Back in the 1700s, the great French writer pen-named Voltaire (really François-Marie Arouet) wrote this: "The history of the great events of this world is hardly more than the history of crimes."
Well, it's a debatable point, perhaps, but whoever takes a view opposite of Voltaire's inevitably will lose.
What is vital for the future of humanity is that we understand in detail how these crimes happened, who failed to stop them and why.
Which is one of the reasons the Holocaust cannot be glossed over. It is the horrifying details, the moral collapse of a great nation, the step-by-step process -- well thought out in advance -- that produced the state-sponsored murder of six million Jews in Europe and millions of others as well.
Recently I've been reading a fascinating book that ultimately focuses on the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. There, for the first time in human history, leaders of a nation, Germany, were on trial for crimes that were described by terms never before used in court -- crimes against humanity and genocide. The book, badly named (because it tells you essentially nothing about the book's subject) East West Street, by Philippe Sands, tells the story of two men from the same eastern European town who came up with those terms, Hersch Lauterpacht (the first) and Raphael Lemkin (genocide).
It's a terrific read, and slipped in on page 166 is a description of the pattern the German authorities used to pull off their nearly successful goal of wiping out European Jewry.
"The first step," Sands writes as he describes the conclusions about all this that Lemkin drew, "was usually the act of denationalization, making individuals stateless by severing the link of nationality between Jews and the state, so as to limit the protection of the law. This was followed by 'dehumanization,' removing legal rights from members of the target group.
"The two-step pattern was applied across Europe. The third step was to kill the nation 'in a spiritual and cultural sense': Lemkin identified decrees from early 1941 pointing to the 'complete destruction' of the Jews in 'gradual steps.'
"Individually, each decree looked innocuous, but when they were taken together and examined across borders, a broader purpose emerged. Individual Jews were forced to register, wear a distinctive Star of David badge, a mark of easy identification, then move into designated areas, ghettos. Lemkin found the decrees creating the Warsaw ghetto (October 1940), then the Krakow ghetto (March 1941), noting the death penalty for those who left the ghettos without permission. 'Why the death penalty?' Lemkind enquired. A way of 'hastening' what was 'already in store.'
"Seizure of property rendered the group 'destitute' and 'dependent on rationing.' Decrees limited rations of carbohydrates and proteins, reducing the members of the group to 'living corpses.' Spirits broken, individuals became 'apathetic to their own lives,' subjected to forced labour that caused many deaths. For those who remained alive, there were further measures of 'dehumanization and disintegration' as they were left to await the 'hour of execution.'"
There it is. A pattern. A plan. A goal. In other genocides or other persecutions the steps may well be somewhat different. But the point is that those perpetrating the crimes have almost always thought through the process. Our job is to recognize what is happening and move to stop it before it can succeed and further stain human history.
(The map here of Poland, showing its borders in World War II, highlights, among other locations, the six death camps Germany built there. They are in orange type with a star. You can find this map in the book Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.)
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WHAT MADE ROTH SO GOOD
The death this week of the great author Philip Roth is a reminder of how religion can have an important, revelatory role in fiction. As The New Yorker, where Roth published his first stories, reported, "'Defender of the Faith,' his second piece for the magazine, prompted condemnations from rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League. 'His sin was simple: he'd had the audacity to write about a Jewish kid as being flawed,' David Remnick wrote in a profile of Roth, in 2000. 'He had violated the tribal code on Jewish self-exposure.'" Sometimes great literature comes because the authors turn state's evidence on themselves or their traditions.