The mass slaughter of Germany’s Jews, 1.5 million at Auschwitz alone, was not incidental to Hitler’s war aims, but their purest expression. This has long been an accepted historical truth, except in the strange world of the United Nations. This hole in history gave extra significance to a special General Assembly session Monday in which Secretary-General Kofi Annan broke with decades of disgraceful U.N. silence, enforced by anti- Semitic Arab states, about the murder of the Jews: “The United Nations must never forget that it was created as a response to the evil of Nazism, or that the horror of the Holocaust helped to shape its mission.” Those words are true and overdue.
Today, a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army will be attended by numerous world leaders, including Vice President Dick Cheney, French President Jacques Chirac and Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, demonstrating a determination that the memory of the Holocaust not be effaced.
It was not always so. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Holocaust did not figure prominently enough at the Nuremberg war crimes trials or elsewhere. Israel was eager to look forward to a bright socialist future, not to linger on the gruesome past. Only a few scholarly books about the Nazi attempt to exterminate an entire people appeared. What’s more, Stalin’s Soviet Union was itself anti-Semitic, and it also set up puppet regimes in Eastern Europe and murdered tens of millions in the Gulag.
Only after the spectacular capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israel’s Mossad in 1960 did much debate about what happened erupt. But the respectable disputes are mainly about when, not whether, the Nazis decided upon genocide. As historian Walter Laqueur has observed, there is no point in engaging Holocaust deniers who are beyond rational persuasion: “As soon as one set of their arguments concerning the Holocaust is refuted, they will submit a new one.”
As the Holocaust has come under closer scrutiny, the United States and Britain have had to examine their own guilty consciences about doing little to take in refugees during the 1930s. Then there is the matter of acting against Auschwitz itself. Should it have been targeted for bombing by the Allies? Of course it should have, but indifference and outright anti-Semitism in the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department combined to produce inaction.
The Holocaust remains unique in modern human history, but the memory of it has been insufficient to stop other genocides. The U.N., as Annan acknowledged Monday, has failed to stop slaughters in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. What he didn’t say was that the U.N. has also served as a diplomatic fig leaf, allowing Western powers to justify doing nothing on their own. That is something the assembled statesmen might contemplate as they meet at Auschwitz today.