yom hashoah: how mass atrocities end

Today is Yom HaShoah; for my non-Tribal readership, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For global Jewry, Yom HaShoah is a day of mourning, to reflect on the deaths of 5.7 million Jews during the Second World War. In true form, Holocaust Remembrance Day is also a day of communal resilience, inspired by the splendor of a still-vibrant Jewish culture, history, and people, sixty-seven years after its impending destruction. As Jewish life in the United States has become increasingly secularized, Yom HaShoah’s resilience theme has adopted a universal tone. Holocaust Remembrance Day has shifted towards Genocide Prevention Month, applying the moral lessons of the Holocaust to past genocides, future atrocities, and the collective challenge of confronting them.

As I’ve discussed before, the past three decades of public Holocaust memory, commemoration, and remembrance have created an unwavering morality of atrocities response, manifested in the present-day atrocities prevention movement’s ethical posture. However, the texture of Holocaust discourse has transformed. Millennials are two generations removed from the waning community of Holocaust survivors, and compelling stories of humanity’s moral failures are more likely to emerge from former child soldiers in Uganda, youth activists in Bosnia, and genocide survivors in Rwanda. Compare, for example, two liberal-interventionist-minded pieces: the first, by the late Tony Judt, calling for the deployment of a large-scale force to halt atrocities in Kosovo; the second, by Marc Lynch, calling for the implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya. Writing in 1999, Judt draws the often-used comparison between Hitler’s genocidal violence against Central and Eastern European Jewry and Slobodan Milosevic’s atrocities in Kosovo. In Lynch’s moral plea, meanwhile, Hitler is nowhere to be found–the Bosnia/Rwanda/Kosovo comparison, instead, is Lynch’s defining clause. There is a sense that, post-Godwin’s Law, Holocaust comparisons are off-limits, packed away in a moral chart of humanity’s worst atrocities.

Perceptions of the Holocaust’s uniqueness are not confined to the ethical realm–the field of political science and empirical observation, too, spends little time questioning, considering, and probing the institutions, incentives, and organizational characteristics of the Nazi genocide. Jay Ulfelder and Ben Valentino’s atrocities dataset (ungated)–as far as I can tell, the more comprehensive quantitative reckoning with mass atrocities–starts with political repression in postwar Eastern Europe, omitting the varied atrocities against Jewish populations in the “bloodlands” and Central Europe. From a quantitative perspective, the omission of the Holocaust makes sense: as a historical event, the Third Reich’s atrocities are difficult to disaggregate; the dynamics of local, regional, national, and international politics arguably shift during the post-1945 period, due to “revolutions” in international institutions, military affairs, global polarity, and the politics of ideological action; and, frankly, you have to start somewhere, and the aftermath of an unfathomable atrocity is as good as any.

But, from a qualitative perspective, the Holocaust may yield a more instructive guide to atrocities termination than we usually consider. Crafting a case study on atrocities termination and the Holocaust is nigh impossible–with few exceptions, more literature has been published on the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and the Second World War than any other subject, and the Nazi genocide is more accurately described as a aggregation of infinite cases. At the same time, in an effort to remove the pale of abstraction from our policy understanding of the Holocaust, here are a couple of conclusions on atrocities termination, atrocities intelligence, and Holocaust memory:

Technology is important, but atrocities result from the mobilization of human institutions: In describing the Rwandan genocide, Jeffrey Herbst differentiates between the mass mobilization of Hutu genocidaires, and the Holocaust’s “industrial process” of mass killing. However, as Timothy Snyder has observed in his remarkable revisionist history of mass killing during the Second World War, the Holocaust was both a technological, industrial atrocity and a counter-technological one. That is, death-by-bullets played an equally prominent role in the near-extermination of Eastern European Jewry as did Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Chelmno, and Belzec death camps. In six months, between June 1941 and the end of the same year, German Einsatzgruppen, Romanian militias, and local paramilitary forces killed over one million Jews–as Snyder observes, the same quantity as had perished in Auschwitz throughout the war. Human institutions–the Einsatzgruppen, low-level Nazi leadership, local Quislings–defined the Holocaust’s implementation throughout the former Pale of Settlements, in addition to the more-frequently-cited industrial infrastructure of genocide.

Assessing capability and intent is challenging, even after-the-fact: Throughout the past three decades, few historiographical debates have transfixed the Holocaust research community more than the functionalist/intentionalist divide: when did the Nazi regime plan the Holocaust, and why? As with most historiographical debates, the consensus has fallen somewhere in the middle–the “Final Solution,” which began in 1942, was a planned characteristic of the Nazi ideology, but would not have existed in the absence of the Second World War, the political threats and opportunities associated with Operation Barbarossa, and the internal politics of Nazi rule. If historians remain divided in their retrospective assessment of Nazi intentions, one can imagine the challenge of strategic analysis during the atrocity, particularly given the paucity of the U.S. and British intelligence communities during the Second World War. Intelligence existed–particularly through Jan Karski and his compatriots in the Polish government-in-exile–but the scope, scale, and future trajectory of the Nazi genocide remained unclear. As Andrew Exum recently observed, the absence of certainty, combined with existing biases, perceptions, and organizational inertia, poses a distinct challenge for the policymaking process. Strategic uncertainty surrounding atrocities intelligence–an unavoidable characteristic of policymaking institutions–may manifest itself as moral failure, as in the case of the Holocaust.

Moral questions aside, external intervention’s effectiveness is rarely clear: Fueled by David Wyman’s historical work on U.S. responses to the Holocaust, a lively discussion has persisted on the counterfactual effectiveness, moral appropriateness, and historical value of “bombing Auschwitz.” As the David Wyman Institute has demonstrated, a broad base of Jewish organizations, including global leadership of the Zionist movement, supported the deployment of U.S. force to halt operations as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Throughout the postwar period, Auschwitz intervention advocates pointed to the release of reconnaissance imagery as an indication of U.S. capacity–and unwillingness–to bomb the Nazi extermination facilities. However, as Richard Levy has controversially observed, the operational and command dynamics of prospective U.S. Auschwitz bombings remained opaque. When considered in the context of Operation Reinhard and the continued perpetration of atrocities against Jewish populations throughout Eastern Europe, the utility of external military intervention–outside the context of the U.S. conflict against Nazi Germany–is not readily apparent.

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