April 15th was Holocaust Remembrance Day and April 24th was the commemoration of 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a deliberate, planned mass murder by the Turks in which over 1.2 million men women and children were killed.
Coincidentally, in Germany, a 93 year old former member of the SS who was a prison guard at Auschwitz is being tried for his crimes. Atypically, the man, Oskar Gröning, admits that he is “morally” responsible for his part in the horror but he says it’s up to the court do decide if he is “legally” responsible! (just one of his assignments at the camp was collecting cash from newly arrived prisoners—and he’s wondering if he should be held legally responsible for any crimes! A macabre and absurd distinction in his particular case—one that perhaps qualifies him for a job as Clinton PR man).
To me, Mr. Groning’s statement (considering the facts of his case) seems ridiculous and insulting; but still, reflecting on the connection between morality and legality is important. After all, where do laws originate if not from widely accepted “morals” that a tribe, a community, a state or a nation (and in some cases, most of the world) assume should be followed by the whole culture?
…Of course, what’s moral and immoral, (and thus, often, legal and illegal) changes greatly depending on time and place.
Think about the USA and the institution of slavery, or women’s “place” relative to men (the ability to own property, vote, hold certain jobs, etc.); public acknowledgement and the “legitimacy” of homosexuality; the right to form unions; what is considered obscene or indecent; the sale and consumption of alcohol; the growing, selling and using of marijuana, etc.
On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that the religious police in Saudi Arabia caused 15 schoolgirls in Mecca to burn to death in a school fire. The girls weren’t permitted to leave the burning building because they dressed in an “immodest” fashion. As far as I know, the police were never punished for this deliberate murder. (Imagine what sort of chicken-brained zealot becomes a member of the Saudi religious police).
The way women are treated in Saudi Arabia entirely is immoral and even criminal from the point of view of most of the rest of the world but it’s the standard cultural norm in that country. Of course, this “norm”, these “morals” and laws are dictated by a small, brutal monarchy and a fundamentalist male religious establishment.
One of the arguments Nazis on trial have used before and, (for those that are left) use to justify things in their own minds is that everybody was doing it and therefore it was alright. So as insane and inhuman as the Third Reich’s morals and laws were, they were accepted because everywhere you looked people were actively or passively going along with the program. If anyone disapproved or was disgusted by the behavior of their society, they grumbled in private or kept it to themselves.
The defendant in the current trial is surprisingly forthcoming about what he observed (if not what he actually did) in Auschwitz. Groning says he complained to his superiors about what he saw and even asked for a transfer out of the camp. He says he deeply regrets his actions (or passive participation in other’s actions). He just won’t admit that what he did was illegal. Maybe he’s just hoping to stay out of jail because of some technical glitch in the current law governing such cases.
I don’t think you need a law degree or any understanding of the law at all to know that treating other people badly for no good reason is just plain wrong. ”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not a new concept in the world. Did Southerners in the USA ever ask themselves if they’d like to be treated the way they treated their slaves? Did the Nazis ever ask themselves if they’d like to be treated the way they treated the Jews?
So– The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916 and the Holocaust in Europe… I know there are people who say, “Enough already!” These things were monstrous beyond words but they are now a fading part of history so give it a rest finally. Forget it—maybe even forgive it, and move on. There are also people who feel that Israel uses The Holocaust to justify some its own brutal behavior toward the Palestinians and its aggressive attitude toward Iran. Very likely, there’s some truth to that.
On the other hand, there is enduring and violent anti-Semitism, some of it increasing in various countries in Europe and some perpetuated and funded by the rulers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Considering what happened in the 1930’s and 40’s these statements and actions have to be seen as potentially disastrous by Jews everywhere—not just in Israel.
Obviously there is no one left who could be tried and punished for what happened in the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. So, for that great crime, no individual can be used as a symbol of the ultimate triumph of justice and civilization.
Many Nazis—from the leaders to guards at concentration camps have been tried and punished—and the Germans have long apologized for the behavior of their whole culture during the time of the Holocaust and given billions of dollars in reparations to their victims. The Turks have never truly apologized or attempted to atone in any material way for what they did to the Armenians.
But it’s a hundred years after what happened to the Armenians (and soon it will be a hundred years since the attempted extinction of all the Jews in Europe), so why keep harping on it? Why maintain the remains of Auschwitz in Poland? Why have a holocaust remembrance day? Why insist on the Turks apologizing?
What about the concept of forgiving and moving on—something that is widely accepted by most people as the ultimate healing act?
An individual or a small group can attempt to forgive and forget—and there have been rare times when whole societies have attempted this as well. But I think that the personal doesn’t always translate to the larger, collective population. In a world where it is necessary for people to form functioning civilizations—to consider other human beings to be equally valuable; to hold human life sacred, such horrible crimes as the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust have to be remembered (maybe forgiven but never forgotten). These events have to be part of our collective human memory bank so that, eventually, such behavior will be considered impossible to be seriously imagined, planned and carried out.
I have to say though, that when you look at what happened in Rwanda, Serbia and other places, and you see what’s going on in other parts of the world right now, this lesson, this moral evolution I’m hoping for, doesn’t seem to be putting down any real roots. Still, we must remember these events. We need the apologies and monuments and days of commemoration—or there will never be a chance to prevent the repetition of such behavior.