Friday, April 24, 2015

Genocide And The People Responsible

The Church of Saint
Blase of the Armenians
in Rome

FBI Director, James B. Comey sparked a diplomatic crisis last week when, in a speech at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, he said:
“In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t so something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do.”
Both the Polish President and the Prime Minister were quick to react with the assertion—and the broadly truthful assertion—that the Poles were victims of Nazi aggression and not perpetrators.  (I have to qualify “truthful” with “broadly” because while Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany, and while Poles themselves were treated as a captive nation and its people regarded as semi-slaves of the Nazi State, and while a million and a half Poles were sent to forced labor in Germany or in the Nazi Camps, and while hundreds of thousands of Poles were imprisoned in Nazi Concentration camps, and while almost 2 million Poles of non-Jewish blood were murdered by the Nazis in addition to the three million Polish Jews who perished, there were Poles who collaborated with the Nazi Regime.  While before the war only about 800,000 Poles claimed to be Germans, once the Reich had subjected Poland approximately 3 million Polish citizens who could prove German blood enrolled in the Volksdeutsche, identifying them with their German ancestry and exempting them from the discriminations imposed against their neighbors of Slavic blood.   Among Poles of Slavic lineage, only several thousand became active collaborators with the Nazis—perhaps he lowest rate among the various conquered nations.  On the other hand, a strong strain of anti-Semitism that had been woven into Polish culture over the centuries—and which had been enflamed in the 20th century by many Polish Catholic sources including some of the publications under the editorship of Saint Maximilian Kolbe—did not encourage Polish Catholics to resist the genocide that happened in their midst.   The Poles were not responsible for the genocide but the question must remain: were they innocent of the blood spilt in their midst?
That sounds harsh—and I will admit it—perhaps it is time to rethink responsibility.
What brings this subject to the fore is that this past week Pope Francis used the word “Genocide” to describe the murder of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I.  The Turks have reacted even more strongly to the Pope than the Poles had to FBI Director Comey.  It is a dicey subject. Due to Diplomatic Pressure and NATO politics, President Obama has yet “to grow a pair” and call the Armenian massacre for what it was.  That is a huge disappointment—akin to the disappointment many of us felt in Pope Francis for his refusing to receive the Dalai Lama earlier this year out of fear of repercussions from the Beijing government.  Even the best of leaders occasionally need a shot of testosterone.  Ironically, Angela Merkel of Germany is not backing away from the term Genocide—something that given Germany’s glass house it takes a lot of chutzpah to do, but because Germany has taken responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi era, they certainly can do. 
The Holocaust was not the only genocide for which the Third Reich must bear responsibility.  In addition to the attempted wholesale slaughter of European Jewry, Nazi policy aimed at whipping out the Romani (Gypsy) population of Europe, resulting in the death of between a quarter and a half million of the Roma.  Some scholars estimate that proportionately to their numbers, this was even more devastating than the murder of the six million Jews.  Under the cover of their Nazi overlords, the Croat State led by Prime Ministers Ante Pavelić and Nikola Mancić undertook the systematic slaughter not only of Jews and Roma people, but the Serbian population.   Under the same conditions, the Ukrainians, led by Dmytro Klyachkivsky, initiated the slaughter of the Polish adult male population of the Ukraine and Eastern Galicia.  In the same way, the Armenians were not the only victims of the Ottoman Turks as there were programs of mass slaughter directed against both the Assyrian and Greek populations of the Empire. 
The twentieth century was marred by many “ethnic cleansing” or genocidal programs. The 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1992-95 ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs are two more examples.  The policies of the government of Indonesia against the indigenous population of East Timor, the policies of the Beijing regime against Tibet, the policies of Sri Lanka against the Tamil people—all are cited by some sources as “genocide,” and that tragically does not exhaust the list.  Indeed, there is a danger of trivializing the whole concept of genocide by showing just how common it has been.  All too often religion has played a role in genocide and no one’s hands—be they Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish—can claim to be clean of their brothers’ blood. 
This brings me to the point.  Instead of trying to fix the blame for genocide on one nationality or religion or other “grouping,” perhaps we all need to own our collective responsibility for the occurrence and reoccurrence of this heinous crime against God and against the human race.  Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge responsibility is pathetic but is not significantly different, in this world that has become a global village, from your and my denial of complicity.  I was not yet born during the Nazi atrocities and granted, I can’t take responsibility for what happened in those years. I have, however, lived through Rwanda and Kosovo and Bosnia and Cambodia and how many other mass slaughters over the last half-century.  Given the “global village” created by our mass media, how do I differ from the villager in Oswiecim who saw the trains roll by day and night, who saw the smoke by day and the sky lit by the eerie glow of the furnaces by night, who smelled the foul air of burning flesh and went on his daily life of Mass in the village Church, of going to work, of eating his supper, of making love to his wife?  The problem is not simply that some government people in Ankara won’t take responsibility or some officials in Warsaw are offended by a remark that hits too close to home.  The problem is that we all are cynical enough to say to God at the end of the day, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

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