No two historical events are ever exactly the same, but when we read current headlines of the 20th anniversary of the mass slaughter of 800,000 (mostly Tutsi) Rwandans, we may want to note its close parallels with the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews during World War II. There have been many mass killings, before and since, aimed at peoples with real or imagined ethnic, racial, religious or ideological differences — usually minority populations — which others found intolerable.
A key difference with Rwanda is that the Shoah, the Nazi Holocaust, occurred amidst the fog of war on a continental scale, before the electronic revolution in communications, while the Rwandan genocide was centered in one small country within the full glare of television. I still recall the shocking sight of bodies floating down a river, being imprinted on my brain by the evening news.
Yet the predominant world reaction to both events was indifference, denial and evasion, with apologies after. We’ve become accustomed to historical works that find fault with the Roosevelt Administration and the Western Allies for their years of hardhearted inaction and starkly limited help — both in the 1930s run-up to the Holocaust and during the events themselves. With this in mind, I found it all the more amazing to see the Rwandan genocide covered in real time in radio and television news broadcasts, while United Nations peacekeeping soldiers were actually being withdrawn. (In a somewhat related vein, I’ve found these brand new articles at the website of Foreign Policy magazine on the UN’s failures in Darfur: “‘They Just Stood Watching’,” and “‘Now We Will Kill You’.”)
It quickly became clear to me that the Rwandan genocide was more similar to the Holocaust than any other instance of mass violence. Other parallels with the Shoah include the systematic use of state media to dehumanize the victimized minority. If anything, the Hutu genocide regime used radio more graphically than the Nazis did, sometimes directing murderers toward their targets, ferreting out individual Tutsi “cockroaches” as they attempted to flee. And just as the Nazis demonized Jews as radically “other” than their respective countrymen, the Hutu genocidaires graphically distinguished between two populations that over decades had become increasingly one (even more so than in the case of European Jews) — intermarrying, speaking the same language and observing the same religions.
Still, the Hutus struck down the Tutsi in a more intimate way with mobs bludgeoning, hacking and shooting their victims, whereas most (but certainly not all) the Nazi murders were committed “bureaucratically” (especially after the mass shootings of the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units were deemed inefficient) with populations starved to death in ghettos, worked to death in camps and gassed en masse. But even with their cruder methods, the Hutus struck with such savage thoroughness that the rate of murder outpaced the death toll at Auschwitz during its most deadly time of operation as it consumed a majority of the Jews of Hungary in the middle of 1944.
|U.N. soldiers in Darfur|
And conceptually, we should keep in mind that both the Hutu and Nazi mass murder campaigns were genocidal in the truest sense of the word: they intended to wipe out the targeted population to the last individual. This wasn’t exactly true of the Turkish campaign against the Armenians (an event that inspired Hitler to think in terms of genocide), nor of the Sudanese government in Khartoum against the people of Darfur in the last decade. I certainly don’t begrudge Armenians their use of the term; they were targeted in what until then was a uniquely systematic chain of atrocities, only to be exceeded by the Holocaust about 25 years later.
Yehuda Bauer — an Israeli Holocaust scholar and kibbutznik who comes from the left-Zionist tradition of Mapam and Meretz — also categorizes the Nazi treatment of non-Jewish Poles as genocide, but this has to be seen of a different order. The Nazis murdered much of the professional and intellectual classes of the Polish nation, intending to render Poles into an uneducated peasant and worker caste that would serve the Nazi Reich.
The Nazis plan for the Jews was annihilation, exactly as the Hutu extremists intended for the Tutsi. And both genocides ended only with the triumph of outside armies overthrowing the genocidal regimes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, both genocides resulted in the establishment of states with formidable armed forces; although Rwanda and Israel are very small countries, they are, nonetheless, regional superpowers. Rwanda has influenced the complicated chain of events in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo and then Zaire), as Rwandan troops have chased remnant Hutu militiamen into the bush in a chaotic conflict costing nearly as many lives as the Holocaust — at least five million. We read about the complications ensuing from Israel’s military prowess (for better and worse) almost daily.
Like Israel, Rwanda today is a country that functions well on a day-to-day economic level. Unfortunately, Rwanda is governed essentially by an authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame, the Tutsi rebel general who overthrew the genocidaires in the first place. Israel is the closest thing there is in the Middle East to a Western-style democracy, one that has never had a government come to power by other than free elections. But this same democratic government subjects a large population of Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to what cannot be characterized as democratic rule, because it is without the consent of the governed.
This month, we remember both genocides: with solemn 20th anniversary commemorations having taken place in Rwanda on April 7, and the annual observance of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 28.