Andrew Stroehlein, Foreign Policy | 2 Dec 2009

It was cold, misty, and miserably wet the day we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, but no one wished for better weather. My companions — mostly midlevel diplomats from more than a dozen countries around the world — all seemed to agree that sunshine would have been almost offensive. We had come to this corner of Poland as part of a weeklong seminar on preventing genocide, which included such outings so that the participants could learn more about the details of the Holocaust. And yet, I wondered if this field trip was having its desired effect.

There is probably no more appropriate single location than Auschwitz-Birkenau for grasping the scope of the Nazi horror. But the unprecedented and unequaled nature of that horror makes it somewhat inappropriate as a useful lesson for preventing genocide today. When you’re waiting for something that looks like Birkenau, it’s almost too easy to say, "never again."

From March 1942 to late 1944, Birkenau was the largest factory of mass murder in wartime Europe. Every day, trains arrived carrying thousands of people — mostly Jews, but also Poles, Roma, and others — and apart from a limited number deemed fit for slave labor, they were sent immediately to their deaths in massive, purpose-built gas chambers. At its peak, Birkenau could kill as many as 20,000 people a day, and in the end, this place was the worst of the extermination camps: The Nazis are estimated to have murdered over a million people here.

It was the mechanization of murder on a scale never before seen, and it stretched far beyond the grounds of this camp. With victims shipped in from all across Europe, this was an integrated system of collection, transport, and execution that covered a continent. It was precisely that sort of industrialization that I feared might inhibit an understanding of mass atrocity among the participants. Walking around Birkenau with these diplomats, some of whom represent states on the edge — a few perhaps even over the edge — of mass atrocities right now, I got the feeling some might have missed the point.

The Holocaust was a minutely organized and completely structured — not to mention disturbingly well-documented — genocide, miles away from the messy realities of their countries. They could look at the camp and the gas chambers and recognize nothing familiar. In fact, the visit may have only confirmed their belief that their countries were incapable of mass atrocities, when all they are really incapable of is the industrialized method.

The passage of time and the different cultural context of mid-20th-century Central Europe only added to the distance, making the events of that era seem even less familiar to African, Latin American, and Asian participants living in 2009. It is harder to identify parallels with one’s own culture, harder to see the signs and harder to admit any similarities. It allows a psychological distance from anything that might occur in their countries.

Of course, this is not the intention of the seminar organizers, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation’s Raphael Lemkin Center for Genocide Prevention and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The goals of this unique and admirable project were, first, to train government policymakers in the latest genocide and conflict prevention and intervention strategies. Second, the organizers are seeking to help these participants build an international network of diplomats and others who understand the warning signs and can act to help halt disaster before it strikes.

Seminar instructors, like me, deliberately pointed out the universal potentials, stressing the similarities between the Holocaust and later genocides and other mass atrocities. Still, I sensed both organizers and speakers had a bit of a tough time reaching some participants. Perhaps it is simply too hard to compete with the place-specific impressions one gets upon visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I did naturally talk to some participants about this — about how what they saw resonated with them and their own countries’ situations and potentials — but it was rather unsatisfying.

This issue goes far beyond a couple dozen participants in a seminar in Poland. I suspect too many people in the wider international community still only recognize genocide in this one most specific sense. They are always looking for Birkenau — expecting industrialized killing rather than seeing genocide the way it unfolds today. They ignore the evidence that in the right environment, simple machetes can be just as effective as rail networks and gas chambers.

"Genocide" is too limiting a term in any case. In recent years, governments have not necessarily been exterminating entire subgroups en masse with crystal-clear intent. Yet some governments show no qualms about shelling huge numbers of ethnic minority civilians trapped in confined war zones, as we saw in Sri Lanka earlier this year. More common still are governments that kick one ethnic group off its land and force the people into displacement camps where they become permanent wards of international humanitarian agencies — think Darfur, for example, to mention just one place commonly labeled a "slow-motion genocide."

To get hung up on definitions of "genocide" — or "war crimes," "crimes against humanity," or "ethnic cleansing" for that matter — is to miss the point entirely, and the possibility of prevention, almost certainly. Arguing over the fulfillment of categories wastes valuable time better spent saving lives.

Some have suggested separating the legal definitions of these atrocities, which are needed by lawyers arguing the case long after the fact, from the political definitions, which would require a simpler burden of proof to encourage swift, preventive action by the international community. But even if you could get beyond fears of a "hair-trigger" approach, you are still more or less where you started: Definition is held to be paramount, when the real issue is political will.

Washington’s stance toward Rwanda and Darfur illustrate this perfectly. In the former, the Clinton administration went through various contortions to avoid calling it a genocide, while in the latter, the Bush administration took a long look and declared it a genocide. But whether or not the G-word was used, the result was the same: The White House did exactly what it wanted to do or thought it could do to stop the killing — conscience-salving quick fixes and half-measures with little or no effect.

Expanding the focus from strictly genocide to "atrocity crimes" may seem an improvement, but it still sets up definitions that have to be evaluated and can anyway be ignored whether the definitions are fulfilled or not. In other words, it all comes down to politics anyway, so fooling around with definitions seems pointless at best, and deliberate and deadly delay at worst.

If generating political will is the only issue, then the organizers of this seminar have the right idea to establish a network of career diplomats who have some knowledge of genocide and the techniques employed to try to prevent it. And they do see the importance of cultural context in expanding sympathy for the victims and the need to stress that atrocity crimes can emerge anywhere: The next seminar will be in Latin America.

Theirs is long-term work, to be sure, but if they can get enough diplomats and government officials through a program that stresses the universal potential of atrocity crimes and the possible steps for their prevention, then it might just have some positive effect on establishing political will in future cases of mass murder, when nothing will look remotely like Birkenau.

Andrew Stroehlein is Crisis Group’s Communications Director.