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Remembering The Holocaust – When Abuse of Power And Hatred Met

Truth and justice are unhappily mutually exclusive.

4 mins read
This February/March 1945, file photo shows the entry to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, with snow covered rail tracks leading to the camp. (AP Photo/Stanislaw Mucha, File)

“Of course, it was, under the law of all civilized peoples, a crime for a man with his bare knuckles to assault another. How did it come that multiplying this crime by a million, and adding firearms to bare knuckles, made it a legally innocent act?” Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal (1945)

International Holocaust Remembrance Day fell on 27th January, as it does every year, in commemoration of the day in 1945 when  the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp – where in excess of  one million people were sent to gas chambers  to meet their agonizing deaths during the Holocaust – was liberated. One commentary says: “The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of millions of European Jews, Romani people, the intellectually disabled, political dissidents and homosexuals by the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. The word “holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar”.

One could not be blamed for thinking that the categories that the victims fell into –  as decided for extermination by the Nazis  – could have been described by the Nazi regime as “useless vermin” (particularly in the context of how they were disposed of)  although 78 years after the liberation of the camp we overwhelmingly recognize them as valuable and innocent human lives. The victims were persecuted, tortured, and killed based on their ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, or sexual orientation.  The Nazis  had been involved in annihilating, in the cruellest possible manner, not only Jews, but also Russians, Belarusians, Poles, Ukrainians and Serbs, Romanis (gypsies), LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), the mentally or physically disabled, mentally ill; Soviet POWs, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people of the Baháʼí Faith, among others.

It is arguable that the two pivotal words that impelled the unspeakably egregious and evil acts perpetrated in the Holocaust are “power” and hatred”. Recent results of test conducted have revealed that when people are given power they wield it in accordance with their mor a al and ethical values.  The question is, do good people perpetrate bad deeds when they have power over others, or is it only the bad and the evil who are guilty?  Smithsonian Magazine reports: ”  a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that… people’s sense of “moral identity”—the degree to which they thought it was important to their sense of self to be “caring,” “compassionate,” “fair,” “generous” and so on—shaped their responses to feelings of power”.

In other words, Lord Acton’s famous words “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” may no longer ring true in all instances.  Good persons may exercise powers equitably, with empathy and  goodness while the evil may exercise their power iniquitously with egregious intent.  The bottom line seems to settle at Abraham Lincoln’s statement that   “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” The most evil use of power is fueled by hatred, which has been described as “the most destructive affective phenomenon in the history of human nature”.   The inevitable corollary to hatred  is hate propaganda which often ingrains itself in a social system where the social degradation of the subject occupies the forefront of political discourse. Hate propaganda, spawned by hate speech, dehumanizes and depersonalizes the subject, degrading him to an imaginary persona and relegating him to the lowest depths usually assigned to a sub human species.

The immediate reaction of a society to this phenomenon is the recognition of hate crimes which emerge from hate speech and propaganda as any other crime, thus obfuscating the hatred that inspired such crimes and trivializing their qualitatively different nature. The ultimate result is of course the social acceptability of hate crimes and their desirability. This odious conclusion to a parasitic process is almost ephemeral and pervades the intellectual consciousness of a society to its ultimate destruction.

The mission of our institutions should be defined by a new, more profound, awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, regardless of race, religion, language or wealth of persons. This will require us to look beyond the framework of cultural nuances. States and their educational authorities must focus, as never before, on improving the conditions of the individual men and women who give the state or nation its richness and character. As former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said, a genocide begins with the killing of one man – not for what he has done, but because of who he is. A campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ begins with one neighbour turning on another. Poverty begins when even one person is denied his or her fundamental right to education. What begins with the failure to uphold the dignity of one life, all too often ends with a calamity.

We must therefore start from the understanding that peace belongs not only to states or peoples, but to each and every member of those communities. The power of seniority of status or particular immunity must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights, nor must the authorities concerned turn a blind eye to atrocities that may likely be committed on the young and the innocent. Peace must be made real and tangible in the daily existence of every individual in need. Peace must be sought, above all, because it is the condition for every member of the human family to live a life of dignity and security.

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 will face in dealing with racial hatred. Hate speech and hate propaganda primarily erode 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, is there 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 racist speech, and the indignity that one would suffer in living in a society that might tolerate racist speech. 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.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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