Learning from the Past




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Jun 04, 2018
by Maryam Ghaddar and Tomas De La Rosa
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Learning from the Past

Salzburg Global Fellows explore the lessons of genocides and mass violence – both historic and current – in the hope of stopping them in the future. Jeremy Silvester works to repatriate the remains of the victims of the Herero genocide from Germany to Namibia

The scars left by decades of systematic persecution and genocide are strewn across our recent history and are still evident across the globe today.

The Holocaust may be the most widely known and studied genocide of the 20th century, but understanding of it is fading with each generation. The world may now cry “never again” but the dehumanization of its Jewish population and other minorities began long before the Nazis erected their concentration and death camps. To understand how such atrocities occur, it is important to not only study, remember and memorialize the Holocaust, but also other cases of genocide and mass violence, especially if we hope to mitigate against such atrocities happening again in the future.

The examination in Salzburg of various atrocities – including the genocide of Herero in Namibia, the genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, and more recently, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar and the massacre of Yazidi in Iraqi Kurdistan – was not to compare or rank human suffering, but to understand how such violence can happen and how it can be halted in the future. By acknowledging the differences; highlighting their distinct histories; identifying the impact of political, cultural or religious indoctrination of populations, especially young people; the experts gathered by Salzburg Global Seminar hoped to find a common ground in the fight to prevent future genocides.

Mapping Dehumanization in Colonial Namibia

Genocide is often divided into several stages, three of which can be described as dehumanization, extermination, and denial. These stages do not necessarily occur chronologically, but rather intertwine and create a breeding ground for hostility.

Jeremy Silvester, director of the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN), has spent much of his adult life examining the Herero genocide of 1904-1907, which saw tens of thousands of Herero people deliberately starved to death or rounded up into concentration camps in German South West Africa (modern-day Namibia). The victims suffered further indignity when more than 3000 of their skulls were sent to Germany to be studied.

“What is the process by which you dehumanize a group of people to the extent you can kill them without regret?” Silvester asks. “The exports of decapitated heads to Germany to be used for racist science…it’s very instructive that there were postcards, for example, of skulls being packaged to be sent from Swakopmund concentration camps.”

Through his work with the Africa Accessioned project, Silvester has attempted to map out the historical implications of this dark period of German history and repatriate the victims’ remains and artifacts being held in German museums.

“There has been a willful amnesia within Germany,” he laments. “The emphasis is…very much on the memories of the Holocaust and the Second World War, but the colonial history has been, I think, suppressed. The links between these two events have also not been explored sufficiently.”

The Protracted Extermination of the Rohingya

Mofidul Hoque is director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice in Bangladesh. His country is currently witnessing a large influx of Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing in neighboring Myanmar

One cannot begin to speak about dehumanization as a genocidal process without first understanding the degree to which hatred and distrust settle in people’s minds. The minority Muslim Rohingyas are a very small ethnic religious community in the strait of Myanmar, with a distinct language, culture, and identity. Their persecution has a long history. They are denied citizenship in Myanmar and were excluded from the country’s most recent census. The most recent violence is officially in response to Rohingya insurgent attacks, but the Burmese military has responded brutally, targeting not only the militants but destroying whole villages in northern Rakhine State. The UN has called the violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Mofidul Hoque, director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice, has witnessed the refugee crisis unfold in neighboring Bangladesh, as nearly 700,000 Rohingya people have fled their homes and sought safety over the border.

“Here, the group is small and the intent to destroy is almost complete... It has a similarity with the Holocaust. The Jewish population was [not] large… the brutality was immense, and the same thing we see with the Rohingyas. They have… denied them of their ethnic identity and citizenship, and they are now trying to wipe them out… There are [Buddhist] monks and priests… who are actually propagating hate speech, who are branding the particular community as an enemy of the state, and the reflection now we see in the tragedy which has unfolded before us.”

Buddhism is a religion of Ahimsa, or non-violence, but with state support in Myanmar, ultra-nationalist, Buddhist extremism and anti-Muslim rhetoric is spreading. “Genocide does not happen overnight,” Hoque says. Instigating hatred, perpetuating that hatred through years of propaganda, and denying atrocities all play a role in making the nightmare a reality.

A Portrait of Denial in Rwanda

Tom Ndahiro is the author of The Friends of Evil: When NGOs Support Genocidaires

Tom Ndahiro, a Rwandan researcher specializing in genocide ideology and denial, contends that denial is present in every phase of genocide, be it a denial of humanity, dignity, or the crime itself.

“When you don’t find the targeted group as equal to the others, when you deny the others’ right to existence, dehumanization is simple. Dehumanization leads your venture to extermination.”

In Salzburg, Ndahiro highlighted the many points in history in which denial has facilitated crimes against humanity, from the genocide of Native Americans and the pogroms against Jews in the Middles Ages, to the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which saw 70% of the Tutsi population brutally slaughtered in just 100 days at the hands of their Hutu compatriots.

The publication and dissemination of anti-Tutsi propaganda, such as the Bahutu Manifesto in the 1950s and the Ten Hutu Commandments in the 1990s, helped to galvanize Hutu hatred of their fellow Rwandans over many decades.

After the Bahutu Manifesto-inspired killing of over 20,000 Tutsis in 1959, Ndahiro explains that “The persecution and the killing was never seen as a crime, but a political act they called a revolution… Some voices were raised that there was a genocide in Rwanda, but the world received that information with contemptible indifference. Discrimination against the Tutsis continued for many years…almost total extermination of them was contemplated, planned and prepared by the government in place…in 1994, followed by the perpetrators running away…Their plan to deny the genocide was instituted with impunity as we see today.”

To counter this denial of humanity and history, Ndahiro says that a culture of human rights is needed “that is inculcated from the lowest to the highest strata of the society.”

Extremist Ideology behind the Yazidi Massacre

Speaking of the recent Yazidi persecution by Daesh in Iraqi Kurdistan, Günes Murat Tezcür, Jalal Talabani chair of Kurdish political studies and associate professor at the University of Central Florida, emphasized how Daesh underpinned their killing, raping and enslaving of the Yazidi with religious extremism: “The Islamic State… have a very strong ideological justification for the particular treatment they brought to the Yazidis. To be more specific, they actually used lots of Islamic sources to claim that Yazidis… abandoned Islam. From a classical theological perspective, abandoning Islam for any religion is basically a big sin… In some cases, they were given the choice of conversion… Many Yazidis decided not to convert and they were killed on the spot… So there you basically see a very clear-cut example of ideology shaping an organization’s behavior toward a minority.”

The plight of the Yazidis is not a new phenomenon; campaigns against minority religions have been ongoing for centuries. The pattern is often the same: kill the males, enslave the women and children. Daesh’s ideology has “strong, local connections and… many local people took part,” says Tezcür. In this sense, race and religious prejudice plays a significant role.

“Since the Yazidis were a very isolated community, they did not have much interaction with the outside, it was much easier to… just label them as devil worshippers and then characterize them with some very bizarre features or cultures, so it becomes much more justifiable to dehumanize them and basically attack them.”

Translating Narratives into a Framework for Peace

Acknowledging the patterns of atrocities, memorializing victims of genocide, and learning from humanity’s tragic mistakes will help forge a path toward resilience and global citizenship. Without these elements, humanity is doomed to repeat the worst parts of its history.

Looking again at the Rohingya crisis, Hoque and his team at the Liberation War Museum and The Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice have been conducting small scale research on prevention strategies. He stresses the importance of giving the Rohingyas a human face, giving the women and children a voice, listening to their suffering, protecting their identity, and providing medical support and post-trauma counseling.

Similarly, Silvester suggests integrating the subject of genocide prevention into the schools’ curriculum worldwide. Keeping the memory of victims of the Herero genocide in Namibia alive over a century later is key to “creating a new marker in terms of relations between Africa and other countries that were colonized in Europe. Perhaps it opens up other debates and issues.”

Ndahiro compares the memorialization of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda to a sort of vaccination against massacres. He suggests establishing legal mechanisms, coupled with education. The process of fighting extremism begins with reversing all policies that led to the genocide – discrimination, unequal treatment of citizens, and poverty.

“Most of these crimes, they don’t start with action,” Ndahiro elaborated. “They start with words…You can’t combat extremism without fighting extremist discourse.”

TezcĂĽr notes that ending local support for insurgency and establishing more effective policies to protect the remaining Yazidis, rather than thinking of them as refugees, would contribute to the survival of a community.

“As some organizations are doing nowadays…like YAZDA…they document the projects, conduct interviews with survivors, with other Yazidis, they try to document the signs of the massacres, collect evidence, so that these things will not only stay at the oral level…but they will be part of a written archive…In the long run, you can basically think about these sites as places for museums or memorials.”

Incorporating lessons from the Holocaust and genocides from a broader international and historically universal perspective ensures that remembrance and empathy are ever-present. As Mofidul Hoque said: “This is a crisis of humanity and humanity should act as one.”


Combating Extremism and Promoting Pluralism 

Download the full Report 

Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention is a multi-year program series held in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with further support from Ronald D. Abramson, the Future Fund of the Republic of Austria, The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung