Tag Archives: holocaust

Don’t put all the blame on the Germans – a lesson from World War II


Sculpture of the “Unbowed man” at the Khatyn Memorial site. The sculpture depicts Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult to survive the massacre, holding his dead son Adam. Credit: John Oldale.Click to enlarge

The recent commemorations of Victory Day in Europe – the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe – got me thinking about how we refer to Germany as the perpetrator of the horrors in that war. Often we more correctly use the term “Nazi Germany” – but still it must place a burden of guilt on many Germans who were, and are innocent.

On the other hand, it seems to me, it almost ignores the very real responsibility of people from other nations for these atrocities. (Although, granted some speakers will also refer to involvement of collaborators).

The Khatyn Massacre

Many years ago I visited the war memorial at Khatyn, in Belarus. This was a very moving experience because it symbolised how that nation had lost a quarter of its population during the war. All the residents of this village had been herded into barns which were then set alight – anyone attempting to escape was shot. The photo above shows part of the memorial depicting the man who was thought to be the sole survivor.

Very moving.

I certainly got the impression that this horror was perpetrated by German soldiers. But my reading in recent days convinces me I was wrong, and had been wrongly informed. The perpetrators were a nazi battalion – but one established in Kiev and made up mainly of Ukrainian nationalists. Here are some details from the Wikipedia entry on the Khatyn massacre:

Khatyn or Chatyń (Belarusian and Russian: Хаты́нь, pronounced [xɐˈtɨnʲ]) was a village of 26 houses and 156 inhabitants in Belarus, in Lahoysk Raion, Minsk Region, 50 km away from Minsk. On 22 March 1943, the entire population of the village was massacred by the 118th Schutzmannschaft Nazi battalion. The battalion was formed in July 1942 in Kiev and was made up mostly of Ukrainian nationalist collaborators from Western Ukraine, Hiwis[1][2][3] and the DirlewangerWaffen-SS special battalion.

The massacre was not an unusual incident in Belarus during World War II. At least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were burned and destroyed by the Nazis, and often all their inhabitants were killed (some amounting up to 1,500 victims) as a punishment for collaboration with partisans. Khatyn became a symbol of all those villages. In the Vitebsk region, 243 villages were burned down twice, 83 villages three times, and 22 villages were burned down four or more times. In the Minsk region, 92 villages were burned down twice, 40 villages three times, nine villages four times, and six villages five or more times.[4] Altogether, over 2,000,000 people were killed in Belarus during the three years of Nazi occupation, almost a quarter of the country’s population.[5][6]

It’s worth following up some of the links for more details.

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, which included the Schutzmannschaft Nazis involved in this and many other massacres, carried out anti-Jewish and anti-partisan operations in most areas of Ukraine. While these units were formed directly after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 Ukrainian nationalist organisations existed before that invasion. These extremist organisations were not just “nationalist,” but were racist – expressing hatred for Poles, Jews and above all, Russians. And these three groups became their victims during the war.

Misinforming tourists

I had happily accepted the story that the Khatyn Massacre was perpetrated by “Nazis” – assuming they were German Nazis. So this information came as a bit of a shock to me. Worse – the role of such nationalist forces was not talked about much during Soviet times in fear of encouraging antagonism between the different republics. So innocent tourists were left in the dark about the true origins of the perpetrators – despite the fact that the leaders of the battalion involved had been brought to justice. As Wikipedia says:

“The commander of one of the platoons of 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, Ukrainian Vasyl Meleshko, was tried in a Soviet court and executed in 1975. The Chief of Staff of 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, Ukrainian Grigory Vassiura, was tried in Minsk in 1986 and found guilty of all his crimes. He was sentenced to death by the verdict of the military tribunal of the Belorussian military district.

The case and the trial of the main executioner of Khatyn was not given much publicity in the media; the leaders of the Soviet republics worried about the inviolability of unity between the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples.”

A lesson for today

So the message is – when your hear about Nazi atrocities the perpetrators were not necessarily German. We should not forget the role played by collaborators and non-German nationalists in the Holocaust and other atrocities.

epa04318197 New soldiers of Ukrainian army battalion 'Azov' attend their oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, 16 July 2014. The government in Kiev does not recognize the declared independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and pro-Russian militants refuse to cooperate with the pro-European leadership in Kiev. Ukraine insisted that there would be no ceasefire or negotiations before the pro-Russian separatists in the country's east give up their arms.  EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

New soldiers of Ukrainian army battalion ‘Azov’ attend their oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, 16 July 2014.Image Credit: EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

And this is not an abstract appeal. Today the inheritors of the Ukrainian nationalist organisations which committed these atrocities are alive and very active in Ukraine. They even have military battalions fighting in the current civil war. Worse, the US has now sent their own troops into Ukraine to train National Guard battalions which include units like the Azov Batallion which is based on extreme National Socialist ideology.

Talk about a slippery slope.

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End of life decisions

Such titles always bring euthanasia to my mind, but I realise that is my perspective – I am just so much close to the problem of dying with dignity than I am to problems related to death and quality of life at the initial stages of life. But I recently came across this blog post – Why Infanticide Can Be Moral – which got me thinking. This issue is actually very relevant to young parents and parents to be.

The author, Tauriq Moosa – a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town – wrote it as an introduction to a series of articles he is doing on the morality of infanticide. As we might expect, several commenters reacted very emotionally to his raising the subject of infanticide. In this introduction he tries to reduce the emotion by explaining why he thinks “it’s moral, in certain cases, to ‘let’ an infant die or deliberately end its life humanely.”

“Child euthanasia” more appropriate

Like euthanasia, this is a morally difficult subject, but nevertheless one that many people have to confront. Especially young parents and medical professionals. The word “infanticide’ is really so tainted as to make it inappropriate here and “child euthanasia” is probably more appropriate.

These days many researchers into human morality stress the intuitional basis and emotional nature of morality. That we all react quickly, and emotionally, to moral situations – far too quickly for any reasoned processing of the issues. Reasoning usually comes later when we rationalise our behaviour to provide reasons for it. In some cases I think the researchers’ concentration on the emotional and intuitional nature of morality underplays the role that reason must play in some of our moral decisions.

Surely end of life decisions are the very situations when we, especially parents and relatives, must make rational decision based on careful reasoning, rather than knee jerk reactions based on dogma, emotion and social pressure. And society at large sometimes has to take part in such reasoned decision-making because of their involvement in producing and approving laws related to euthanasia, assisted suicide, child euthanasia and capital punishment.

I don’t doubt that medical professionals sometimes must make decisions not to intervene, and therefore allow a new-born child to die, because they recognise he or she has no prospects for a proper life. In other cases where intervention would still result in very limited prospects of life, or a life of any quality, I imagine parents would, or should, be involved in such decisions.

Examples that come to mind are the condition of spina bifida which require an operation on the new born infant to close the spine. In some cases the existing damage to to the baby may be so great as to morally justify non-intervention. A tragic decision but a morally justified one.

Dismissing the ethics out-of-hand

The ethics of end of life decisions potentially concern us all. But especially they concern those professionally involved. So, of course, this is a proper subject for philosophers specialising in ethics. Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, has written at some length on this subject. His arguments, which relate to other sentient animals as well as humans, are certainly worth considering – even if one doesn’t agree with all of them. After all, this is a difficult but important subject. We need to discuss it. And the arguments of such an important contributor should not be dismissed out-of-hand, or judged dogmatically or irrationally.

After all, if a commenter attacks Singer for rehearsing the issues, they are also effectively attacking the parents and medical professionals who must do the same and are far more emotionally involved.

But that is what happens for some people. I have noticed a tendency for Christian apologists to misrepresent and attack Singer.They will use his arguments for child euthanasia to claim, for example, that Singer is (in)famous for his advocacy of infanticide, the killing of newborn infants. They create a picture akin to someone running a death camp during the holocaust rather than an ethicist seriously considering the issues faced by parents and medical professionals considering the morality of intervening to save the life of a seriously damaged infant and the consequent repercussions.

Mind you – I think people like Peter Singer and Tauriq Moosa could defuse their opponents somewhat by using the more correct term “child euthanasia” and not “infanticide” – with its connotations of murder and crime.

Singer as a diversion

Lately I have noticed that religious apologists resort to attacking Singer for his “advocacy of infanticide” as diversionary tactic. Specifically when the Christian apologist William Lane Craig is criticised for his justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide using “divine command” ethics (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide).

Specifically Craig justifies the biblical infanticide by saying:

“I would say that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead…than being raised in this Canaanite culture.”

Of course, there is plenty in the bible which can be used by a literalist to justify all sorts of evil.  And that is a real problem for advocates of “divine command ethics.” They don’t help themselves with the mental gymnastics they have to perform to claim that the evil is actually good because it was commanded by a “loving and just god” who could not order anything evil!  Or that this “killing brings about some greater good.” Or that Craig’s view is that his god’s command was “to drive the inhabitants out of the land (land to which the Israelites had legal title), with only the die-hard occupants who refused to leave being killed.” And anyway his god was commanding destruction of “the nations as a collective group, not to destroy every individual.”

Now I think “infanticide” is an appropriate word to describe what Craig was justifying. This was ethnic cleansing, the denial of the right to life based on ethnicity of the children. Craig was justifying behaviours more typical of a death camp commander in the Holocaust than that of a moral philosopher considering the issues faced by young parents and medical professionals when new-born infants face certain or likely death with little chance of intervention enabling a reasonable quality of life.

Perhaps we will yet see Holocaust deniers resorting to attacking Peter Singer as a diversion.

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Evolution and the Holocaust

A remarkably similar title to Darwin's classic

These sometimes get linked because they both have their deniers. I am ignoring those silly people who actually blame the holocaust on Darwin.  Here I want to compare them as phenomena supported by immense amounts of converging evidence.

In “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution”, Richard Dawkins compared the denial of evolution to the denial of the history of the Roman civilisation. There is good evidence for both and yet some people seem to think it is OK to deny evolutionary science while accepting the existence of the Roman civilisation.

Same with the Holocaust. As Dawkins pointed out the evidence for evolution is as good as, if not better, than that for the holocaust. But there are still people who accept the Holocaust as a fact while denying evolution. ( actually I did come across someone the other day who disagreed with Dawkins because while he found the evidence for evolution convincing nhe denied the evidence for the Holocaust. Almost a mirror image).

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Lets say the sun is pulled around the earth by horse-drawn chariots

In a very brief post on Uncommon Descent (Let’s say Darwin was necessary for the holocaust) Dave Scott revealed the fundamental problem that intelligent design (ID) has in its approach to science.

“Let’s say that Darwin’s theory of evolution was a necessary factor for the holocaust.

Now class, what science journal should we try to publish this in? Anyone? Anyone?”

Well, class, can you see the fallacy here?

Scott starts with an assertion (“let’s say”) and then thinks that this is worthy of acceptance and publication in a science journal – without any evidence! He will the go on to call “foul” when his submission is rejected and claim that it is due to “intolerance,” “dogmatism” and “Darwinism” in the “science establishment.” He will then demand that the whole approach of science is changed so that such submissions become acceptable.

This is completely in line with arguments by the Wedge people that science based on inference alone (e.g. irreducible complexity) without the need for evidence and testing is acceptable.

Similar articles:
Intelligent design and scientific method
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?

Sources of evil?

Since September 2001 we have become more aware of how religious belief can promote evil deeds. This is not new, however. The history of evil perpetrated in the name of religion has been discussed by authors such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Michael Jordan (In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World’s Religions).

One would have to be blind to disagree with these authors. However, I think the problem of their analyses is that it is restricted to considering only religion. This doesn’t help us understand the origins of evil in secular situations or evil activity carried out by mankind in general.

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