Sidestepping Genocide, Then and Now

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

In recent days, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and even state officials in Texas have taken steps to limit international action against the genocidal government of Sudan. Political or financial considerations have been considered more urgent than stopping mass murder.

Ironically, these developments coincide with the 65th anniversary of the first international declaration against Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry –a statement which was likewise watered down for political reasons, by government officials who were reluctant to intervene against the genocide.

During 1941-1942, the British and American governments received increasingly detailed reports about machine-gun massacres of tens of thousands of European Jews by the Nazis in occupied Russia. One eyewitness account described freshly-covered mass graves “heaving like the sea” from the movement of victims who were not yet dead.

An August 1942 telegram to Washington from the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, Gerhart Riegner, reported that, beyond the random massacres, the Germans were now considering “a plan to exterminate all Jews from German and German-controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the east (presumably Poland).”

The State Department refused Riegner’s request to pass his telegram to American Jewish leaders, citing what one official called “the fantastic nature of the allegation and the impossibility of our being of any assistance.” There were, in fact, many ways the U.S. could have been of assistance–but it would have meant taking steps the Roosevelt administration was unwilling to consider, such as admitting more refugees or urging the British to open the doors of Palestine.

Three long months later, the accumulation of evidence forced Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to acknowledge that “there is no exaggeration. These documents [from Riegner and others] are evidently correct.” At the same time, Members of the British Parliament, British Jewish organizations, and the Archbishop of Canterbury were pressing the Churchill government to respond and, as a top Foreign Office official put it, “unless we can make them some kind of gesture they will cause a lot of trouble.” To alleviate this pressure, London reluctantly suggested to Washington that the Allies issue a joint statement.

The State Department at first resisted the proposal, fearing that “the various Governments of the United Nations [the Allies] would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” Ultimately the Roosevelt administration decided to go along with the statement, but only after watering down some of the language. For example, the proposed phrase “reports from Europe which leave no doubt” (that mass murder was underway) was whittled down to just “numerous reports from Europe.”

The final version, released on December 17, 1942, was signed by the U.S., Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the governments-in-exile of eight Nazi- occupied countries. The Allies also asked Pope Pius XII to endorse the statement, but he declined.

The declaration strongly condemned the Nazis’ “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination and vowed postwar punishment of the perpetrators–but proposed no practical steps to rescue Jews from Hitler. The idea of including a pledge of asylum for Jewish refugees had been nixed because, as one Foreign Office official explained, it would mean making an offer “which would dog our footsteps forever” (i.e. some refugees might actually take them up on it).

Sixty-five years have passed, and one might have thought that would be sufficient time to learn some lessons from the Allies’ tepid response to the Holocaust–yet some government officials today are still taking steps to water down international action against genocide.

At the United Nations General Assembly last month, African representatives gutted a U.S. resolution aimed at Sudanese government-backed Arab militias that are using rape as a weapon of intimidation in Darfur.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the State Department is lobbying against legislation that would help state governments divest from foreign companies that do business with Sudan. State claims the bill would harm U.S. foreign policy because it could affect foreign governments that the administration considers to be “allies and diplomatic partners.”

In Texas, state officials have reasons of their own for resisting action against Sudan. The Austin American-Statesman reports that officials who oversee the state’s public pension funds are refusing to heed recent legislation requiring the funds to sell shares of companies that do business with Sudan. These state officials insist they are obliged “to deliver the best possible investment returns” for their members. The American-Statesman, noting the mass rapes, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and other atrocities by the Arab militias, asks: “What kind of return is worth that investment? And are there any investments too evil to reject?”

In this cacophony of justifications and rationalizations for limiting international action against Sudan, one cannot help but hear the awful echoes of the reasons that U.S. and British officials used to craft their own policy of sidestepping the Nazi genocide.

December 2007