Boundary that won’t stretch

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Recent ceremonies at Auschwitz to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation by Russian forces of Nazi Germany’s main death camp have rightly made us think about man’s inhumanity to man and ponder how such horrific acts could have taken place. The Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish race led to the murder of an estimated 6 million people, many of them women and children. The Holocaust must always be remembered as a warning to mankind of the dangers stemming from racial prejudice and a bigoted ideology.

At Auschwitz, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder declared that the memories belong to Germany’s national identity. Even if the majority of Germans now alive bear no personal guilt for the holocaust, he said, “the evil of Nazi ideology did not come out of nowhere. The brutalization of thought and the lack of moral inhibition had a history. One thing is clear: The Nazi ideology was willed by people and carried out by people.”

Peoples and their leaders must share the blame. Politicians and bureaucrats in German-occupied territories cooperated in the arrest of Jews and others. Britain and America could and should have done more before the war to admit Jewish refugees. The Vatican seems to have turned a blind eye to what was going on.

The Holocaust was not the only example of mass murder in the shameful history of the 20th century. Many millions were killed by communist regimes. For decades monsters such as Soviet leader Josef Stalin and Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong exercised tyranny and committed murder with the connivance of supportive politicians, bureaucrats and policemen. It may be argued that their followers were coerced and brainwashed, but this at best only mitigates their guilt.

The fall of communism should have made for a better world, but recent history does not provide grounds for optimism. In the former Yugoslavia, horrific acts of murder were committed in the name of “ethnic cleansing,” a hateful euphemism for genocide. Earlier, in Rwanda, genocide. In the Congo and Sudan, as well as in other parts of Africa, appalling crimes have gone unpunished. Condemnation at the United Nations has only rarely been followed up by effective action by the member states that control the organization.

Which of us is without fault? Some Japanese politicians still try to argue that the Nanjing massacre was a Chinese fabrication and that the sufferings of local inhabitants and prisoners of war in Japanese-occupied territory were just a natural part of war. They won’t admit that the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” was a giant con and that the idea of Japanese racial superiority and uniqueness was a myth.

They don’t care to remember the brutal indoctrination of Japanese soldiers or the medical experiments conducted on prisoners in China. They also forget that kamikaze pilots were little different from modern-day suicide bombers. It is not good enough to argue that Japanese militarism was not as bad as Nazism.

In a totally different way, the Americans cannot be absolved from human rights abuses in their response to the threat of terrorism. The invasion of Iraq, instigated by appalling intelligence failures and compounded by the wishful thinking of politicians, was accomplished in a brutal way. Many Iraqi civilians were killed unnecessarily as a result of actions by frightened, trigger-happy and poorly educated soldiers.

Higher authorities at the Pentagon who blame the lower ranks for the Abu Ghraib prison brutality are hypocrites. The treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has disgraced America. We all know that 9/11 has had a unique effect on American thinking, but it is no good for U.S. President George W. Bush to preach democracy and human rights while shutting his eyes to abuses by his own forces and by “friendly” regimes such as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.

A British ambassador is reported to have said off the record that American soldiers were the best recruiting agents for al-Qaeda. An indiscreet remark perhaps, but was he wrong?

The British, too, have not always behaved humanely. The recent court-martial in Germany of British soldiers for the alleged ill-treatment of Iraqis caught looting is a reminder that some recruits in any army are poorly educated louts and that the brutalizing training they receive may inevitably lead to bullying.

While Britons people may be proud, with some justification, of Britain’s record overseas, they must not forget the less admirable features of British colonial rule, especially in Africa. Sadly, the “concentration camp” was a British invention dating back to the Boer War in South Africa. Racism has not been eradicated in Britain or in other European countries, and British people who argue that British colonialism was not as bad as that of, say, the French in Algeria or the Belgians in the Congo should heed the adage that comparisons are odious.

As we remember Auschwitz, we all need to think carefully about our own attitudes and behavior or, as the Japanese say, do some jiko hansei:

We need to recognize that any racial prejudice — whether white, black, coffee-colored or yellow — or religious fanaticism can lead to actions that end in genocide.

We must realize that indoctrination, hero-worship and the cult of a single leader is very dangerous.

We must understand that military training of poorly educated soldiers can lead to brutalization unless it is rigorously supervised to eradicate bullying.

We should be aware that bullying, which often begins at an early age in schools, is a potential source of cruelty in people when they grow older.

Hitler’s “final solution,” as evidenced at Auschwitz, was uniquely evil, but as Philip Stephens wrote in a Jan. 28 Financial Times article, “to comprehend how so many could be complicit in such barbarism is to realize how thin is the boundary between civilization and inhumanity.”

There was probably more cruelty and barbarous behavior in the 20th century than in many previous centuries that we now tend to think of as “the dark ages.” Is the idea of progress a delusion?