Genocide: The power of history and collective memory

As our thoughts today go out to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and we remember the atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime, we are reminded of the importance of remembrance, so that a similar tragedy may never happen again. The Holocaust, whose scale and organization were unprecedented, is without doubt one of the darkest chapters of human history. However, when we view the world from a global perspective, it is sadly one of many tragedies. Not only wasn’t it the first genocide in history, but it was also far from being the last one. 

The word genocide came into general usage after World War II when the full extent of the brutalities committed by the Nazi’s was revealed. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by the UN and genocide was declared an international crime. The Convention defined genocide as any number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. 

Many genocides, however, have not yet been recognized internationally, or worse, have not seen the perpetrators take responsibility for their actions. We may not be able to bring back the thousands of people who lost their lives, but we do have the power to remember and honour the victims, to raise awareness on what happened and prevent the same crime from repeating itself. The Armenian, Cambodian and Bosnian genocides all happened in different historical and geographical contexts. Together with the Holocaust, they represent some of the darkest chapters in world history. It is precisely because of the important role history plays in shaping collective memory that these chapters must not be forgotten.

Armenian Genocide (1915-1917)

The Armenian genocide was the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians at the hands of the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. The Young Turks, who had seized power in 1908, were reigning over a crumbling empire after having entered WWI on Germany’s side. Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to side with Russia, the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians, deporting them en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert where they were killed or died from starvation and disease. Before the beginning of the war, 1.5 million Armenians were living in the Empire. It is estimated that up to 1.2 million died during the genocide.

Despite early condemnation from the international community and a strong public outcry against the mistreatment of the Armenians, no strong actions were taken to punish the perpetrators. Moreover, no step was taken to require postwar Turkish governments make restitution to the Armenians to make up for the immense material and human losses.

Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979)

Another dark chapter in human history, the Cambodian genocide saw the annihilation of a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot. 

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 with the goal of turning the country into an agrarian utopia: a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. Money, schools, private property and religious practices were abolished, and rural collectives were set up in the countryside. In reality, however, cities were emptied, and millions of people were evacuated to labour camps where they were starved and abused. The regime singled out doctors, teachers, affluent people, anyone with an education as well as ethnic and religious minorities and whoever was unwilling or unable to undertake harsh manual labour was eliminated. Unlike other genocides, no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state. Anyone perceived to be in the opposition was tortured and killed and it is estimated that 1.7 to 2.2 million people lost their lives. 

The international community was largely silent during the genocide, despite scholars and activists trying to bring attention to the atrocities that were being committed. Only after the regime was overthrown in 1979 did the brutality receive international media attention but it wasn’t until 2003 that an international tribunal was etsablished to try the perpetrators.

Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995)

The Bosnian genocide happened during the Bosnian War, a religious and ethnic conflict between Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox Christian) and Croats (Catholic) that erupted after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. The creation of an independent nation with a Bosniak majority was opposed by Bosnian Serbs, who launched a campaign to secure territory and rid Bosnia of its Muslim population. With the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, Bosnian Serb forces targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in areas under their control, which resulted in the death of 100’000 people by 1995, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. 

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces murdered 7’000 to 8’000 Muslim men and boys in what will forever be remembered as the Srebrenica Massacre. The city had been declared a safe area for people fleeing the fighting by the UN and was protected by around 500 international peacekeepers. Serb forces, however, overwhelmed the troops, sent all the women to Bosnian-held territory, then rounded up men and boys and trucked them to killing sites where they were shot and buried in mass graves. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the UN and international actors did not intervene, fearing strong action would complicate peace negotiations and jeopardize humanitarian aid. Even when it became clear that attacks on Srebrenica were planned, the international community did not offer the UN peacekeepers stationed there additional support. However, in 1993 the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which eventually proved to be instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court.

The importance of history and collective memory

The above-mentioned genocides are but three of the many that took place over the course of the 20th century. Not only do they share the fact that they were initially neglected by the international community but, despite landmark international convictions and much documentation of the atrocious crimes committed, they still happen to be denied by certain actors. In Serbia, some nationalists claim that the number of dead is exaggerated and that Srebrenica was but one of the many atrocities committed during the conflict. Turkey has met the Armenian genocide with over one hundred years of silence and denial.  Similarly, there is a consistent and worrying number of people in the US and Europe that denies the Holocaust. Furthermore, after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, many Western intellectuals of the left denied or minimized the human rights abuses that had taken place in an attempt to protect communist ideology.

The unwillingness to see and recognise what happened is not only dangerous but greatly undermines the role collective recognition and memory play in ensuring such crimes are not repeated. Healing the deep wounds inflicted by genocide is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. One way is surely for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions through international justice mechanisms. However, this is not enough. The international community has the responsibility to call out the perpetrators of such crimes and should adopt strategies to punish them, in accordance with the Genocide Convention. Seeking justice in the aftermath of such atrocities does not change the fact that if one had acted sooner, the brutality could have been avoided or at least stopped much earlier. Belated recognition also indirectly supports the proliferation of alternative narratives of what happened which undermine or deny the atrocious crimes that were comitted.

Many greatly underestimate the power of collective remembrance and recognition. Collective memory can ensure that the victims and the crimes are not forgotten, thereby preventing them from repeating themselves. Collective recognition and condemnation, on the other hand, have the potential to stop things from happening or worsening in the first place. Now the international community has the chance to redeem itself for past mistakes: by stopping China from perpetrating mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority which is systematically being targeted by Beijing through a mass detention and forced labour program, restrictions on cultural and religious practices and coercive birth prevention. Despite transparent evidence of the crimes being committed, the international community has until now failed to address the situation in a meaningful way. The recent condemnation of what is happening by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is a step in the right direction but more immediate action is needed.

Extensive recognition of the present and remembrance of the past can spread awareness and are perhaps the strongest tools we have. The perpetrators as well as the survivors of past horrors will eventually leave us and then all we will be left with is history. We must never underestimate its power in helping us work towards a better future. To quote American-Armenian novelist Chris Bohjalian: “History does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?”.

The influence of right-wing populists on Sweden’s government policy

In 2017, politicians all over Western Europe were afraid of a ghost: the ghost of right-wing populism. It was not a new phenomenon in the world of politics but ever since the early 2010s, it has gotten more and more real. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the Front National (FN) in France, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, or the Sweden Democrats (SD) in Sweden have gained more and more power and become serious competitors in national politics. Liberal voters and politicians struggled with this challenge and, as a consequence, right-wing populists performed well in recent elections in Europe. Fortunately, none of the right-wing populist parties mentioned managed to get elected into government, but some of them are haunting the executive and creating a strong opposition.

In Sweden, the right-wing populist Sverigedemokraterna (= Sweden Democrats) gained the third most seats in the parliamentary election in 2018 while the Social Democrats obtained their worst result since 1908. Due to their refusal to form a coalition with the populists, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven from the Social Democrats had no other choice but to form a minority government with the conservative party Moderata samlingspartiets. 

Policy-changes in migration and welfare-expenditures

Almost two years later the effect of right-wing populists is already noticeable. Sweden used to be a country with liberal and human policies. In 2015, it welcomed more than 160’000 refugees, which was, compared to its small population, the highest number of immigrants in Western-Europe. However, after the horrific events in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020, Sweden refused to take on any of the many refugees, while Germany rescued at least 1’500. The official statement from the government was that migration waves from recent years have led to rising crime and that the integration of the many immigrants has largely failed. While this might be one reason for a more conservative migration policy, this drastic shift is already heavily influenced by the Sweden Democrats who are pressuring the powerless minority government out of a dominant opposition. 

Another example of how right-wing populists can influence a country’s policies are the governments welfare expenditures in Sweden. Scandinavian countries usually spend more money on welfare than Anglo-Saxon nations like Great Britain or the United States. In Sweden, the welfare-expenditures steadily increased since 2014 at a high level. But in 2019, only one year after the election and the same year the new minority government was formed with the Sweden Democrats, the expenditures decreased by five percent. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, the country that was originally known as exemplary and reliable went into a questionable direction by not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard its population.

While the right-wing populists of the AfD in Germany never managed to deliver any policies at all, in Sweden they have succeeded in changing the country’s formerly liberal position into more isolated and conservative policies. The ghost of populism is haunting Swedish democracy and one question remains: Who’s gonna call the ghostbusters?

Pride vs. Prejudice: The struggle for LGBTQ+ equality in Poland

A mosaic of rainbow flags glittering on a grey and grim day, stunning dancers and meticulously designed, colourful costumes: That’s how the 2020 Pride March in Slubice, Poland, on September 5th, will be remembered. But not even the most incredible artistic ability could conceal the gloomy reality behind the glitzy façade …

Polish president Andrzej Duda, whose conservative-nationalist agenda saw him storm to victory in the 2015 and 2020 Polish presidential election, has incited worldwide outrage in light of his stance on LGBTQ+ rights. During his 2020 presidential election campaign, he repeatedly made use of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to bolster his chances of re-election by wooing conservative voters.

A cultural conflict that has been simmering for years, has resurfaced

Since dismissing the LGBTQ+ community as nothing more than an „ideology“ that is „even more destructive“ than communism, Duda’s inflammatory rhetoric has deepened divisions between religious conservative and more liberal-minded Poles.

This kind of rhetoric was not only uttered by the President, but was voiced in Polish churches and on the streets of Poland: Last year, for example, the Catholic archbishop of Krakow warned Poland of a “rainbow plague”, and tensions boiled over on the streets of Poland when far-right demonstrators interrupted a peaceful Pride Parade in Bialystok.

Now, one year later, several Polish towns have declared themselves as LGBTQ-free, with almost 100 local governments voting to protect solely heterosexual rights. Even though these zones don’t have any legal power and are mostly symbolic, they have become a flashpoint in Poland as they are a jolting reminder that blatant homophobia is not a relic of the past, but is still partly woven into the fabric of Polish society.

Across the country, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has had a clear impact on the LGBTQ+community. A study conducted by the University of Warsaw found that more than 67% of people identifying as LGBTQ+ in Poland had endured some type of violence, while 70% of LGBTQ+ teenagers had experienced suicidal thoughts due to enormous societal pressure.

A glimmer of hope

Some Poles have now taken it upon themselves to try and replace anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment with tolerance: Polish activist Bart Staszewski, for example, has produced a documentary film („Article 18“) which tackles the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality in Poland.

Moreover, the European Commission has described LGBTQ-free zones as a breach of basic human rights and withholds EU funding from them.

But still: According to Staszewski, Poland itself is far away from quelling its systemic problem with homophobia: As long as there isn‘t a sharp shift in government policy and a fundamental change of beliefs in the whole of Poland‘s society, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment will most likely continue to loom over Poland for quite some time. 


Why federalism hinders effective policies against Covid-19

Our world is facing the same problem, but different governments have reacted with different measures and strategies – and with different levels of success. Hong Kong and South Korea seem to have been the most successful countries in the fight against Covid-19. Both reacted quickly and implemented strict measures such as surveilling the movement of their citizens, quarantine, and consequent social-distancing measures. Additionally, mask-wearing is not new for citizens of Asian countries, mainly due to polluted air.

In Europe, Italy was the first country that was faced with the virus and reacted strictly with a first nationwide lockdown on the 11th of March. Germany and France followed with similar reactions, while Great Britain apparently needed its Prime Minister to experience the virus himself before taking it seriously. Sweden followed a unique strategy and the president of the United States is still highly incapable of dealing with any demanding situation at all.

Less political resistance in centralized systems

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only reveal which leaders are capable of managing a global health crisis. More than nine months since the outbreak and its spread over the whole world, it also showed which political system is the most effective and practical when dealing with a global pandemic:

The more centralized a system, the easier it is to implement (drastic) measures. It was not challenging for the Communist Party in Beijing to control 1.393 billion people in China and regulate their behavior. However, if the autocratic Chinese government were more transparent and liberal, the virus would have been contained much earlier. South Korea, a unitary presidential republic, successfully controlled the coronavirus by surveilling the movements of its citizens and implementing a national mandatory obligation to wear a mask.  Additionally, the government in Seoul supported the economy with grants from the very beginning.

The federal state of Switzerland, on the other hand, was still arguing in mid-October whether customers in a store should wear a mask or not. Of course, there are many more Covid-19 cases in urban Geneva than in rural Appenzell, but a virus does not stop at a border – and especially not within a country. After strict and centralized measures at the beginning of the pandemic, the Swiss government has lost control over the handling because the different cantons felt disempowered in the proud federal country. In Germany, a federal nation as well, the federal lands are pursuing different strategies that have caused uncertainty and political chaos in facing a second wave. In Germany’s neighbor-state, however, the French president Emmanuel Macron decided in October to reimplement a strict curfew and acted single-handedly without any form of political resistance.

Federalism – an imperfect system

While federalism is a fair system for heterogeneous countries in general, it hinders effective policies and force in times of crisis – such as the handling of a global pandemic. Centralized or even autocratic nations can implement a national strategy much faster and much more effectively than federal states due to fewer players and, therefore, less political resistance in the decision-making process. Whether this is democratic or not must be put on hold. Democracy means the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously stated in 1858. This must be accepted, and policymakers must be trusted. Most importantly, in times of crisis!