Remembering the Holocaust and Justice At Nuremberg

The Holocaust went on from January 30, 1933 to May 8, 1945.  Yet it took 9 years for the world to recognize the atrocities on its fellow humans.  


by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

You are my witnesses…Isiah 43:10

( January 29, 2018, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Saturday 27th January was a reflective day for all of us.  It was the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day in 1945 The Russian Red Army liberated the largest Nazi concentration and death camp – Auschwitz-Birkenau. This came after a genocide that saw 6 million Jewish persons, 200,000 Romani’s, 250,000 mentally and physically handicapped people and over 9000 gays were slaughtered by the Nazi regime and its allies.  As a commemoration, the United Nations General Assembly on 1 November 2005 declared the 27th day of January of each year as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The main responsibility and culpability for this atrocious and bestial genocidal crime is ascribed to Adolf Hitler – leader of the Nazi Party – who, along with his collaborators, sought to expunge from Germany Jews – whom the Nazis called “money grubbing liars” and other “inferior” kinds of “human vermin”.  Hitler – an extreme socialist – wanted first to liberate Germany from these humans and secondly establish socialism in the country and expand its regime.  He had a willing collaborator in Italy – Benito Mussolini – who was a fascist who wanted to do the exact opposite of what Hitler wanted to do: first establish socialism and then expel or kill the unwanted and “inferior” human races.  However, seeing Hitler’s triumphs and successful exploitations, Mussolini capitulated and followed Hitler’s approach.

Dinesh D’Souza in his book The Big Lie (Regnery Publishing:2017) describes the Nazi concentration camp as resembling more a prison than a slave plantation.: “The typical concentration camp had a barracks, a workshop, an administrative office, an infirmary, a jail, and a crematorium…the Nazi camps were also segregated by sex, while slave quarters were family dwellings containing men, women and children. Yet the actual physical contents of each compartment or cabin were quite similar: nothing more than a bed and blanket, a toilet or a bed pan and maybe a chair…In terms of food, the slaves were much better off since they received regular portions of meat and vegetables wile Nazi inmates got little more than thin gruel, bread and water”.

The experiences of these hapless victims  were unbelievably horrendous, and they were subjected to the most inhuman treatment, even before their extermination. Chaim Prinzental of Luck, Poland who was hiding in the forest after running away from a Nazi Camp in 1942 writes to his two children living in Palestine, in Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha.   “My dear son David – God knows if he is still alive – your mother was like a dove when they led her to the slaughter. I did not witness this with my own eyes; to my great pain and despair fate willed that I should abandon my dear wife and son and escape alone like a coward”.

The Holocaust went on from January 30, 1933 to May 8, 1945.  Yet it took 9 years for the world to recognize the atrocities on its fellow humans.  On 7 October 1942 President Roosevelt declared: “It is our intention that just and sure punishment shall be meted out to the ringleaders responsible for the organized murder of thousands of innocent persons in the commission of atrocities which have violated every tenet of the Christian faith”.  On 17 December, the Nazi atrocities were brought to the attention of the House of Commons by the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden.

Upon the defeat of the Third Reich by the United states, Britain and allies and the liberation of the concentration camps, an international court was established at Nuremberg, Germany which was mandated to bring to justice the war criminals guilty of crimes of genocide during the Holocaust.  The Nuremberg Court was primarily charged with defining what a war crime is and secondly to establish principles pertaining to this crime.  The principles, which were later adopted by the International Law Commission of the United Nations in 1950 provide inter alia; any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment; the fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law; the fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law;  the fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

The Principles, while entitling a person suspected of war crimes and genocide to a fair trial, go on to define war crimes as: violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill treatment or deportation to slave-labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

Crimes against humanity are defined as: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, when such acts are committed or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.

Western democracies, particularly after World War II and the Nuremberg trials which ensured punishment for those responsible for the organized murder of thousands of innocent persons by the commission of atrocities during the war, have been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure human rights.  This has led to a gradual evolution where focus on collective rights of national minorities has replaced earlier emphasis on individual rights.

The protection of human rights is the most significant and important task for a modern State, particularly since multi ethnic States are the norm in today’s world.  Globalization and increased migration across borders is gradually putting an end to the concept of the nation State, although resistance to reality can be still seen in instances where majority or dominant cultures impose their identity and interests on groups with whom they share a territory.  In such instances, minorities frequently intensify their efforts to preserve and protect their identity, in order to avoid marginalization. Polarization between the opposite forces of assimilation on the one hand and protection of minority identity on the other inevitably causes increased intolerance and eventual armed ethnic conflict.  In such a scenario, the first duty of governance is to ensure that the rights of a minority society are protected.

At the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September 2001, the Conference, referring to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, urged States to implement or strengthen legislation and administrative measures prohibiting racial discrimination and related intolerance.

One has to look at the Holocaust and the Nuremberg Principles in the modern context.  Although, at Nuremberg the World said “ never again” there are persecutions, torture and mass killings going on in the world which have been classified as  “genocide”. Truth and justice are unhappily mutually exclusive.  While in legal terms, legislative parameters will define acts and qualitize their reprehensibility, in truth, speech and conduct that ingratiate themselves to a society have to be addressed politically.  This is the dilemma that legislators face in dealing with racial discrimination. Racial discrimination   primarily erodes ethical boundaries and convey an unequivocal message of contempt and degradation.  The operative question then becomes ethical, as to whether societal mores would abnegate their vigil and tolerate some members of society inciting their fellow citizens   to degrade, demean and cause indignity to other members of the very same society, with the ultimate aim of harming them.   Conversely, the question arises as to whether   there is any obligation on a society to actively protect all its members from indignity and physical harm caused by hatred.  The answer to both these questions lies in the fundamental issue of restrictions on racial hatred and discrimination and the indignity that one would suffer in living in a society that might tolerate such discrimination.  Obviously, a society committed to protecting principles of social and political equality cannot   look by and passively endorse such atrocities, and much would depend on the efficacy of a State’s coercive mechanisms.  These mechanisms must not only be punitive,   but should also be sufficiently compelling to ensure that members of a society not only respect a particular law but also internalize the effects of their proscribed acts.

The intrinsic value to a society and perhaps to the whole world, of eschewing racial and national discrimination is portrayed in the aftermath of the Holocaust – the defining event of the last  century.  Human rights in our lifetime cannot be comprehended without touching our own conceptual proximity to this and other recent events which marred the dignity of human civilization.  The result of the Holocaust was the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which has now stood its ground over the past 50 plus years.  The Universal Declaration, which has flourished both internationally and nationally, has been supplemented by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1966. Both the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant have committees established to oversee their implementation.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is composed of 30 articles which asserts a human being’s just rights to civilized and dignified living.  In this context, we are traversing a thin line between genuine, acceptable processes of profiling possible criminal elements and the danger of racial and national discrimination.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.

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