His neighbor, a woman who had lived in the same community with him all his life, shouted out to the Nazi soldiers. Hersch Altman was 11 years old, hiding with his older sister. His Polish neighbor pointed them out. He got away. His sister did not. Hersch never saw her again.
There are tens of millions of stories just like that one. You can change the names, the places, the regimes, and the ethnicity of those involved. Yet the same thing has played out again and again.
During WWII the worldwide death toll was about 55 million. Excluding military casualties, Hitler was responsible for the death of 12 million assorted “enemies” of the state. This included Hersch Altman’s entire family. He survived by running and hiding throughout the Polish countryside.
In China just between the years 1958-1962, Mao “worked, starved, or [beat] to death” about 45 million Chinese civilians. Millions more Chinese civilians were murdered over the next 50 years.
In Russia, Stalin starved about 7 million Ukrainians to death from 1932-1933. American intellectuals were busy telling Americans how great Uncle Joe was. Most estimate a total of 20-60 million civilians were killed by Stalin.
In North Korea just since the 1990?s several million civilians have been murdered, or died in forced labor camps. Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia murdered 2 million civilians in the 1970?s, and the Rwandan genocide in the 1990?s saw over a million deaths.
I could go on but you get the point. It is important to recognize the conditions which lead to these atrocities, in order to protect ourselves, our communities, our families, and all of society.
There are 8 stages which lead up to a genocide. Not all 8 stages always occur before a genocide, nor does any one necessarily signify an impending genocide. By recognizing these 8 steps, we can stop the madness before it starts.
1. “Us” versus “Them”
Nazi’s are such an easy target when it comes to explaining genocide–they claimed the Jews were different, that they were undermining the culture, and that they were stealing from the rest of Germany by being the middle-man in many transactions.
In Russia, the bourgeoisie or the business class were targeted. Leaders told the proletariat they had been exploited by the bourgeoisie.
The Hutus and the Tutsis were never rival tribes. They are a made up distinction coined by Belgian colonials. They called the taller people with longer necks and lighter skin Tutsis, and the shorter people with a stockier build Hutus.
The Belgians did this to maintain control by creating a hierarchy. What they caused was eventual genocides in both Rwanda and Burundi.
Before each genocide took place, this “us against them” perspective was exploited by leaders.
I’m not saying we are on the verge of genocide in America, but we can see the “us against them” mentality inserted into politics at all levels by power hungry politicians. Poor versus rich, black versus white, Antifa versus the alt right, Democrats versus Republicans, Muslims versus Christians.
Just this past weekend this mentality led to violence in Charleston. You can see how it quickly escalates.
2. Symbolism to distinguish the Classes
Nazi’s forced Jews to wear the Star of David sewn onto their sleeve. Nazi’s themselves were identified by the Swastika.
Members of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia wore Red to identify their members. Symbols like eye-glasses were associated with the “evil” business class.
Today some countries have banned burqas and other traditional Muslim clothing. Saudi Arabia enforces a dress code for women.
In America, symbols are combined with “us against them.” The police have their thin blue line, and Black Lives Matter has the raised fist.
Of course just having a symbol doesn’t mean a group will be involved with a genocide. But there is cause for concern when these 8 indicators start adding up.
Rats, cockroaches, vermin, cancer. Cops are pigs, the poor are leeches, the rich are snakes, protesters are animals.
Before the 1972 mass murder of Hutus in Burundi, the government radio announced that it was time to “hunt down the python in the grass.” At least 100,000 Hutus were then systematically hunted down and killed by government troops, and young supporters of the regime.
If people are thought of as less than human, as was so obvious with the Nazi treatment of Jews, it is easier to carry out atrocities against those people. Perpetrators feel that they are not killing a human, they are exterminating a pest.
After all, the proper thing to do about an infestation is to destroy it. Can you think of any groups said to be infesting America and Europe?
4. Mob Crimes.
Groups are key to carrying out genocide. People behave differently in groups and can hide behind others’ actions. Take any one individual participating in a riot, and they would probably not throw a rock through a window of a store. But rally them into an exclusive group of people, and the pressure from the group will allow evil to pass as normal.
In genocide, groups are usually organized into para-military style units so that when the time comes for the “final solution”, resistance is more easily crushed.
During the Armenian genocide the victims were marched into the desert without food or water, and systematically attacked, robbed, raped and killed by groups of Kurds working under the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks were the political group that sprung up with the goal of eliminating Armenians from their Turkish society.
Genocides are almost always carried out by governments. They already have military and police units at their disposal. Not only does this cause group think, but the hierarchical structure makes it difficult for underlings to decline to participate in the violence.
In Burundi, a small initial attack by Hutus on Tutsis was used as an excuse by Tutsis to kill all Hutus.
Tensions are rising among political factions in America. Riots could easily spiral out of control, from an initially isolated violent group attack to large scale retribution.
Hate groups are set up that drive people apart. Moderates are ushered into one category or another, “because you are either with us, or against us.”
Under these circumstances moderates often become a silent part of the problem, fearing reprisal from the initiators of the genocide. It became a crime to sell weapons to Jews in Nazi Germany. Russians who hid political dissidents were sent to the gulag as well. Under Mao, you either turned in your neighbor or became a target yourself.
This is the more violent and hate filled second phase of the “us against them.” It must happen after dehumanization because moderates need to be bullied and brainwashed to not resist. Fewer people will stand up to protect rats than will protect neighbors.
Hersch Altman’s neighbor who pointed he and his sister out to the Nazis didn’t feel that she was condemning an 11-year-old boy and his teenage sister to death. She felt she was helping to prevent rats from growing large enough to steal from her. Years of polarization culminated in the civilians not simply standing by while Nazis rounded up the Jews, but gleefully participating.
And then when Hersch was fleeing and hiding in the countryside of Poland, many families who he came across wanted nothing to do with him. If they took him in, they would be complicit and murdered themselves if caught.
Unfortunately, in America, some historically marginalized groups now feel it is “their turn.” Black student groups have kicked white students out of their black only events. A generation of Bernie supporters think the rich made them poor, bankers should be in jail, and wealth should be confiscated and redistributed. Others assume Mexicans are taking their jobs, bringing disease and crime to the country.
Even when there are elements of truth, it is important to remove emotion from the equation and come at the problem rationally.
Polarized groups will be ushered into ghettos or concentration camps. Logistics are put into play, with secret police or other groups trained to carry out raids, and conditioned to perform atrocities.
In the Philippines, drug dealers–or anyone suspected of dealing drugs–can be murdered without consequences for the killer. Their police just killed 32 suspected drug dealers in raids this week. President Duterte praised the murders and encouraged the police to commit more.
He already succeeded in polarizing and dehumanizing drug dealers. Why should people care about what happens to these animals undermining society? Mob murders of supposed drug dealers were encouraged, and the organized police forces are now escalating the violence.
Concentration camps, the gulag, the desert, and abandoned schools in Cambodia have all served as the setting for genocide.
In this stage Jews were put in concentration camps and murdered or worked to death. Hutus and Tutsis, first in Burundi, then in Rwanda, were hunted down by neighborhood gangs and government troops and murdered with machetes. Armenians were forced into the desert on a death march.
The people carrying out the atrocities will say it is a good deed, that the world will be better to be rid of the targeted group. In Soviet Russia, the bourgeoisie were carted away because of past “crimes” that exploited the working classes. In Cambodia children were either “reeducated”, or if that failed, murdered.
One Nazi soldier wrote home, telling nonchalantly of shooting at Jewish babies other soldiers tossed into the air over the mass graves.
As you read this, North Koreans are being murdered by their government for as little as practicing any religion. They must accept Kim Jung-un as their only god, or die.
After it has all been done, the victims have been murdered, and the murderous regime has fallen (or not) there is denial. Denial of the scale of the atrocities, denial that they ever happened, denial that the perpetrators are who we say they are.
Bodies are burned and buried in the hopes of not being discovered. It took years for people in the west to know about and believe the Soviet orchestrated starvation of 7 million Ukrainians.
War criminals on trial say that they were just following orders. New governments will help cover-up the atrocities to save face. Victims will be blamed, facts will be denied, paper trails will be burned, and excuses will be made for why it happened.
To this day countries will deny the existence of genocides that happened, or question the magnitude, or seek to redefine genocide so that what happened in their country does not fit the definition. But by the denial stage, it is too late to help most of the victims, and the only thing to do is to bring those responsible to justice.
We can start by refusing to engage in an “us against them” philosophy.
The government, media, and corporations want us to be polarized and fight amongst ourselves. We shouldn’t play into hating any large swaths of the population, just because the propaganda says to.
I do not believe a genocide is close to occurring in America. But it is a scary yet enlightening exercise to go through each of the eight stages and think about current events that match the description.
In the comments, tell me what came to mind as you were reading about each stage.