Bosnia: Another Holocaust?

August 23, 1992|By DEBORAH E. LIPSTADT

Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few months ago the name was foreign to most of us. We needed to scour the map to locate it. We weren't sure exactly who was fighting whom and for what reason: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Muslims, Bosnians. What was the issue? We were inclined to dismiss it all by proclaiming a "pox on all your houses" and going on with our daily routine.

But then we heard about ethnic cleansing. That was a term that needed no defining. It sent a chill up our spines. It seemed as if we were experiencing shades of 1933 and 1939 all over again. We heard reports of people being placed in sealed railway cars and taken across the border.

Then came the pictures. People behind barbed wire too frightened to speak with the press. Emaciated bodies. Wounds that betrayed deep beatings. A shudder ran through the world. Auschwitz and Birkenau sprung to mind. People spoke of a Final Solution. In the wake of the Holocaust it was mind boggling. It seemed particularly frightening that this was taking place in the heart of Europe a few hours drive from those capitals of culture and sites of the beginning of Nazi horror, Berlin and Vienna.

Is this the same as 1942? Is this a Final Solution? The answer to that is no. This is not systematic annihilation. Muslims who live outside the territories coveted by the Serbs are safe. The Serbs, while imprisoning the Muslims, are not Deborah Lipstadt is the author of "Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945." She is professor of religious studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a consultant to the United States Holocaust Museum.

systematically killing them, though the conditions in which they are keeping them guarantee that many will die. These detention camps are horrible but they are not the equivalent of the death camps in Poland with their gas chambers. Yet to some degree this analogy is irrelevant because this is not a question of comparative suffering.

The direct historical parallel to the Holocaust is to be found in the actions of the perpetrators and the bystanders. First to the perpetrators. The Serbs are testing the world. They would not have started this persecution if they did not believe that they could get away with it. They are doing all this with one eye looking back over their shoulders. They are waiting to see how far can they go before the world makes it clear that this policy will not be tolerated.

How do I know this? Not because I have spoken to Serbian leaders but because this behavior is typical of tyrants. Only when their actions cause them intolerable pain will they reconsider the "cost-benefit" ratio of their behavior.

This brings us to the other way in which this is analogous to the Holocaust: the behavior of the bystanders. The Nazis did not start out by murdering Jews. First they imprisoned people they deemed enemies of the regime. And the world was silent. They they fired Jews from their jobs and made them take special names. And the world was silent. Then they routinely beat them in the streets and threw them into concentration camps. And the world remained silent. Each time the world responded with silence the Nazis responded by increasing the severity of their action.

Why did the world respond with such silence? And why does the response seem to be different this time?

Today, we have graphic pictures of the suffering. There is no doubt what is taking place. In 1942, the idea of such suffering was "beyond belief." It was more rational to discount the reports of mass annihilation as outlandish than to believe they were true.

Today, thanks to both pictures and history, we know that such things are not just possible -- they have already been done.

Another reason why there was such silence in 1942 was that the American as well as British governments were not anxious to act. In fact, the last thing they wanted was for a groundswell of public opinion which would force them to respond. Consequently, they suppressed the news of the annihilation of the Jews as long as they could. When it reached the media through non-government sources, they refused to confirm it.

Ironically, today the situation is not much different. Washington was -- and remains -- reluctant to act. It sat on the news for at least five weeks in order to prevent a public call for action. And it did the same thing when Kurds were being killed in Iraq.

The identity of the victims also affects the world's response.

In 1942, much of the United States was beset by a deep-seated anti-Semitism. People did not actually favor Jews being killed, but opposed any action being taken in order to save them.

There are those who argue that one of the reasons Europe was slow to respond to the massacres in the former Yugoslavia was because the victims were Muslim, and the last thing Europe wanted was a Muslim republic in its midst.

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