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“Goals and Dreams”:
Honoring Rwanda’s Memory and Looking to the Future
When a community gathers to commemorate a horrific occurrence like genocide, it does so not only to remember the victims, both living and deceased, but also to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that others might never be made to endure similar atrocities in the future. In this way, such events are particularly powerful because they underscore the belief that “never again” also means to “never forget.”
April marks the 19th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were savagely murdered by their Hutu extremist neighbors, who believed that a person’s ethnicity determined his or her right to life. Nearly two decades later, the legacy of these victims and their descendants is continually remembered throughout the world, as the darkness of those 100 days of slaughter has left an impermeable mark on humanity, along with a resolve to do better the next time we are faced with similar situations. In an effort to uphold this commitment, on April 14, Jacqueline Murekatete, a Rwandan genocide survivor and founder of MCW Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner, organized “A Special Program Commemorating the 19th Anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda,” at New York University Law School, co-sponsored by the Latino Law Students Association. Featured guests at the event were Auschwitz Institute executive director Tibi Galis and CBS 60 Minutes assistant producer Jonathan Schienberg.
Murekatete opened the program by reminding those in attendance that it is important to raise awareness and support for genocide survivors in Rwanda, as well as to remember those “whose lives were brutally and unjustly taken away.” She then offered a moment of silence for the victims in Rwanda as well, before turning the microphone over to Khalid Elachi of MCW, who explained that the organization’s goal is “to empower young people to become agents of change,” citing the building of a community center in Rwanda and the establishment of Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner as examples of how MCW carries out its mission.
These remarks were followed by a short film entitled Jacqueline’s Journey, produced by Schienberg and shown publicly for the first time. In the video, Murekatete discusses her personal survival during the Rwandan genocide, despite losing her entire immediate family and many aunts and uncles, as well as how she eventually arrived in the United States and became inspired to start telling her own story. She emphasized the importance of enabling survivors to achieve their goals and dreams, and to “live a life that our families could be proud of, if they were here.”
The keynote address was then given by Galis, who began by discussing his personal journey to working in mass atrocity prevention. Growing up in Romania, he said, “We were taught in school that all the tragic moments of humanity . . . were behind us,” admitting that in light of contemporary crises such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “this hope is a bit baseless in today’s world.” As he explained, the prevalence of atrocities persuaded him and others of the need to move away from the idea that such catastrophes are accidents or anomalies, and instead to “try to understand where these mass atrocities come from.”
The Auschwitz Institute, Galis explained, was established to pursue this systematic approach to understanding genocide. In particular, he noted the historic dearth of governmental involvement in prevention, and identified this as the impetus behind AIPR founder and president Fred Schwartz’s motivation to establish the organization in 2005. The need to better understand the complexities and roots of such violence is exemplified in the Auschwitz Institute’s educational program for government officials, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, which centers on the process of genocide and an “inventory of what has been tried in recent times” to prevent such crimes. In this way, Galis explained, the goal has shifted from “[stopping] the worst from happening at the very last possible moment,” to developing the “restructuring of societies in a way that we see the signals of the bad to come, and we try to do something about that” right away.
The Auschwitz Institute further empowers its participants by offering “resources that they need to start their own” prevention programs domestically, as the organization firmly believes in assisting governments in any way possible to do their duty – “that being to protect and not to harm its citizens. We feel it cannot be more basic than this.” Currently, Galis stated that alumni of the Auschwitz Institute’s programs number more than 200 individuals from 60 different states. He concluded by noting the role that civil society plays in prevention, explaining that “most of the time, we prevent mass atrocities and genocide without even realizing it,” through education and our daily interactions with those in our communities.”
After giving his presentation, Galis was joined by Murekatete and Schienberg for a discussion moderated by Roberta Richin, a member of the Board of Directors Emeritus at MCW. Richin posed the initial round of questions, beginning with Galis and asking about challenges facing international organizations. Galis’s response included the need to educate the leadership of institutions on what an institution is expected to deliver and implement, as well as communication problems between organizations. He also stated that organizations like the Auschwitz Institute are “the beginning of the answer,” but that good intention requires money as well as words.
Richin’s question for Murekatete focused on the connection between the “small stuff,” such as schoolyard bullying, and the “big stuff,” specifically the genocide in Rwanda. Murekatete agreed that it is sometimes difficult for individuals to recognize the long-term process that culminates in genocide, and discussed in particular how what occurred in Rwanda was a result of years of escalating hostility, propaganda, and dehumanization.
Richin then opened the floor for questions from the audience. The first focused on seeking perpetrator justice years after atrocities have been committed, to which Murekatete stated simply: “There is no deadline to the suffering . . . the horrors . . . that [victims] endured,” and that efforts to find and hold killers accountable for their actions should reflect this limitlessness. The next was addressed to Schienberg, and asked him to talk about the hardest part of making Jacqueline’s Journey. Schienberg stated that he sought to depict “what [survivors] would want me to represent,” while at the same time respecting that “it’s a very personal thing that people experience,” and that we must be careful of not generalizing too much from story to story.
Another question, to which Schienberg also responded, centered on the role of the media. He discussed how media attention can be big, but that this doesn’t necessarily stop atrocities. In addition, he stated that “media still has an obligation, obviously . . . and [journalists] need to be persistent in trying to expose . . . the happenings in those countries where atrocities are being committed.” As the moderator Richin summarized at the discussion’s conclusion, “words have power; words have consequences” – and so does a lack of words.
Jeanne d’Arc Byaje, deputy permanent representative of Rwanda to the United Nations, spoke after the panelists, and offered a view of the progress Rwanda has made since the genocide. In particular, she noted the improvements the country has achieved in its justice sector reformation. She was followed by student Jessica Gatoni, who read two poems written in honor of Rwanda: one from the perspective of a survivor trying to guard the memory of those she had lost; the other about youth empowerment and the concept of agaciro, which means “dignity” in Kinyarwanda.
Murekatete closed the event with words she had echoed throughout the afternoon: “goals and dreams.” Indeed, it is this potential that was lost during the genocide, and it is this same potential that Murekatete and others hope to help cultivate in the descendants of survivors, as well as in all individuals in the generations to come. This cultivation, however, cannot be done from the sidelines. It must occur through the work of those actively committed to preventing opportunities for individuals, who would otherwise attempt to steal or destroy these dreams, from becoming a prominent voice in their society. As Galis eloquently stated earlier, “When we see a problem and look away, we are to a certain extent supporting the roots of evil.”
Photo: Alex Zucker
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Dr. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a scholar and activist on the topic of gender and gender-based violence in the context of genocide and mass atrocities. Last year she published an article titled “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention” in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention, and in addition to having been an instructor at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, she will be contributing to a forthcoming volume on the prevention of mass atrocities, edited by the Auschwitz Institute.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Today we’re looking at an often overlooked and under-discussed aspect of mass atrocities: gender. Joining me is Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a prolific speaker on the subject and author of an article last year called “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention.” Hello, Elisa. Great to have you with us.
Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Why do we need to consider gender and gender-based violence as factors in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities?
Well, there’s several ways to answer that. I think the primary reason it’s important that we look at gender-based violence when we’re thinking about the prevention of mass atrocities is that it is a very early warning signal when a conflict is underway. There are specific types of gender-based violence that I believe have a high correlation with genocide down the road, and when we see them used by a certain perpetrating group — whether it’s a state, or a political party, or a cadre within an armed force — when we see them using these specific forms of gender-based torture and patterns of killing, and sexual violence in particular, we can predict with some accuracy the spread of this sort of violence to greater and greater numbers of people down the road, if it’s left unchecked. And that is if there isn’t any diplomatic, political, economic, or, as a last resort, military intervention.
It isn’t talked about very much, rape and violence against women, or at least they aren’t much focused on. What do you think that says about our concerns?
There seems to be an intellectual block, in a sense, in the study of genocide to considering rape as an integral part of genocide. Of course there are many scholars who do. But in policymaking circles, frequently the widespread presence of rape or mass rape in a conflict, when it’s not attended also by co-ed massacre sites, is seen to be a special category that we call mass atrocity but not genocide. So in other words, you have several cases where the existence of gender-selective massacres of men, alongside the mass rape of women who were allowed by and large to continue living, you see that pattern used as a way to argue that genocide had not taken place, but rather war crimes, or crimes against humanity, or this much less specific term, “mass atrocity.”
What roles do you think that culture and religion play in these occurrences? Do you think there’s anything to arguments for cultural relativity, cultural sensitivity, or are we dealing with human rights that transcend those borders?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting question, and I think it’s an important one. I see these as universals, simply because they occur in similar formats throughout most of the cases of genocide that I’ve looked at, and then also cases that aren’t commonly considered to be genocide that I would include within an understanding of genocidal processes, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, or the current conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. So there is a kind of a universal dimension to these, in that genocide expresses itself very similarly across cases. Where I think cultural sensitivity is really important, and where it becomes very interesting, is, you know, the differences in patterns. Why in certain places one kind of atrocity is more pronounced than another, for example. And what cultural factors lead to that, and whether or not those cultural factors then themselves have contributed to this genocidal process, or are they just being drawn on or implicated in the genocidal process because they exist. So those sorts of questions are very important.
I think genocide is a universal crime and that it is universally frowned upon, and should be, and so we can be safe to say that if there’s a culture that’s caught up in a genocidal logic over a long period of time that humanity needs to respond, that there needs to be some response to that. Where I think cultural relativism becomes problematic is when it treats different cultures in a kind of ossified and rigid way that actually shares some characteristics with genocidal thinking by imposing strict trenches between different groups that can’t be bridged through human conversation or dialogue. And I think that oftentimes one will find people retreating to that type of cultural relativism, when it appears, when the persons promoting the prevention of genocide are not investigating genocidal dynamics in their own societies. Where I’ve gotten questions related to cultural relativism is often in situations where it’s felt that Americans are always going around the world telling people to be aware of genocide and how to prevent genocide, without sufficient awareness of our own history of genocide and lingering patterns within our society that emerge from that history, as well as red flags that we have in this country. So to avoid that I think it’s very important that whenever we’re talking about genocide prevention, and in all of our studies of genocide, that we seek to be truly universal in the cases that we look at, right, and universal in the societies that we target for long-term prevention of genocide. And those should and have to include Western countries, including the United States.
In cases where we can identify those cultural causes that contribute toward genocide or can lead to that, do you think that it may be necessary, or do you think it may be justifiable, for the international community or for international actors to take a stand against those practices, against those factors?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting and sensitive question, and I’m glad you asked it. This question was very relevant of course to the debate about and the struggle against female genital cutting, right, or what’s often called female genital mutilation. And it was actually very harmful when there appeared to be a unidirectional command from on high that certain societies stop this practice. What was much more effective was when local NGOs — often aided by training or funding or dialogue with international bodies — but when local NGOs began initiatives to speak with the practitioners of this, to speak with parents, to speak with young people and leaders within communities to try and change the way that this practice was seen, and replace it with other practices that could ritually or culturally attain the same goals without actually harming young girls.
So I think that when we’re looking at long-term factors that contribute to genocide, one of the most important things we can do is be in dialogue with local human rights groups, local civics groups, local intellectuals, obviously — in a truly dialogic and equal fashion, where everybody’s laying out a set of ideas about what can lead to genocide. And so that you have, internally within a society, a genocide watchdog that is going to be much more sensitive and much more aware of the meaning of certain cultural practices and their potential dangers down the road than any outsider could ever be, unless of course they spent a great deal of time there and speak the language.
You’ve been talking a lot about Syria lately. There’s been a lot of concern in the international community about the possibility of genocide of the Alawites. Do you think that horse is already out of the stable?
Yes. I do. But it depends on how you look at it and how you’re defining things. Since we all agree, I think, that genocide is a process, I think we’re in the genocidal process. But perhaps we need to make a distinction between the process of genocide and the fact of genocide after the end of hostilities. It’s only of course in retrospect that we can be absolutely sure, right, or close to 100 percent sure, that something we would call a genocide happened. The Rwandan genocide looked very different at the beginning of the hundred days than it did at the end. And this was one of the problems with garnering international support for some kind of effective intervention there. And so it’s similar in Syria. However, what we do see in Syria is focused attacks on children. So not just killing by shelling, not that kind of impersonal killing, but very personalized, ritualized, torturous killing of children, both in front of their parents at the site of massacres, but also in detention, then I think that says something about the intent of the regime, or certain groups within the regime.
Can you tell us a little about your contribution to Deconstructing Prevention? Are there pertinent situations or issues you think we need to focus on that have cropped up since your 2012 article?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I think the rise of the use of the term “mass atrocity” is a very interesting thing, and it comes out of the despair that many felt during the genocide in Darfur, where it felt that a lot of the tension was taken away from the horror going on in Darfur and instead devoted to a very useless and highly politicized debate about whether or not this conflict conformed to the UN legal definition of genocide. So “mass atrocities” grew out of that sense of frustration. Who cares if it’s genocide, let’s just call it mass atrocities. But I think one of the reasons that could happen, that we needed to replace this powerful term “genocide” with “mass atrocity,” is that Darfur followed a very gender-selective pattern of genocide. And so you have men routinely massacred, whereas women were raped and allowed to continue living. And it was the fact of their continued existence that often was the reason that people were unwilling to call what was going on in Darfur genocide and instead wanted to call it ethnic cleansing, or civil war, or counterinsurgency. And so it’s out of a very gendered idea of what genocide is that this term “mass atrocity” has been created. So I think that we need to interrogate that. We need to look at why it is that we needed to create a term like “mass atrocity,” whether or not it’s effective to have an even more vague and debatable term, in a sense.
Gender and genocide was a long-term interest of mine. I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I’d always been interested in women’s Holocaust testimonies and the ways that the National Socialists sought to destroy women as women, and use children against them to do so, which is a common theme in testimonials and memoirs from the Holocaust. So I brought those two together and was doing work on gender and genocide, and then it was only through a fluke, in a sense, that Adam Jones, whose work I find to be wonderful and has been very influential on my own work, suggested me to the Auschwitz Institute to get involved in these genocide prevention — the Raphael Lemkin workshops and seminars that you guys hold. And so it was through that path, and it was really the Auschwitz Institute that got me thinking about how I can utilize my research on gender and genocide for genocide prevention.
Well, I hope you’ll continue to push our definitional outlooks on genocide and mass atrocities, and keep gender a part of the conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you very much.
Photo: Courtesy Elisa von Joeden-Forgey
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Dr. Ekkehard Strauss, who has published extensively on protection of minorities, prevention of human rights violations, post-conflict peacebuilding, and human rights responses to mass atrocities. Strauss has been an instructor at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, and was a member of the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities, which earlier this month released a report assessing Europe’s capabilities to respond to threats of genocide and other mass atrocities.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. In late 2011 the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities established the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities, to look at Europe’s capabilities to respond to threats of mass killings and genocide. They released a report a few weeks ago, which lists four core problems for the capacity to prevent, including issues with coordination and policymaking, and six recommendations to strengthen capabilities, like improving cooperation with other actors and applying a prevention mindset to trade and development policies.
Speaking with me today is a member of that task force, Dr. Ekkehard Strauss. He has worked with the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina, served under the UN High Commissioner, and established himself as a mainstay in the development of peacebuilding, Responsibility to Protect, and atrocity prevention practices. He is currently working as a consultant and researcher in Rabat, Morocco. Hello, Dr. Strauss. Thank you for being here today.
Thank you very much.
Could you start by telling us about the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities: where the idea came from, what its purpose is, who is on it, and how they arrived at their list of recommendations?
The idea of reviewing mass atrocity prevention capacities of the European Union really came at the time when the U.S. task force started to review the U.S. capacities. And there were different individuals and organizations who tried to convince them to actually undertake a similar exercise. People like David Hamburg, for instance, who was chairing the UN secretary-general’s advisory board on genocide prevention; the Budapest Centre, which was an initiative at that time; the Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide; and other people. Unfortunately, none of us succeeded in convincing the European Union. So we basically took this initiative forward as a citizen initiative and initiated a process where we invited 12 people with very different experiences, from different European countries, to form a task force and to review these capacities using a methodology which was mixed. First, by a desk review of what is out there on reviews of EU capacity to react to conflict, violence and crisis. And the content you find in the report is basically an analysis of this task force, of the interviews, plus our own experience in crisis situations, and with different European institutions, and what is the state of play in the discussions on genocide prevention today.
How did you personally get involved in atrocity prevention? Can you tell us a little bit about your start in this?
I think one very important part for me was, while I was still undertaking my law studies, to start the basis of an internship with the UN and there being exposed to what it really means to be a victim of systematic violence and state-sponsored, large-scale violence. For me, this was a different dimension to the work on human rights violations due to individuals, due to exceptional situations, and so on. This is serious as well, it’s important to work on it from a human rights perspective, but for me, this other dimension, that states really systematically get after their own people, was like a new encounter. So I wrote a doctorate thesis on prevention of human rights violations, looking at legal standards and trying to look at how they are not reflected in the different institutions we were in the process of creating in the early ’90s, the international ad hoc tribunals and so on. We were basically hoping that some of them would have a preventive effect. And then I had the great opportunity of somehow field-testing many of the things I had worked on in Bosnia immediately after the war, and I moved on to Kosovo and Serbia while the crisis was unfolding there. Then in 2004 I had the great chance to work with Juan Méndez and support him in establishing the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. And this was somehow the coming full-round from my different theoretical and field experience to do something that I still find very fulfilling.
And how did you become involved with the Auschwitz Institute?
The Auschwitz Institute, actually Fred Schwartz came to see Juan Méndez, I think back in 2004 or 2005. And he presented his idea of having trainings in Auschwitz. And I think we were — at the beginning, after the first meeting — I think we were a little bit skeptical among ourselves whether this is something that would work and whether people wouldn’t just go home with a lot of overwhelming impressions about the Holocaust, an almost perfect system of destroying people that you are confronted with when you visit Auschwitz. Then when this idea evolved, and we got also our own experience with training of government officials, I think we got more and more fascinated by the idea. And I think it’s a fascinating experience. I think the concept has proven that our skepticism was unfounded. I think it’s a very good concept to actually have people making the transition from looking at the Holocaust, experiencing Auschwitz, experiencing being there and being exposed to this, and going through an experience where you think, “This is exceptional and it cannot happen anywhere else,” to then slowly making the experience of “No, it could happen somewhere else. No, these are average people who committed it. Yes, there was a lot of preparation, ideology, and anti-Semitism and so on that existed,” but I think that for me, this experience from an observer, and then from a teacher’s point of view, was fascinating how it worked for the people who participated.
Do you find yourself optimistic, based upon your experiences doing that and based upon your experiences in assessing the United Nations to stop genocide and mass atrocities, do you find yourself optimistic for the future?
I do. I mean, I’m very optimistic. But I have to say that I’m not optimistic that there will be a world free of genocide. From working on this for quite some time and having visited many of the countries which experience genocide, I think each time and each century has its own genocides, and we might witness genocides while we speak and we will only find out in a couple of years based on legal findings and so on, and say, “Okay, Darfur was a genocide,” and so on. So I’m not optimistic that we will prevent all of them, but I think we can be much better in detecting signs very early and taking them seriously, and intervening at a point where we still do not have these exceptional numbers of victims. I don’t think that long-term prevention will really work in all of the cases. We can educate and train and establish institutions and so on, and this will hopefully do a lot of good with regard to human rights. It might make it more difficult to convince people to participate in systematic killings of particular groups, but for each of those you find historic examples where they had the same and they had a genocide nevertheless. But I think by making mass atrocities something that is possible, something that is a plausible conclusion to developments on the ground, I think we will contribute to preventing, hopefully, more of these cases. But still I think there are genocides in the making that we don’t even know about. There are situations that we will not capture with our early warning methodology, but nevertheless we should continue and learn, and I’m very optimistic that we get better every day and every month.
Well, I hope the recommendations that you and the task force have given will be a shot in the arm toward that improvement. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Thank you very much—and I’m so glad it finally worked out.
Attention, GenPrev fans! Next week is your lucky week if you live in New York, as there are five events related to GenPrev happening over three consecutive days.
First and foremost (from our point of view) is a talk titled “What Does It Mean to Prevent Genocide?” by Auschwitz Institute executive director Tibi Galis (pictured here), at 6:15 p.m., Tuesday, June 12, at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Tibi’s talk will emphasize that, although increasingly conflated and confused, genocide prevention and humanitarian intervention are two different things. He will then enter into conversation with Kyle Matthews of the Will to Intervene project. To attend the event in person, register by sending an e-mail to email@example.com. Admission is $25. Otherwise you can watch the live webcast here.
Also on Tuesday, June 12, at 4:30 p.m, is a reception for civil society organizations engaged in the Responsibility to Protect, at the office of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (708 Third Avenue, 24th floor):
In preparation for the informal dialogue in the General Assembly on response measures available under the Third Pillar of the Responsibility to Protect, the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) invites you to attend an informal reception with civil society colleagues on the Responsibility to Protect. This reception is being held in cooperation with New York–based ICRtoP member, Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW).
The reception will feature a short talk by Mr. Hermann Hokou, legal scholar and activist from Côte d’Ivoire, who will discuss the election violence of 2010–11, how the conflict was handled by the international community and what we can learn in addressing other crises. Also in attendance will be NGO colleagues from Brazil, Belgium, Armenia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Romania and Canada, in town next week to share the experiences of their organizations, working to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, as well as reflect on their efforts to entrench RtoP at the national and regional levels.
The third event on Tuesday, June 12, is a discussion on “Preventing War, Violence and Genocide: Critical New Approaches to Making Prevention Work,” at 1 p.m. at the Church Center for the United Nations (777 UN Plaza at 44th Street, 2nd floor). Guest speaker Kai Brand-Jacobsen, director of the Department of Peace Operations at the Peace Action Training and Research Institute of Romania, will address the following:
War, armed violence, genocide and mass atrocity have devastating impacts – costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians every year, destroying economic and human development and security, and devastating lives and societies. Yet major steps have been taken to advance the prevention of violence and armed conflict. This talk will review critical breakthroughs and practical experiences in the prevention of war, violence and genocide. Combining on the ground experience and practical evidence with critical breakthroughs in peacebuilding and prevention, this event will challenge and inspire policy makers, practitioners, diplomats, politicians, analysts, experts and all participants, and look practically at how to make prevention work.
Finally, on Monday, June 11, and Wednesday, June 13, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung will be presenting Global Civil Society Perspectives on the Responsibility to Protect:
FES New York supports a series of meetings organized by Global Action to Prevent War (GAPW) and its partners from civil society organizations from various continents on the emerging norm of the “Responsibility to Protect.” The discussions on June 11 will address how various UN Mandates can contribute to prevention, and reflect on balanced and robust responses to the threat of mass atrocities. On June 13, special attention will be given to the proposal for a United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS).
We hope you can make some or all of these events. If not, be sure to stay tuned for recaps.
“The First Killings of the Holocaust,” an op-ed by Timothy W. Ryback in today’s International Herald Tribune, describes the surprising impact of Joseph Hartinger, “little more than a middle-aged civil servant with a wife and five-year-old child at home,” upon the genocidal plans of Germany’s Nazi regime.
Ryback’s article focuses on the impact mid- to low-level officials can have on government policy, an idea the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation has made a cornerstone of its genocide prevention programs. In documenting the ripple effects of such a “small fish” in the Nazi government, Ryback exposes the fallacy that many to this day continue to believe: that genocidal governments are monolithic, void of dissenters, and impossible to change from within.
On April 12, 1933, “four Jews — Arthur Kahn, Ernst Goldmann, Rudolf Benario and Erwin Kahn — were executed in precisely that order at a Nazi camp in the obscure Bavarian hamlet of Prittlbach.” Ryback marks this as the first genocidal killing of Jews by the Nazis, and notes that the main characteristics of the process by which these four men were killed — intentionality, chain-of-command, selection, and execution — mirrored (scale and efficiency aside) the distinguishing traits of the Holocaust.
Hartinger was the lawyer assigned to investigate the men’s death, and instead of accepting the initial statement from his superiors — that the four men were shot trying to escape a detention facility — he initiated a formal inquiry. To Hartinger’s suggestion that a serial killing of Jews had taken place, his boss said even the Nazis wouldn’t do such a thing, and terminated the case. Hartinger persisted, launching indictments against the commanding officer and three other SS men at Prittlbach.
Surprisingly, the commandant was removed, and the killings of Jews temporarily stopped. To Hartinger, this revealed the weakness of the still evolving Nazi regime. At the time the Nazis were still very sensitive to international opinion, and had not consolidated power in Germany enough to ignore the orders of the president, Paul von Hindenburg, who possessed the constitutional authority to dissolve the Nazi government and dismiss Hitler as chancellor. Hartinger included all of this in his memoirs, which Ryback uses to pinpoint “that tenuous phase of an emerging genocidal process when intercession could have disrupted and derailed the horrific and now seemingly inevitable outcome.”
For would-be genocide preventers, this story is important because it shows that even genocidal governments are not monolithic. Their goals may not be universally accepted or even known, which leaves them open to undermining in the early stages of their consolidation of power.
With this in mind, the Auschwitz Institute encourages the mid-level government and military officials from around the world who take part in our programs to be on the lookout for opportunities like the one Joseph Hartinger had, so when the time comes, they too can help halt the genocidal process.
Photo: Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation