsonian Magazine in 2017 carried a full essay, ‘Concentration Camps Existed Long Before Auschwitz’ (2017), and documented the Spanish camps in Cuba in which civilians were interned, in what the camps’ first proponent, the appropriately named Arsenio Martínez Campos, the governor-general, called ‘reconcentración’. During the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), such camps were commonplace.

And, the ‘camp principle’ did not end with the Nazis. British torture and internment camps in Kenya during the 1952-1960 uprising have now been brought to light, with the Museum of British Colonialism even putting together a 3-D model of these camps. In his Concentration Camps: A Short History, Dan Stone points the finger not at the Germans, but elsewhere, the largest Empire the world has ever seen, the British:

“one observes the same kind of peculiar British pride in being the originators of concentration camps as one sometimes encounters when discussing the occurrence of ‘total’ genocide in the British settler colony of Tasmania.”

The crucial point Stone makes is that the camps were extensions and variants of other models of internment:

“the use of reservations… island prisons designed to hold unwanted remnants of indigenous peoples. Quarantine and lazaret islands, leper colonies, workhouses, slavery plantations, and asylums…”

These were ‘places of exclusion’ and were ‘proto-concentration camps’, writes Stone. The often overlooked feature of Nazi Germany was its adaptation of other-European practices, such as the camps, for its own purposes. During the Herero-Nama War (1904-07), the German colonial government established camps called Konzentrationslager in which the death rate of the interned Herero was 45%. Stone makes the connection clear: ‘the British experience in their guerrilla war was regarded as some kind of guide by the Germans’. While acknowledging the differences between Nazi and earlier camps, the antecedents of these practices are important when mapping comparative histories of barbarism.

Before and Beyond the Nazis

The Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (who lost 49 family members in the Holocaust and published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in 1944) coined the term ‘genocide’, which became one of the legal bases for the Nuremberg Trials, to describe the campaign against the Jews. Lemkin said:

“The crime of the Reich in wantonly and deliberately wiping out whole peoples is not utterly new in the worldIt is only new in the civilized world as we have come to think of it. It is so new in the traditions of civilized man that he has no name for it.  It is for this reason that I took the liberty of inventing the word, “genocide.””

In 1951, a group presented to the United Nations a document ‘We Charge Genocide: The Crime of the Government Against the Negro People’ – and Lemkin rejected the view that America’s lynching and racist legislation were genocidal. ‘Genocide’, he implied, was not a term applicable to slavery, the Indian extermination and such.

This is where the plot thickens. The opening paragraph of an extremely disturbing book, Yale law professor’s James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017) goes thus:

“In 1934… the leading lawyers of Nazi Germany gathered at a meeting to plan what would become the Nuremberg Laws, the notorious anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi race regime… a stenographer was present to record a verbatim transcript, to be preserved by the ever-diligent Nazi bureaucracy as a record of a crucial moment in the creation of the new race regime … the meeting involved detailed and lengthy discussions of the law of the United States …the participants returned repeatedly to the American models of racist legislation in the course of their discussions. It is particularly startling to discover that the most radical Nazis present were the most ardent champions of the lessons that American approaches held for Germany.”

In 1935, Ludwig Fischer, who would eventually create the Warsaw Ghetto, would take 45 Nazi lawyers on a ‘study tour’ of America as a follow-up to the proclamation of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws.  Many German lawyers would study ‘American immigration law, American second-class citizenship law, and American anti-miscegenation and mongrelization law’ for implementation against the Jews in Germany.

Whitman’s meticulous work with the Nazi archive leads him to chronicle:

“The neglected history of Nazi efforts to mine American race law for inspiration during the making of the Nuremberg Laws, and to ask what it tells us about Nazi Germany, about the modern history of racism, and especially about America.”

The linkage, in Whitman’s book, is horrific:

“In the early twentieth century the United States was not just a country with racism. It was the leading racist jurisdiction—so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.”

Reich Citizenship Law

To take another example, we know of the Nazi emphasis on the purity of the Aryan race and how the state legislated against mixed-race liaisons. This is what the Nazi state drafted as the Reich Citizenship Law, some of whose terms are interesting for the object lesson they teach us even today:

“A Reich citizen is exclusively a national of German blood, or racially related blood, who demonstrates through his conduct that he is willing and suited to faithfully serve the German Volk and Reich…

Marriages between Jews and nationals of German blood or racially related blood are forbidden. If such marriages are nevertheless entered into they are null and void, even if they are concluded abroad in order to evade this law…

Extramarital intercourse between Jews and nationals of German blood or racially related blood is forbidden.”

What Whitman notes is that all of this was adapted from American segregationist laws where ‘American race laws were closely linked to eugenics; immigration and anti-miscegenation laws in particular were often described as measures related to the eugenic maintenance of a racially healthy population’. Whitman’s is a disquieting history of transnational racist models.

Transnational Histories of Barbarism

The larger point is: when history is written up and consumed, many similar-but-not-identical crimes are ignored, even though they ‘inspired’ each other in ideologies, social imaginaries and cultural-military practices aimed at extermination and/or containment of specific internal ‘enemies’. Human history is replete with these. So why have the Nazis been singled out? The politics of memory-making are responsible for this skewed interpretations.

The Turks drove the Armenians into the desert, causing them to die of hunger and thirst. The Hereros, also placed in concentration camps, died of starvation and abuse. We know what happened to the Jews. In the Ukraine, many, reports say, turned to cannibalism and the others died of hunger as Stalin prevented the foodgrains from reaching the region. ‘Specialised’ camps, of comfort women, were created for Japanese soldiers in Korea. The ‘rape of Nanjing’ is something Japanese do not wish to talk about, but are recalled when we look at Sudan’s ongoing rape camps and the rape camps of the Serbian war.

But other than these mass exterminations and cruelties, the forcible uprooting, confinement and in many cases massacres of the Native Americans are classified as ‘genocide’ by commentators. The systemic exploitation of the African Americans under the whip of slavery, scholars argue, is also a part of a history of genocide.

And how do we describe the Allied bombing of Dresden, or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki? W E B Du Bois, the African American activist, compared President Harry Truman (who took the decision to drop the A-bomb) to Adolf Hitler, and is believed to have observed that the A-bomb, designed to be used against a white race (Germans) by a white race (Americans) was never used on them, but was used on the Asian race.

We now perceive a continuity of such practices in the contemporary – from state-sponsored camps to secondary-citizenship laws, the renewed emphasis on the ‘purity’ of races, communities and castes, the war against mixed marriages, among others.

The iteration of historical terms alerts us to practices directed at a peoples, and should force us to acknowledge a truism: history repeats itself. That is precisely what is wrong with history.

Scars Remain

  • On April 7, 2021, France opened its archives as part of its efforts to more fully confront the French role in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The massacre had begun on this day in 1994
  • France’s role before and during the genocide was a “monumental failure” that the country must acknowledge, the lead author of a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron emphasised
  • The report, released in March, concluded that French authorities remained blind to the preparationsfor genocide
  • But it cleared the French of complicity in the slaughter that left over 8,00,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Tutsis and the Hutus
  • Israel commemorated the greatest calamity to befall the Jewish people in 2,000 years last week, as the country marked Holocaust Remembrance Day
  • China is being rebuked globally for cracking down on Uyghur Muslims by sending them to mass detention camps
  • The Nazis took inspiration from the USA when drafting its racist legislation

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)


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