Mass murderers, then and now

November 29, 1995|By Jack L. Levin

THE HOLOCAUST began in November, on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when Nazi thugs were turned loose to smash, burn and loot Jewish stores. It also ended in November with the Nuremberg trial in 1945 of Nazi war criminals.

Once they strutted in polished jackboots with riding whips, or stood in open Mercedes Benzes giving the Nazi salute to adoring multitudes. Now the Nazi masters were humble prisoners pleading that they had only followed Hitler's orders. Except for Hermann Goering, who committed suicide, and Rudolph Hess, who was imprisoned for life, most of them were hanged.

Ethnic cleansers

Now there is talk of trying and hanging the architects of the Bosnian atrocities -- military commander Ratko Mladic, Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and their gang of murderers, rapists and ethnic cleansers.

Today's Serbian war criminals would probably be as dead as their kindred spirits at Nuremberg if the Serbs, too, had clearly lost their war.

Certainly the prosecution of war criminals cannot be selective, according to which side has the higher historic moral ground, or which side is the aggressor. In Yugoslavia, for example, would it be the Serbs, Croats or Muslims? In Africa, would it be the Hutus or the Tutsis?

After World War II, international law spoke with the authority of hundreds of thousands of American, Russian, English and French troops who occupied the crushed and exhausted Third Reich. International justice today depends on a weak, humiliated U.N. contingent of demoralized troops.

Winners and losers

Who wins and who loses determines who is indicted, tried, convicted and hanged. American, British, French and Russian generals would surely have met the same punishment for war crimes if Germany had won World War II. ''Winning isn't everything,'' said Vince Lombardi; ''it's the only thing.''

In fact, punishment for war crimes is a recent development. When battles were fought with swords, sabers and horses, victims were numbered in the hundreds, not as in today's mass carnage, the hundreds of thousands.

In 1648, at the signing of the peace treaties of Osnabruck and Munster, it had been stipulated that ''officers and soldiers, counselors and judges . . . of what name and condition soever they be . . . who have fought, whether with the sword or the pen, from the highest to the lowest, without any difference or exception, no hurt shall be done to their persons or goods, that no proceedings be taken against these categories of persons, far less shall they suffer any punishment or damage under any pretext whatsoever.''

As the 50th anniversary of the hanging of the Nazi war criminals approaches, the Jewish people can take satisfaction in how the tragedy has turned into a drama of survival. The people the Nazis almost exterminated has thrived. Jewish people in America have achieved equality and freedom unprecedented in their 6,000-year history. The Nazis have not only failed, their barbarism has stimulated a renaissance of the people they vowed to destroy. The Nazi war criminals are dead and gone, but the people of Israel lives.

Now the question is, will any of us?

Soon, if not already, one hydrogen bomb may surpass in destructive power all the firepower of all the bombs dropped by warring nations on each other in World War II. The danger of one of these bombs being used by accident or design comes not only from the super-nuclear nations which possess them.

Nuclear black market

Atomic materials have leaked into international commerce; they may become available to any nickel-and-dime nation that can afford to buy them. The future of mankind could be tipped by a deal between Russian black marketeers and some tawdry dictatorship seeking to accumulate deadly components and technical experts.

The destructiveness of war has so increased that either it must be eliminated forever, or we shall be.

The November dates marking the beginning and the end of the Holocaust remind us that, once upon a time, those who unleashed the furies, died by them. Today, the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing are treated as diplomats and statesmen and invited to peace-making conferences.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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