To find out about things

Philip Parham

Published: Updated:

Ten years ago, the U.N. General Assembly designated January 27 the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Why? The Nazis’ murder of six million Jews, along with several million other concentration camps victims, is not the only example of humanity’s capacity for brutality on a huge scale. Indeed, sadly, it is one of many.

But its systematic, sustained, deliberate, cold-blooded and institutionalized single-mindedness was unique. It is also the most extensively documented, best researched and most well understood genocide. So it is right that it we should dwell on it, not just out of pity and respect for its victims, but as an awful warning to future generations.

The perpetrators of genocide see people not as individuals, but just as members of one group or another – ethnic, religious, socio-economic, physical

Philip Parham

Why did it happen? Why does any genocide happen? How can human beings possibly do these things to other human beings? There are two important and connected factors: denial of the value of the individual human person; and fear of difference.

Root of genocide

The perpetrators of genocide see people not as individuals, but just as members of one group or another – ethnic, religious, socio-economic, physical. If you don’t see humans as individuals, you quickly regard them as dispensable. And, if you see humanity in terms of groups defined by difference, you tend to see other groups as a threat to your own.

Very often, those factors combine to give the perpetrators a utopian sense of manifest destiny – a belief that their group embodies human progress, in the name of which other groups can be eliminated. As well as Jews, the Nazis exterminated many Roma, mentally and physically disabled people, communists, homosexuals, Poles, Christians (2,500 Catholic priests in Dachau alone). The Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out the Cambodian middle class. Stalin ordered the liquidation of the kulaks. Native American tribes were largely destroyed. And today ISIS are uprooting ancient communities, Muslim and non-Muslim. All of this in the name of alleged progress ofvarious sorts.

What is the antidote? How do we prevent this? Go to the roots we have identified:

• Restore and protect the value of the individual human person – in our political discourse, in our design and application of laws, in our treatment of those who are vulnerable, in our promotion of rights.

• Overcome fear with facts – the facts about the past and the present which show us that diversity is a strength, not a weakness; which debunk the myth that human progress rests on exclusion and “purity”; which tell us why things went wrong in the past, and warn us when they are going wrong in the present.

That is why commemoration is so important. Historians and media have a critical role. So, often, does humor – puncturing the absurd pretensions of ideologues who spout dehumanizing collectivist views and would lead us to mayhem and slaughter. While the Nazis established themselves in Germany, Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts were laughed into oblivion in the UK.

Essence of genocide

Denigration of the individual human person is the essence of genocide. Assertion of the individual is the vital response. We each have a duty, according to our capacity and context, to respond to genocide and the threat of genocide. Let me tell you the story of two individuals and how they did, or did not, respond: two German girls, both in their early twenties during the Second World War: Sophie Scholl and Traudl Junge.

Sophie Scholl, influenced partly by the writings of John Henry Newman about human conscience, was outraged by the Nazis. She, her brother and a few fellow students formed the White Rose movement to alert people to the wickedness of the regime. After being caught distributing anti-Nazi literature in Munich University, she was interrogated, summarily tried by a “People’s Court”, and executed by guillotine on February 23, 1943. Prison officers later described her courage in the face of death. She was not yet 22.

These were Sophie’s last words: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give themselves up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go; but what does my death matter if, through us, thousands of people are wakened and stirred to action?” The White Rose leaflet which she had been distributing was subsequently smuggled out to the Allies, who dropped millions of copies over Germany.

A few weeks before Sophie Scholl’s execution, Traudl Junge became one of Hitler’s secretaries. She was an ordinary young woman, uninterested in politics. She ignored information about Nazi atrocities. She had a job to do, and she did it. She was one of the last people to leave Hitler’s bunker in May 1945. She survived and lived to 2002. For many years after the war, she felt no remorse. But listen to what she said in an interview shortly before she died:

“Of course the horrors of which I heard in connection of the Nuremberg trials, the fate of the six million Jews……shocked me greatly; but, at the time, I could not see any connection between these things and my own past. I was only happy that I had not personally been guilty of these things, and that I had not been aware of the scale of these things. However, one day I walked past a plaque in memory of Sophie Scholl. I could see that she had been born the same year as I, and that she had been executed the same year when I entered Hitler’s service. And that moment I really realized, that it was no excuse that I had been so young. I could perhaps have tried to find out about things.”

To find out about things…..that is the starting point, and why we need to commemorate.


Ambassador Parham was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in July 2014. Previously he was the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.