This is the seventieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when the Nazis unleashed a wave of physical violence against German Jews and their enterprises. The name comes from the shattered glass that filled the streets of Jewish neighborhoods, and it made it crystal clear that Hitler fully intended to annihilate the Jews of Germany, and, eventually, everywhere else that he could reach. Even the New York Times, which had a very mixed record on reporting the events of the Holocaust, described it on their front page in terms that left no doubt what was going on:
A wave of destruction, looting and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices…
Thus began the destruction of the European Jews, and the Second World War. Nobody did much of anything to challenge the Nazis until their time came, with the exception, paradoxically, of Mussolini, who deployed the Italian Army to block Hitler’s first attempt at Anschluss with Austria. Thereafter, the whole nightmare played out as we know.
After the war, the “international community” vowed it would not permit such things to happen again, and passed all manner of resolutions that seemed to promise forceful action against anyone who attempted to destroy an entire people. “Genocide” –a word invented to describe Nazi actions against the Jews– in particular would not be tolerated.
And yet, genocide has been repeatedly tolerated. Take the by now well known case of Rwanda in the mid-nineties. Everybody knew that the Hutus were planning to massacre the Tutsis. The title of Philip Gourevitch’s fine book, taken from a letter written by seven Rwandan bishops to their spiritual leader tells it all: “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” Yet nobody did anything to prevent it, and when the genocide got going, nobody did anything to stop it. The UN Security Council couldn’t even bring itself to pass a resolution containing the word “genocide,” and the American Government danced all around the issue in order to avoid using the word. Under the guidance of UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright (from a Czech Jewish refugee family), the Clinton Administration did nothing. Later on, Albright and Clinton himself apologized, but a million Tutsis had been slaughtered.
So feeble was the “International community” that they didn’t even protect their own troops.
On the morning of April 7, 1994, ten Belgian Blue Berets were taken prisoner by members of the presidential guard and then beaten and murdered. The UN forces made no attempt to free them. The Belgian contingent was recalled by its government. Before leaving, several Belgian soldiers tore up their United Nations badges and spat on the blue flag. (From Gil Courtemanche, a sunday at the pool in kigali New York: Random House, 2003, pg 224)
As Gourevitch bitterly remarks, “If Rwanda’s experience could be said to carry any lessons for the world, it was that endangered peoples who depend on the international community for physical protection stand defenseless.”
Which is why the anniversary of Kristallnacht is so important for us; in many ways it defined the modern world. Genocide is tolerated, victims are not defended (ask the million and a half victims in Darfur today), nobody does anything unless he is directly attacked. Somehow I think that the “rule of law” has not helped at all, because the lawyers are forever telling governments why they cannot intervene, or, as in very many cases, why they cannot offer asylum to criminal dictators, thereby leaving the governments with a Hobson’s Choice: do nothing, or attack.
In Africa recently I was told a story that rings true to me: a rebel leader who is currently in the crosshairs of the World Court was offered a deal if he would stop fighting. He agreed, with one proviso: the World Court had to promise not to prosecute. The World Court refused. And the fighting continues. Phil Howard wrote a masterpiece a few years back called The Death of Common Sense, and he was so right. These are not, it seems to me, the sorts of issues that would challenge Solomon. But we can’t seem to think our way out of the complicated webs we’ve woven for ourselves.