The UN Genocide Charter and Auschwitz

The two readings we had assigned this evening, The UN Charter on Genocide and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz both discuss genocide, but approach the topic in very different ways. One can safely assume that those who wrote up the charter did not experience the atrocities of a concentration camp, and are outsiders looking in. Levi, on the other hand, speaks with the voice of a survivor. He knows what it means to survive Auschwitz, and thus, mass genocide.

The charter uses very sweeping terms when describing what genocide is. They do not go into the minute details, but stay general such as in Article II: “(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…”. This may be because they wish to capture all possible forms of genocide, but at the same time, this method gives a lot of leeway for certain activities to pass.

Levi, however, gives very specific examples as to how they were discriminated against. To be at Auschwitz was to be at the very bottom, everything was taken away from you, “…nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.” (27) Even if a person survived the concentration camp, they still were made to become something less than human, like cattle, and this process will undoubtedly affect the rest of their life. Levi even mentions how certain portions of the experience still linger in his dreams.

When genocide is committed, it not only destroys a group of individuals, but an entire culture, and both sources indicate this. Even if an individual survives, their culture may have died, making the existence of the survivor very lonely, and their account of events, less believable.

Prevention of Genocide and Surviving Auschwitz

The United Nations is a organization of worldly governments established to promote co-operation amongst various groups. Created in 1945, following the Second World War, its main purpose was to prevent another one from happening. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The various articles in the document serve to established guidelines for governments to follow, ensuring that these mass destructions won’t happen, or are stopped in the right amount of time. The language presented in the document surround strict rules, for a person or persons that disobey the agreed upon guidelines. The documents audience directed and applicable to the general public, with intent to provide information to the public surrounding issues of potential genocide. The general message serves to inform the public with guidelines to how situations of genocide can be handled and prevented.

The second reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, discusses his survival of eleven months in confinement and horrible conditions in Auschwitz. As a twenty-four year old, anti-fascist, Italian Jew, Levi was always willing to put up a fight either with Resistance movements or with opinion, but when in Auschwitz his opinion was silenced. “I give up asking questions and soon slip into a bitter and tense sleep. But it is not rest: I feel myself threatened, besieged, at every moment I am ready to draw myself into a spasm of defence” (38). To some extent Levi presents conditions in Auschwitz as an “every man for himself ordeal”, as “there is a vast category of prisoners, not initially favoured by fate, who fight merely with their own strength to survive” (92). With skilled tactics, Levi and others were able so survive the unpleasant and horrible conditions using skill, smuggling tactics, and good fortune; ultimately and having a bright mindset and willingness to survive and be free.

Discussion Question:

Article 7: “Genocide and the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall not be considered as political crimes for the purpose of extradition.” What if genocide is committed towards a specific political ideology or political party? In relation to Auschwitz, people were transported by the truckload from various parts, how does this specific article compare to the situation?

Technology and Instincts: Modernizing Genocide

The Holocaust may not have been an unpredictable genocide in regards to the potential extremes of human nature, but when compared to other large scale pogroms it remains an anomaly through its modernized nature. The Holocaust does not elicit the usual genocidal imagery often characterized by a type of primitiveness and chaos, but is marked by a bureaucratic industrial system in which the organization of upscaled executions became reminiscent of a pragmatically scheduled business model. How should we expect our ethical values to progress relative to industry?

Zygmunt Bauman explores the pathology behind the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust, an attempt to make sense of the psychology and behavior of modern constructs applied to genocide. Bauman concludes that science has become increasingly distinguished by a “self-imposed moral silence” (29) and that science seems to be making strides in efficiency while simultaneously abandoning morality. Bertrand Russell, a renowned British philosopher (1872-1970) came to a similar conclusion in his prediction of science’s relationship with ethics in his piece ICARUS or The Future of Science in 1924. Briefly put, Russell states that mankind can produce equal good with the power of science as potential harm, but there is a pattern between his observations of men’s passions revolving mainly around “evil” desires, which makes him highly wary of advance technology in the hands of mankind.

So far it seems as though humans have held onto our instinctual ethics while developing more efficient ways to pursue them. The Holocaust remains a perfect example of this. Oddly enough, calamitous events such as this provide short term devastation, but eventual enlightenment. Could it be argued that events like the Holocaust are actually societal building blocks to understanding human behavior and preventing genocide in the future? Or will violence always be as certain as death and taxes?

Understanding Bauman’s “Civilized Nazis” Theory in the Context of Modernity

In the introduction to his most famous work, Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman argues from a sociological perspective that the genocide of non-Aryans by the Nazis in an effort of ethical cleansing can only be strictly understood in the context of a modern and civilized society. His view is quite radical, especially to those raised in the West who have been ingrained with the ideology that developed cultures exclude those that practice all forms of brutal savagery, particularly a Holocaust. Bauman throws away this traditional theory. He also rejects the thesis that the Holocaust was the work of madmen or explainable through European anti-semitic tendencies as extremely simplified and therefore non-considerable.

On the other hand, Bauman asserts his own powerfully convincing thesis — That the true potential of a modern, civilized society is actually exemplified through the Holocaust and is representative of the cruel reality that humans are capable of creating. He cautions that if not prevented, it is in the realm of possibility that either current or future societies are adapted to committing genocide on perhaps an even larger scale than what was witnessed in the dark period of the early 1940s. Further, he makes clear that this genocide was not committed by a group of anomic barbarians, but a so-called moralized and democratic society that not only allowed the creation of death camps but was complicit and vital to their functioning. Through implementing the production capabilities of the industrialized factory system, coordinated with the efficiently organized chain of command facilitated through bureaucracy, the Third Reich applied the advanced technological and business models available in the 20th century to a sophisticated killing machine, the concentration camps. To Bauman, the success of the Nazi’s mass murder scheme was rooted in its ‘correct use’ of bureaucracy. It was essential that the German administration utilized this formalized system of procedure to have efficiently achieved their government goals by synthesizing (1) the civil service composed of ‘normal’ citizens, (2) brute military force, (3) an industrialized mode of production, and finally (4) a single political party that provided an overall idealistic sense of a united nation. (13-14 Bauman) In the Third Reich, tied to the sense of a united nation was a united German Volk, of only the purest Germanic blood. Hitler’s functional objective of a judenfrei Germany was not originally presented in the terms of ridding the world of all Jewry through mass murder. His sinister dream of a ‘racially pure’ Aryan nation began in active forced deportation of minority groups to surrounding European nations. But as the war continued and the National Socialists political-military prowess and territory swelled, Germany quickly was responsible for more Jews than they knew what to do with or had any desire to humanely deal with.

As Bauman explains, The Final Solution was enacted and rationalized in a civilized nation through a tri-fold effect that would only have been possible in a modernized state. First, the SS hierarchy always shifted duty for otherwise immoral acts to a superior in command. Second, killing was always performed when capable at a physical distance with the aid of technology and never with zealous motivation, only professional efficiency due to the Fuhrer and Vaterland. In this way, responsibility for mass murder was diverted (in the minds of the killers) by the flick of an electrical switch and the psychological intention of murder was detached from the physical act of murder. Gas chambers were used purposefully; a chemical and technological barrier between the victim and the killer was intentionally in place. Shooting was discouraged and by the time the Einsatzgruppen mobilized, executioners who were overzealous about the concept of carrying out the firing squad were removed from that station. Finally, the Nazis systematically removed anything close to resembling humanity and humanness from their victims through removal of all basic rights, starvation, torture, and forced slave labor. In this way, the ‘invisibility’ of the Muselmanner (walking corpses) was complete. The murder of millions under the Third Reich regime was possible because each dead body was not considered as a corpse; it was just another final, capitalized product of the factory-line system.

In Bauman’s summarizing words, “It [the Holocaust] was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house.” (Bauman 17) He emphatically rejects the notion of the German Final Solution as an irrational aberration from traditional civilized tendencies. In fact, he presents civilization not a force that has overcome barbarism, but one that actually supports natural violent tendencies towards ethnic minorities. He continues to explain his meaning of civilization, which in his words has dual, co-existing potentialities for extreme good as well as extreme evil. In Bauman’s sociological viewpoint, the humanity that put the man on the moon and co-orchestrated the Olympics is the same humanity that allowed the death camps of the Third Reich to murder 6 million Jews and 5 million other civilians, all in the heart of Western Europe only 70 years ago. He quotes Rubenstein to what he concludes as the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, “Both creation and destruction are inseparable aspects of what we call civilization.” (Bauman 9) In conclusion, Bauman explores the devastation of the Holocaust as strictly a rationally explained historical incident explicitly to be considered in the framework of highly bureaucratic and highly industrialized nations, both of which are only possible in a modernized civilization.

Convention on Genocide

3 Points

1) The Convention’s definition of genocide encompasses a much broader array of offenses than I had considered. In addition to “killing members of the group,” genocide includes the forced relocation of children and the prevention of reproduction.
2) Accused parties could be charged with a number of punishable acts, including “conspiracy to commit genocide” and “complicity in genocide.” They should be judged by those with authority in the state in which the crimes were committed.
3) If the number of representatives serving the Convention should at any point fall below 16, then the Convention would renounce its authority.


1) In what situations did the Convention exercise its power to arrest criminals?
2) Were there any revisions made to the original Convention document?


The Convention articles are very thorough, and I believe they would be effective preventing and punishing genocidal activities. Opposition to the document would be unfounded unless said opponents had intentions of committing genocide themselves.

Genocide: Definitely Not Allowed

Interesting Points:

– The definition of Genocide is all encompassing. Even if there are just nine or ten people in a religious cult the conspiracy to wipe them out would be defined as Genocide. I guess I find it interesting that this term doesn’t just apply to large numbers of people – it has to do with any sized group.

– If it is possible, the offenders will be tried in a state judicial system, instead of an international war crimes tribunal. I was under the impression that all trials as serious as these would be on an international level.

– The ratification process extends for quite a long period of time. It is not over in one day with countries voting “yay” or “nay”. The process begins on 9 December 1948 and goes up until 31 December 1949 – over one year long.


– I understand that people had never seen controlled killings like the Holocaust before, but don’t you think the countries of the world should’ve had legislation in place before any of this happened in the first place?

– Why would any country NOT ratify this legislation. Some African countries may have wanted to stay away from it so they could continue their use of “crowd control” (Rwanda), but denying the bill is just begging to be scorned by the international community.


– The convention would cease to exist if the number of countries went below sixteen. I have no idea why they would include this stipulation as I would want to keep the legislation in effect even if there was only one country holding onto it.