Twentieth Century Atrocities and Genocides
Evaluating Atrocity and Genocide
The question, which genocide or atrocity in history was worst comes up again and again and some people get very angry and upset about which was the worst of them all. My response to this question is a little different, based on twenty years studying history and in particular studying World War II and Nazi Germany.
1) I recognize that there are some atrocities and genocides I know very little about. Some such events happened in antiquity and we have very little accurate information about them. In evaluating this question, I also take into consideration that I did not personally suffer in any of these government persecutions, so someone else may have much stronger feelings than me.
Although my father and his family did survive both the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland during World War II, the fact that they survived to immigrate to America after the war is probably due to the fact that they were Catholic, lived in a fairly small town, and were extremely fortunate.
Numbers are not the Whole Story
2) Numbers are certainly not all that should be evaluated when examining a great tragedy, they are not everything. For example, more people died under Stalin's rule than under Hitler's, although with Stalin it seems as if most deaths were incidental to hard work, physical exposure, and starvation.
Stalin and his government do not seem to have focused on any one nationality or religious group. But the Nazis built a vast and interconnected industrial system to eradicate specific groups and classes of people. We don't know all the details yet, but the numbers of foreigners and peasants who died at the hands of the Chinese communists may be even greater.
Confronting the Holocaust
Non-European Genocidal Actions
3) Then there is the Rwandan Genocide, in a less civilized area of the world, the total number of individuals slaughtered was much smaller, but horrifying and gruesome because the murders were so brutal and bloody and done "up close" with machetes and knives.
We have known for a long time that poisoning someone from a distance is much easier emotionally than shooting them with a rifle, which is easier than knifing them in the chest, which is easier than beating them to death with your fists. So I think of these kinds of things when I think about mass murder and torture.
A Personal not a Professional Reaction
4) I always consider and point out to my students, whether unspeakably cruel and barbaric actions were committed within a relatively primitive society or within a highly educated and modern industrial society. So for me, and this is a personal judgment, not an academic or logical one, the Nazi genocide “seems” more horrible because:
(a) The Nazi crimes took place in a modern “supposedly civilized" Christian nation.
(b) So many people participated or were at the very least collaborators.
(c) The Nazi goal was far “worse” than death; their goal was isolation, humiliation, degradation, cruelty, torture, horrifying experiments, starvation, and then death.
A Qualified Conclusion
Somehow the Nazi efforts seem worse to me, but professionally as an academic and personally, as a moral human being, I do not encourage my students to think this way and I will not permit them to argue about it.
I think arguing about which atrocity is worse would be counter-productive and would not teach us the important things we need to learn about societies and civilization, human morality and choice, and the absolutely necessary limits on power.
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