How evil triumphs

Monday Book Review

April 26, 1993|By Lucette Lagnado

THE SPLENDID BLOND BEAST: MONEY, LAW AN GENOCIDE IN THE 20th CENTURY. By Christopher Simpson. Grove Press. 399 pages. $24.95.

THE YEAR past will be remembered as the one in which genocide made a comeback. Suddenly, as Yugoslavia unraveled and the civil war among Serbs, Croatians and Muslims intensified, the world was once again confronted with images of death camps encircled by barbed wire. Fifty years after Hitler's Holocaust, there were the emaciated prisoners with hollow stares, the mass graves and mass executions. Chilling phrases such as "ethnic cleansing" crept back into our vocabulary. All of this was almost impossible to believe at first, associated with a horror we thought was behind us.

But as Christopher Simpson argues in his disturbing new book, "The Splendid Blond Beast," the seeds that make it possible for a society to slaughter its own were planted a long time ago. Simpson delivers a savage and eloquent attack on international law and its failure to stop mass murder. He argues convincingly that throughout the 20th century there has been a reluctance by Western nations to rein in leaders who kill their own citizens.

Although Mr. Simpson sets out to write an all-encompassing book on genocide, he quickly zeros in on the Nazi Holocaust. The notion of American complicity is a haunting sub-theme. Mr. Simpson ponders the same questions that have troubled an array of World War II historians, from Raul Hilberg to Lucy Davidowicz to David Wyman: How did Hitler manage to kill 6 million Jews? Why didn't other European governments stop him? Why didn't our own government intercede? And, when it was all over, why did so many of the major culprits go unpunished?

But Simpson has come up with riveting new data. And he approaches an old subject with a new and original analytical framework, peering at the Nazi Holocaust through the prism of the earlier Turkish genocide of Armenians.

Between 1914 and 1919, the Turkish regime murdered nearly a million of its Armenian citizens. Those were simpler times, a more innocent world, yet there was a complete abnegation of responsibility in all the major power centers, from London to Washington. Not only was the slaughter allowed to continue unchecked, but the perpetrators were never punished.

American officials such as future CIA chief Allen Dulles, then a lowly Foreign Service officer based in Washington, specifically argued against war-crimes trials for the Turks, on the grounds that America needed them as strategic allies. (Twenty years later, as a respected intelligence operative, Dulles would argue against war-crimes trials for Nazi war criminals on similar grounds -- we needed Germany as a strategic ally against the Soviets.) Sure enough, no punishment was meted out to the first genocidal regime of the 20th century.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany, he clearly looked to the Turks as his role models. An avid student of history, he knew the magnitude of their crime, and how easily they got away with it. Mr. Simpson tells us that Hitler was "well aware" of what he terms "the failure of the international community to respond adequately" to the killing of the Armenians. In a 1939 speech, Hitler talked of the need for Germany to act quickly and brutally in stamping out its Polish and Jewish enemies. "Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?" he asked.

Nobody did, of course. Few do now. And exactly as Hitler predicted, the world was painfully silent as his campaign to exterminate the Jews began in the 1930s and came to its apotheosis in the '40s. The greatness of Mr. Simpson's work is that he is able to identify, in some cases for the first time, the individuals in our own government who worked behind the scenes first to mute criticism of the Nazis, then to quash reports of their crimes, then to severely restrict Jews attempting to flee and then, after it was all over, after the horrors had all been perpetrated and an entire people decimated, to allow the murderers to walk free.

There is some devastating material here about several icons of ++ the U.S. diplomatic establishment, long revered as architects of our postwar foreign policy. George Kennan, whom college students are taught to admire as a savvy Cold War strategist, emerges as a poisonous backstage player and tireless apologist for the Nazis. As late as 1941, while working as a diplomat in the U.S. consulate in Berlin, he denied the evidence of Nazi criminality. "It cannot be said that German policy is motivated by any sadistic desire to see other people suffer under German rule," he wrote that year. The deportations to the death camps had already begun, and yet he insisted: "Germans are most anxious that their new subjects should be happy in their care."

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