Bellow’s History

Nik Williams

Bosnian widows grieving at a mass funeral in 2010

‘To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice’, uttered by Elie Wiesel. This phrase haunts the legacy of the Holocaust, it leaks into every remembered tale, every history book, every elderly relative drawing at the twines of their memories, every town square and every memorial. To kill twice, to condemn not the already condemned body nor the mind, but the memory is a crime we can all become culpable in, as we let the shape of the Holocaust and its horrors dissolve into nothingness. When something is hidden from view, withdrawn from circulation, its outline becomes hazy and indefinite. Soon you redraw the image in your mind, but it is never the same. Lengths have shortened, curves emerged and proportions are tinkered with and soon you have in your mind, the last navigatory tool, a caricature of what was. But is the Holocaust trapped under the weight of our collective history, bound up in twine shunted against the wall in the room coddled with cobwebs, to be missed, to be obstructed from view by the miscellany and knickknacks of modern life?

You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them, feel for them? You can nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love as soft men think.

Saul Bellow wrote this in Herzog and when thinking about the Holocaust, genocide and crimes against humanity, how can history be anything but cruel? To think of Bellow’s cruel history is to think of a long and continuous thread tying us to the camps at Dachau, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec, Stutthof; the brutal war of independence in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan); Khmer Rouge’s utopic view of a ‘purer’ sense of communism that saw around 2 million people killed; the widespread murder and cannibalism of pygmy tribes in the DRC; inter-tribal violence in Rwanda that pitted Hutu and Tutsi against each other, severing villages and families; the annexation of East Timor by Indonesia and the list goes on. Reciting the list, part of me wants to call out to Wiesel: ‘how can we forget, it still happens, it is occurring around the world to remind us!’ But to remember a face, an individual instance, in such a sizable crowd, a mass of people where the edges of the crowd cannot be seen, is impossible. But how have we let such a crowd of the dead amass threatening to make the voices of each case inaudible above the din of the screams, yelps and sobs?

Do we learn from our mistakes? I would like to think so. How are we to progress otherwise? But the evidence leans in another direction. The Nazis were stopped, the Khmer Rouge no longer control Cambodia – a few of their now elderly leaders are facing the ICC – and Bangladesh has long been defined as a state in its own right, but except for these, have we changed the baseline factors that fed into acts such as genocide? Have we made it impossible for the confluence of events, motives, ideologies and other factors to amount to anything different?

I hope yes but the muscles that direct my arm do not reflect hopes; they are far more cynical. Violence is a tool that maintains the same market value as it ever has and matching this, international organisations and powerful national governments have retained the same level of reluctance in intervening, militarily, economical, diplomatically and even semantically. Defining genocide and committing to the same definition has mired the UN and national governments in a petty game of hesitancy, hiding behind obscure legal readings and interpretations, behind ‘questionable’ intelligence and behind their domestic audience’s apparent disinterest in the eradication of civilian populations. According to the UN’s convention on genocide, as soon as something is defined as thus, the international community is bound by law to intervene, militarily if necessary. On June 10th, 1994 during the widespread campaign of ethnic violence in Rwanda, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher publicly labelled the violence as genocide. But the polished, well-equipped and world-renowned US forces never touched down and Rwanda continued, unabated, unrestrained and the bodies soon piled up.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II, nations got together and in a poignant demonstration of a collective realisation of the need of global justice, convened the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals. This went on to offer the template for the International Criminal Court. But the ICC’s personal record is somewhat patchier; for every Ratko Mladić there is an Omar al-Bashir.

If forgetting kills, what does refusing to act a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth time condemn them to? I hate to think what that implies, but the crowd is too large and our collectively memory appears to be finite in dimensions and too small to preserve the reports of all who have lost their lives at the hands of an ideology focused on purity. Hemmed in by realist concerns of national jurisdiction, legal restrictions and nationalist pride, genocide soon went and continues to go unchallenged.

But remember the Holocaust for the dead, for the voices, stories and loves lost, but also remember the Holocaust for a moment in time that brought the international community together to acknowledge the national limitations concerning genocide and acted boldly in the construction of the Nuremberg trials. When the names of those still seeking justice deafen you, as if you’ve trapped water in your ear, think of Nuremberg and think: we have done it once, we have acted against a crime too large, too colossal to be hemmed in by national concerns and perhaps it can happen again.

If not, Bellow’s history will continue and continue ad infinitum.

This is a co-publication with The Groucho Tendency to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

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