Wednesday, November 3, 2010

One Hundred Years



In 1987, Roger Smith used the term "a century of genocide" in his article, "Human Destructiveness and Politics: The 20th Century as an Age of Genocide." A year later, Israel Charny used the same term in his contribution to The Study of Genocide.

And it's understandable why Smith and Charny would label the twentieth century the century of genocide: the twentieth century saw the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Holodomor, and the Armenian genocide shortly after the turn of the century. But they were also prescient - Charny and Smith published their articles well before the genocide of the Hutu in Burundi, the oft-overlooked genocide that preceeded the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, and the genocides in Darfur, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

But now we're in the twenty-first century. Is the century of genocide over, or are we beginning a second one? I have little to base this prediction on but the same information about world events that anyone reading this also has access to, but I believe that we are headed for another hundred years of the same, and unless our international bodies are willing to put teeth, time, and money into their conventions and treaties, they are unlikely to be prevented. As Century of Genocide's editors point out, the same arguments over definitions and obligation that began after World War II continue today.

Century collects scholarly research about selected genocides and presents them, along with historical context, causes, and eyewitness testimony (some written, some collected through interviews). What is most valuable about this book is its inclusion of those genocides that have not received worldwide attention or as much scholarly analysis as others. Century does include a chapter on the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the genocide in Rwanda, but it also includes a chapter on the holocaust of the Gypsies in Germany and Germany's T-4 program, which mobilized hospitals, doctors, and nurses to exterminate handicapped, disabled, or otherwise "undesirable" patients.

This topic often gets short shrift in other works about the Holocaust, and the research included here shows why - Germany is still invested in hiding it. Compared to the relatively meticulous records the Nazis kept about the number of people who died in concentration camps and extermination campaigns in Germany and eastern Europe, the number of those killed under the T-4 campaign is still inexact. Estimates, based on records not found until the early 90s, range from 70,000 to 120,000, although more recent evidence, including work performed by Dr. Leo Alexander, a member of the Office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes at Nuremberg, puts the number at 275,000 (consider the comparison of the number of mental patients - which could range from someone with schizophrenia to someone with a lisp - in Germany before and after WWII - 300,000 versus 40,000).

Why such a broad range, and so little information? Unlike the effort to exterminate the Jews, the majority of those killed under the T-4 program were Germans, and the German government had a vested interest in keeping the numbers hidden. Furthermore, the definition of 'disabled' was stretched to include even those with minor disabilities, such as children with speech defects. Although the architect of the T-4 program, Dr. Karl Brandt, was hanged at Nuremberg, many of the physicians involved in euthanizing patients under his program continued to practice after the war, and the German medical community, unlike other groups in Germany involved in the Holocaust, did not, has not, and as far as I can predict, never will offer an apology, admission of guilt, or statement of responsibility for the death of those in the care of the medical community before, during, and after World War II. In fact, as recently as the mid-80s, German doctors researching T-4 were shut out of the medical community and effectively preventing from continuing their career in Germany.

Another 'forgotten' genocide that Century covers is the genocide of the Hereros, a South African tribe, by Britain in the 1940s. As Britain fought one genocidal power in Europe, it carried out its own genocide in South Africa, with a deliberate campaign of extermination, both physical and cultural, of the Herero. Britain's army reduced a tribe of 80,000 to roughly 20,000, built a network of 'detention' camps (concentration camps by another name) and used a campaign of torture, imprisonment, and murder, largely without any notice by the international community.

Century also includes a chapter on the genocide in East Timor, the genocide in Bangladesh by Pakistan in the 1970s, and the Burundi genocide, which are subjects that are often overlooked in genocide studies. The book does show its age (it was published in 1997) with an afterword titled "Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina?," a question which has since been settled (yes, it was.). But this is helpful, in that it raises some of the questions that surrounded the Darfurian genocide - is it? If it is, what do we do? And how can we continue to debate it until it's safely over and we don't have to do anything?

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