It’s hard to imagine that a whole race of people can be forgotten. But if no one chooses to remember them, genocide can mean just that, leaving a large hole in our history and dooming future minorities to be treated in the same way.
Before the invasion of Poland, Hitler is quoted as saying, “Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?” He was referring to the annihilation of over one million Christian Armenians by the Ottoman Government in Turkey in the early 20th century.
It is a solemn lesson that the failure to account for atrocity inflicted on a people, let alone remember it, is harmful to more than the affected communities. It is a message to future dictators and tyrants that they may be free to do the same.
It is perhaps one reason why Hitler felt unconstrained in subjecting the Jews and Gypsies of Europe to one of the darkest episodes in modern history.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, on 27 January, marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. It serves to remind us of the horrors that were inflicted by Nazi Germany, but its meaning is deeper and broader still.
The Holocaust shocked the world and contributed significantly to the development of complex, if not always – or often – respected systems of international human rights and criminal justice.
Reference to the term genocide first appeared in the work of the scholar, Raphael Lemkin, in 1944. It so succinctly and comprehensively described the concept of the physical or biological destruction of entire human groups that by the end of that decade it was the subject of an international treaty expressing universal condemnation of any state or person engaging in its practice.
The Holocaust was not the first atrocity we would now describe as genocide; such crimes are really as old as humanity itself. Even in modern history predating the Second World War, many episodes of mass violence against human groups come to mind: Armenia, the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines, the forced removal and extermination of American Indians, the German extermination of the Herero in Namibia to name but a few.
Neither was the Holocaust the last such atrocity. Despite the fierce commitment of the international community following the Second World War to develop international human rights and to seek to maintain – under the umbrella of the United Nations – an international peace and security, such mass atrocity has been occurring with disturbing regularity.
The killing fields of Cambodia, the inter-ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, are mere examples of why remembering and taking action against such atrocities remain so important.
Marking the Holocaust with a formal remembrance day has not been without controversy. When it was introduced in the United Kingdom a decade ago, it was criticised as focusing too much on one event as reflecting the sum of such inhumanity. Why not mark the Armenian or Rwandan genocides, or other atrocities and mass abuse?
It is true that there is a danger in singling out the Holocaust for remembrance when so many other atrocities, genocides, mark the landscape of modern history and the present. Rather, Holocaust Remembrance Day should stand as a symbol of all such atrocities.
This is in fact what the United Nations General Assembly had in mind when it adopted its resolution that all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, whenever they occur, should be condemned “without reserve”. The Assembly called for a remembrance of past crimes with an eye towards preventing them in the future.
This is the key to such commemorative activities. Of course, they should serve as remembrance for what has passed – we must never forget. They should also serve to raise consciousness, to inform policy and legal developments that can contribute to fighting the impunity with which such horrific crimes are still committed.
In this way, Holocaust Remembrance Day belongs to the victims of the Holocaust and to all victims of atrocity.