Genocide does not belong to the past
When I was in fifth grade, one of our teachers intended to teach us about the Holocaust. On the documents she distributed to us, there was a photo of Hitler and a short text on how he wanted to eliminate Jews. That day, I got acquainted with concepts such as concentration camp, holocaust, mass murder, ghettos and genocide. I got mixed feelings of anger, fear and desperation. In my head, while the teacher was explaining life in concentration camps, it was like I was watching horror films.
My ten-year-old self started to wonder: how can people hate so much one another to the point of exterminating a whole “civilization”? How can one man – Hitler – push a whole country to war and bring suffering to his people? Why killing Jews, just because they are Jews? Although my teacher was neither a holocaust survivor nor a World War 2 veteran, her speech was vibrant enough to touch my intellectual and sensitive self. This is how, from bothering my parents with visiting middle-aged fortresses and king palaces, I switched to museums dedicated to holocaust and war exhibition. In France, many parents would think that visiting such museums would be too much for a ten-year-old child.
Nonetheless, my parents would let me pursue my interest no matter what. It was under such circumstances that for the first time, I watched a silent film depicting the liberation of Auschwitz. I gasped from horror, astonishment and disgust because while they were showing some Auschwitz survivors being evacuated, I could see their emaciated body. They couldn’t walk by themselves. Those who were dead where piled inside a big hole… It was such a trauma for me that after this episode, I stopped looking for more about this topic for a while.
In eighth grade, I had to study again about this “period of History”. For this purpose, our teacher invited a Holocaust survivor to talk about her experience and because of that, my interest got revived. I didn’t dare to ask any question but it pushed me to read more books in my free time. Then, it was when I went in High school and that our history program focused more on the functioning of political institutions, the state apparatus and education system that my area of study shifted to the genocide perpetrators – the Nazis themselves, at this time. How was life under Nazi Germany? How were people conditioned to accept mass killing?
Dear reader, you may wonder: why do I tell all these things? As a first element of answer, I would like to say that it is good that our teachers talk about the horrors of the past. It is good to introduce war, war crimes and genocide to youngsters. As a second element of answer, I would be more critical on the way this introduction is done. For me, the way we approach genocide in our school curriculum is problematic. During my compulsory schooling, the only example we were given was Nazi Germany.
Okay, it was twenty years ago. But my siblings who are in secondary school now are still learning about genocide with this approach. Despite the good intentions of our History teachers, it gives the wrong message. First, it gives the erroneous idea that only Nazi Germany was a genocide perpetrator.
They don’t say that they are the only ones but taking only this example conveys such idea. Why not take the extermination of the Aztecs by the Spaniards in the 15th century or, more recent, the slave trade? Yes we are also acquainted with these two elements in school programs, but they are not presented as “possible” genocides. Second, it gives the erroneous idea that genocide is something from the past, that it will not happen again. Unfortunately, it did and it is still ongoing.
It is because when we are introduced about the end of World War Two, we are in such a way that it leaves a leading impression that the so-called “peace institution” (i.e the United Nation, NATO…) is so much powerful, far better than its pre-war equivalent, the Society of Nation that any genocide can be prevented and stopped on time. It gives the impression to Joe Public that the mediatization of the Nuremberg Trials, which is an illustration of the possibility that one can be charged with “crime against humanity”, was a good way to persuade other nations not to commit such crimes. Worse, it convinces the public that any genocide would be punished, regardless where it takes place.
Dear reader, if you look at the state of the world today, you may see that these things don’t happen. For instance, how can you explain that the Genocide against the Rohyngias is still going on? All the international institutions know about it, but they don’t react. How can you explain that the main perpetrator has also received the Nobel Peace prize in 1991?
It is time to change the way we educate about genocide, more especially at a time when we observe the resurgence of alt-right and ultra-nationalism in the political scene. The normalization of fascist ideology in our world today does not occur because we have “forgotten our History” but because some of its aspects have not been taught and analyzed thoroughly. In this regard, some initiatives have been taken by independent organizations such as The Genocide education project, which aims at educating students on the actions to take at each of the 10 stages of genocide and their power to prevent the situation from worsening.
Unfortunately, it is not part of our compulsory education. What are we waiting for?