Terrible Memories: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Some things are so terrible that they leave a scar on the collective psyche. Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day set aside to remember such a thing. The Holocaust was the systematic extermination of people deemed undesirable by the Nazi government. It was the application of industrial organization to mass murder. While genocide has become a familiar term in global parlance, there is still something especially terrible about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust killed as many as 20 million people. Jews were the largest single group, but the Holocaust was intended to kill everyone deemed inferior by the Nazi regime. The goal was the purification of the human race through extermination of any group seen as impure. Had the Nazi dream of global conquest been fulfilled, this would have meant the extermination of the vast majority of the people on the planet.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust the world vowed that it would never happen again. To this end, the United Nations adopted, and nearly every nation ratified, the Genocide Convention. The Genocide Convention is unique in international law in that it requires nation-states to violate the sovereignty of other nation states in cases where genocide is taking place. Failure to act in the face of genocide is specified as a crime against humanity, making those who tolerate genocide war criminals.

Since the ratification of the Genocide Convention, the world has changed a great deal. The Holocaust has faded into memory. Few remember that the overall goal was to kill most of the human race. Some even deny that the Holocaust ever happened. In searching for content for this blog post, four of the first ten video links were from Holocaust denial sites.

Holocaust Remembrance Day strives to keep alive the memory of what was done. Those who deny that the Holocaust happened represent a lunatic fringe, but the regrettably common occurrence of genocide in the post-World War Two era has raised questions about the global commitment to prevent genocide.

A key part of preventing genocide is to remember the horrors that it brings. The Holocaust was the first modern genocide. It remains the only genocide practiced by a modern, industrial state that turned the tools of industrial production to murder.

That the Holocaust was committed by a modern industrial state matters. Genocide is not something that only happens “over there” to “them”. It can happen whenever people decide that a group different from themselves is not actually a group of people. When we dehumanize a group enough, we can kill them and not lose sleep. The Holocaust started with rhetoric about racial and social purity and the need to keep the wrong kind of people away, even if it meant rounding up your neighbor and making them vanish.

Millions of Germans went along with this regime, including thousands who knew the extent of what was being done. Today Germany owns its history. Postwar Germany made a point of taking collective responsibility and of preserving the memory of both the Holocaust, and the fact that people let it happen.

Sitting in a safe, quiet office and writing a blog entry about the Holocaust, it is easy to see this as something that happened long ago. It is easy to rest on the norms that have developed since the Second World War and argue that the Genocide Convention makes a repeat of these events impossible. But then a review of genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and other places shows that the legal framework means less in practice than it should.

In 2016 several African leaders began the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, the modern descendant of the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunals that punished war criminals of WWII. In 2016 radical nationalist parties in Europe saw big gains in local elections. Populist leaders spewing the rhetoric of dehumanization and division have again joined the mainstream of political discourse across the globe. And the killing goes on in places like Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen.

Norms are tricky things in international relations. A norm as powerful as the prohibition against genocide can be widely accepted. The problem comes in enforcing the norms when they are violated. Genocide is a large-scale crime. To stop it requires resources and political will, not just from political leaders, but from the people they represent. Early intervention has been rare. The most common action by the international system has been justice after the fact, with perpetrators facing limited justice in international courts. In the absence of justice, norms are a poor deterrent.

As this Holocaust Remembrance Day passes, it is good to stop and mourn those who died. It is also important to think about what role the Genocide Convention and other tools to fight against crimes against humanity play in international relations. Can such tools be used effectively to limit these crimes in the future? Or are we doomed to repeat the process again and again: a crime without end?



  1. Global days of recognition show a common set of norms about what is significant in international relations. They reflect a common set of values. Does such a common set of norms matter in the relations between states? If the norm conflicts with material interest, do norms ever win?
  2. One problem with genocide is that it is expensive to stop once it is underway. Large-scale military intervention is often the only option to force an end to it. Given the small number of countries with the ability to project power globally, can the international commitment to prevent genocide ever be meaningful unless this small group is willing to bear the bulk of the costs of prevention?
  3. Ideally, an early warning system could identify genocide before it happens. The problem would be how to act without violating the sovereignty of the state in question. If a state is about to commit genocide, the Genocide Convention does not clearly apply and any intervention would violate sovereignty. How could an early warning system work to stop genocide in a world of sovereign states?