Is the Holocaust an extraordinary crime

Age of world wars

Sönke Neitzel

Sönke Neitzel is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He studied history, journalism and political science in Mainz, where he received his doctorate in 1994 and qualified as a professor in 1998. He then taught at the Universities of Mainz, Karlsruhe, Bern and Saarbrücken before being appointed to the Chair of Modern History at the University of Glasgow in 2011. He has been teaching and researching at the LSE since September 2012.
He became known to a wider audience through his book "Abgehört. German Generals in British Captivity, 1942-1945", which was published in 2005.
His main research interests are military history and the history of international relations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Contact: [email protected]

Wars lower the inhibition threshold for acts of violence against unpopular or hostile population groups and pave the way for "ethnic cleansing". The Second World War is an important prerequisite for the radicalization of the Nazi leadership, which very soon decided to murder all European Jews.

With the beginning of the war, efforts to "solve the Jewish question" lead to deportations to the areas in the east occupied by the Germans. Citizens of Hanau, who had to wear the "Jewish star" on their clothing, boarded a train to Theresienstadt under police guard in 1942. (& copy akg-images)

A century of violence, this is what the 20th is commonly called. This attribution came not only because of dying on the battlefields, but mainly because of the genocides: the genocide of the Jews, but also the genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915/16, in Cambodia in 1975-1978 and in Rwanda in 1994 to name only the most famous.

Mass murders are certainly not unique to the 20th century, just think of the extermination campaigns of the Assyrians (in the 9th and 7th centuries BC in what is now the Middle East) or the mass murders of the Crusaders in the Middle Ages. In the modern age, however, the nature and framework of violence changed fundamentally. On the one hand, new technologies, bureaucratic rationality, mass media propaganda and radical ideologies led to complex planning and organizational processes that did not exist before. This is one of the reasons why genocides - now mostly state crimes - reached a new quantitative dimension. On the other hand, there has been an attempt since the 19th century to limit mass violence through binding legal norms. One can argue about success, but at least this changed the evaluation of crimes. Mass murders were now seen as elementary violations of the international legal order.

To describe the new character of mass violence, the lawyer and peace researcher Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide" in 1944, which he composed of the Greek word génos (Greek for "gender") and the Latin caedere (to kill). He was mainly referring to the murder of European Jews. However, researchers have not yet been able to agree on what exactly is meant by a "genocide". The 1948 UN Convention "on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" did not provide a useful analytical term either, since the definition on which it was based was a politically motivated compromise between the great powers, for example certain forms of colonial violence or the Deliberately excluded mass murders in the Soviet Union. The excesses of violence are so different even in the 20th century that it makes little sense to subsume them under one term. One thinks, for example, of the suppression of the Herero uprising in 1904/05 in what was then German South West Africa, the collectivization of the Ukrainian peasants in 1929-33, the mass executions of republicans by the supporters of General Franco in the Spanish civil war (1936-39), the "killing fields "the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975-78) or the murder of 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, in Rwanda in 1994. Beyond the questions about terms and comparisons, the following is an analysis of two phenomena of mass violence, those in the age of World wars are of particular importance.