"Bystanders" to the Holocaust: A Re-Evaluation; "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power

By Nusan, Jack | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

"Bystanders" to the Holocaust: A Re-Evaluation; "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power


Nusan, Jack, Shofar


edited by David Cesarani and Paul A. Levine. London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2002. 286 pp. $24.50.

New York: Basic Books, 2002. 632 pp. $30.00.

These two books have one big thing in common: being a bystander is nothing new in this 20th-century age of genocide. It goes back 100 years to the Armenian massacres.

Samatha Power's magnum opus shows how President Clinton was simply the continuation of a long list of American political leaders who failed to stop genocide. Clinton failed twice, first in Bosnia and second in Rwanda, but he was not alone: George Bush (senior) failed to stop the genocide of Kurds in Iraq in 1988, as well as to bring Pol Pot to trial. Carter failed to stop the Cambodian genocide in 1976-1979. Every decade brought its disastrous failures. Why? Because there are many barriers to intervention, fear of being bogged down in another Vietnam-style debacle being number one. Other reasons are that there are powerful forces in the State department who are reluctant to label something as "genocide" since that label means one must intervene legally. By calling it simply tribal or ethnic warfare, one can avoid both the guilt and the loss of American soldiers.

However, Samantha Power's great strength is that she also provides a positive story -- the stories of courageous individuals who risked their careers and lives in an effort to force the U.S.A. to act.

She begins with the life of Raphael Letokin. While the papers of Lemkin have been in the possession of scholars for years, very little has been made public. Lemkin's name should be a household word in this country, akin to Schindler or Wallenberg, yet it is not. Ms. Powers, a law school graduate and former executive director of the Cart Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, weaves a master tale of Lemkin's triumphs and failures. A fascinating story, and yet there are others before and after: Secretary Morgenthau regarding the Armenian genocide and many others, lesser known, who pushed Clinton to recognize the horrors in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. But then, being an "innocent bystander" is nothing new in U.S. history.

Which brings us to the Cesarani and Levine book. Cesarani, a professor of modern Jewish history and director of the AHRB Centre for the study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the University of Southampton in England, and Levine, assistant professor of history at Uppsala University's Programme for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Sweden, show us that being a bystander is far more complex than thought. As they say, it cannot be reduced to simply the difference between being an antisemite or a philosemite, or between rescue versus indifference.

Utilizing new archival sources, their book proves that obstacles were not specifically placed in the way of saving Jews, yet efforts were still paralyzed for a variety of reasons. Modern warfare, fear of retaliation, bureaucratic bumbling, and countless other reasons made sure that even "good guys" like Sweden or Holland had great difficulty helping the victims. I like the phrase "situational paralysis" (my own phrase) to describe what happened. It happened to Jews as well. They too could have fought back; they too could have moved faster to escape; they too could have asked for help from non-Jews early on, yet they were situationally paralyzed.

As the years go by, we are seeing new and fresh interpretations of resistance, rescue, collaboration, and perpetration, and that is as it should be. …

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