People die in wars. As often as not, the people who die aren’t soldiers armed with guns and engaged in battle, but civilians caught in the cross fire. (There was even a civilian death at Gettysburg.) It’s almost impossible to imagine a war without the attendant horror of civilian deaths, whether through direct military action (bombs dropped on their homes, machine guns raking across their marketplaces), or indirect military action (food shortages, disease and exposure as a result of the war).
In less politicized times, the world has not called the indirect deaths of civilians a “war crime.” Instead, war crimes occur when military forces intentionally target unarmed civilians, either to spread a reign of terror that helps the military achieve its goals or, as in the case of the Nazis, to wipe a distinct segment of the human race from the face of the earth. The Nazis carried their war crimes to such horrific extremes that they resonate even now. (To get a sense of scale, immediately after the world realized the ferocity of the Rwandan slaughter, I read somewhere that the number of dead, and the pace at which they were killed, was equal to a mere ten days worth of killings during 1944 in the Nazi death camps.)
Because the Nazi crimes seem to be inescapable, a priest in the Ukraine has engaged in a massive project to interview Ukrainian citizens, many of whom were children at the time, and all of whom were co-opted to aid in the Jewish slaughter:
Children, stomachs empty and knees quivering, saw and heard Jews massacred by the Nazis all across the killing fields of Ukraine. Teenagers were forced to bury the victims, shoveling dirt over neighbors and playmates.
Today, these now aged men and women are unburdening themselves of wartime memories, many for the first time, in testimonies to a French priest. Their words may change history as they shed light on this poorly known chapter of the Holocaust.
The project is central to a broader reassessment of the Nazi horrors in Ukraine. Last month, a team of rabbis in another project visited a newly found grave site in the Ukrainian village of Gvozdavka-1 where thousands of Jews were killed during the occupation by Adolf Hitler’s army.
That was just one site among many: Father Patrick Desbois and his mixed-faith team have been crisscrossing Ukraine for six years and have located more than 500 mass graves so far, many never before recorded.
At least 1.5 million Jews were killed on hills and in ravines across Nazi-occupied Ukraine, most slaughtered by submachine guns before gas chambers industrialized mass death. Researchers are only now peeling back layers of Soviet-era silence about what they call the “Holocaust by bullets.”
The destruction of Ukrainian Jewry is symbolized by Babi Yar, a ravine outside the capital, Kiev, where the Nazis killed about 34,000 Jews during just two days in September 1941. But there were many other killing fields.
Read the rest here.
Father Desbois’ work is being made public in a big way as part of a Holocaust exhibit in Paris right now:
Part of Desbois’ work — video interviews with Ukrainian villagers, photographs of newly discovered mass graves, archival documents, bullets and shell casings — is on display for the first time in a haunting exhibit at Paris’ Holocaust Memorial through Nov. 30.
The AP story is illustrated by this picture of an ordinary middle aged man, wearing an ordinary overcoat, and what looks to be a nice tie, sitting on the edge of a large pit. At his back is a crowd of smug Nazis, in front of him, his ultimate destination, is a pit of dead Jews. At his head is a gun. Thanks to the Nazi obsession with recording their heinous acts for posterity, we are watching this man in the last second of his life:
All things considered, he looks surprisingly resigned. He’s so emaciated (he may be younger than middle aged, with the heightened aging one sees in starvation’s victims), that this is probably only the last stage in a horrible journey of fear and abuse. By this time, death may be welcome, and his only hope is that he takes a clean hit to the brain, and isn’t one of those unlucky ones at the bottom of the pit, slowly bleeding to death, in tremendous painand fear, as more and more bodies fall.
This type of slaughter of the innocents, not in the heat of battle, but in the coldness of race hatred, is one of the most horrifying things I can imagine. What makes it worse is that it’s not the past. It’s still the present. As Michael Yon documented in his chilling post Bless the Beasts and Children, Al Qaeda fighters and their fellow travelers, on a smaller scale, are going from village to village in Iraq and doing what the Nazis did: rounding up innocents, people living ordinary lives, dragging them over to pits, and shooting them.
Incidentally, if you think I’m doing some political twisting and turning here, you’re wrong. I come by my beliefs on this subject honestly.
As I’ve mentioned before, my mother was a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Indonesia, starting a month after Pearl Harbor and ending a month after Truman dropped the bomb. (That’s almost four years for the math or history challenged.) The experience was horrific. Indeed, one of her camp commandants was the only Japanese camp commander executed for war crimes. Nevertheless, my mother never had any hostility to the Japanese, although she did hold on to an abiding and fervent hostility for the Nazis. Why the difference, I asked? Because their motives were different, she said.
The Japanese were fighting war the old way, which was trying to obtain new territories. Faced with an existing civilian population which, in an earlier age they might have killed, they opted for the “modern” technique of isolating them in camps, with an ultimate plan to relocate them (something that, fortunately, never came to fruition, since American Marines will tell you that relocation meant death). The Nazis, on the other hand, were not dealing with civilians who got in the way of the battlefield. Their objective, which they carried out as brutally as possible, was to kill the civilians, something that ran on an entirely separate and parallel track from their effort to obtain geographical territory.
War seems to be hard-wired in the human brain, at least according to Nicholas Wade’s wonderful book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. Over the centuries, however, as we in the Judeo-Christian West have struggled away from this genetic destiny, we’ve tried to civilize the way we fight, by acknowledging the necessity of fighting, but trying to make civilians off limits as intentional targets. What was the ultimate evil about the Nazis wasn’t their territorial greed, but the fact that they abandoned entirely, on a hitherto unprecedented scale, the modern effort to tame war.
And what makes the jihadists such frightening and formidable enemies, whether they’re in Iraqi villages; flying planes over American soil and into American buildings; driving cars through London and Glasgow; planting bombs on Spanish trains; blowing up nightclubs; etc., is that they embrace, enthusiastically, the worst and least humane side of our human propensity for war. Only people who have abandoned reason and ethics entirely would attempt to make morally equivalent, on the one hand, a situation in which civilians are killed as part of war’s byproduct and, on the other hand, a situation in which armed marauders intentionally slaughter civilians like animals.
UPDATE: Just so you can get a better handle on the sadistic string tying today’s Al Qaeda directly to yesterday’s Nazis, I offer you a couple of paragraphs from Michael Yon’s most recent post, Baqubah Update: 05 July 2007, about the successful operation to recover Baqubah from the Al Qaeda stranglehold. Once in, Americans got some first hand reports about Al Qaeda’s recruitment tactics:
Speaking through an American interpreter, Lieutenant David Wallach who is a native Arabic speaker, the Iraqi official related how al Qaeda united these gangs who then became absorbed into “al Qaeda.” They recruited boys born during the years 1991, 92 and 93 who were each given weapons, including pistols, a bicycle and a phone (with phone cards paid) and a salary of $100 per month, all courtesy of al Qaeda. These boys were used for kidnapping, torturing and murdering people.
At first, he said, they would only target Shia, but over time the new al Qaeda directed attacks against Sunni, and then anyone who thought differently. The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about 11-years-old. As LT David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.