Letter: Lethal cocktail that created a holocaust

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The Independent Online
In his column, "We know how, but we still don't know why the Germans killed the Jews" (21 April), Neal Ascherson contradicts the claim made by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler's Willing Executioners that perpetrators of crimes against the Jews made unforced choices. He argues that few people have the freedom to "choose in such a total way, or control the results of their choice".

Gerard Prunier, in his analysis of the Rwandese holocaust, identified the prerequisites for a genocide to be: a well organised civil service, a tightly controlled land area, a disciplined population, reasonably good communications and a coherent ideology containing the necessary lethal potential. The ideology in Rwanda was promulgated by homicidal political masters, underpinned by an inter-ethnic antipathy that had been promoted over decades by Belgian colonialists, and aggravated by the effect of draconian internationally-imposed monetary policies on an impoverished and pre- dominantly illiterate population.

Another reviewer of Goldhagen's book, Caroline Moorehead, emphasised another prerequisite - "the complete disconnection between what the perpetrators believe to be true of their victims and what is true" - the demonisation of the victims required before killing them becomes "justifiable". Importantly, both Germany and Rwanda were simultaneously waging intense wars on other fronts, a situation which not only imposes patriotic "obligations" on citizens but also has been shown in former Yugoslavia to disinhibit behaviour.

Yet how could these overwhelmingly Christian peoples allow themselves to be manipulated into obscenely inhumane acts? Surely the culprit is man's monumental capacity for self-deception. Lastly, many courageous people in Germany and Rwanda resisted, often fatally, the call to kill innocent civilians: perhaps Ascherson's choice does exist, but only for the courageous.

Peter Hall

Physicians for Human Rights