Genocide

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Volume 23

editorWhile on a recent holiday to Krakow, Poland, I took the opportunity to visit nearby Auschwitz, where at least 1.1 million people were exterminated by the Nazis, 90% of them Jews. No matter how familiar you are with the background to the ‘Final Solution’, nothing prepares you for the reality on the ground. The claustrophobia of Auschwitz I, a converted Polish army barracks, with its punishment cells and administrative offices, is in stark contrast to the wide open spaces of the purpose-built Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which seemed to go on for ever. This was murder on an industrial scale.

Everything in the camps was designed to kill people—from the suffocating cattle wagons that brought victims there from all over Nazi-occupied Europe to the inadequate diet, accommodation and hygiene, and the final agonising deaths in the gas chambers (it took nearly twenty minutes). But what if the Nazis had succeeded in murdering every Jew in Europe? (They managed to kill half of them.) Who would then be the scapegoats for the problems of German society? Why did the Nazis on the one hand systematically photograph each new arrival, leaving a huge corpus of evidence, and on the other attempt to cover up their crimes by destroying the camps before the Red Army arrived? The lies and cynicism involved were staggering, from the cruel comedy of the inscription over the gate—Arbeit macht frei (Work will make you free)—to the fact that victims, thinking that they were to be ‘resettled’, bought their own train tickets to get there.

In 1944 the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined a new word, genocide, to describe what was happening. Four years later the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Since then the term has been applied to other situations, sometimes retrospectively, for example to Armenia in 1915–18 and our own Potato Famine. But how appropriate is this? The key word in the Convention is ‘intent’. I’ll leave readers to argue whether this has been established in the Armenian case (see Letters), but as I listened to our guide, Vitold, relate the grim details of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’, I couldn’t help but conclude that, notwithstanding British culpability for the millions of victims of the Famine in Ireland, genocide it was not.

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