Does ‘Never Again’ Have Any Meaning? Human Rights After the Holocaust

As the world marked the 70th anniversary of the Allied forces liberating the survivors of the Nazi death camps, human-rights leaders warn that the lessons of the Holocaust cannot be taken for granted.

The entrance to Auschwitz
The entrance to Auschwitz (photo: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha / CC-BY-SA)

WASHINGTON — Even though it ended 70 years ago, the Holocaust still gives a stark and relevant warning on dehumanization and persecution today, say leaders on human rights and Holocaust history.

The fight to protect human dignity can “never rest,” Katrina Lantos-Swett, told CNA for the commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“It requires this constant vigilance. It requires this vigilance to not rest in the face of evil,” she said. “This duty not to forget is a moral duty.”

Swett serves as the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. Her father, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated by the United Nations on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The 2015 commemoration marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp in 1945.

During World War II, more than six million Jews, or 80% of Europe’s Jewish population, were deliberately targeted and systematically murdered by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler — a catastrophe known as the Holocaust or Shoah.

The Nazi Party justified its persecution and treatment of its victims by calling them subhuman and inferior “lives unworthy of life.” In addition to its slaughter of Jewish men, women and children, at least 5 million non-Jewish Poles, Slavs, Romani Gypsies, Soviets, Catholics, homosexuals, disabled persons, political and religious dissidents were also executed at the hands of Nazi troops.

This rejection of the “inherent dignity of every human being” and the sheer “effort that was made to dehumanize the other,” Swett said, formed the “underlying ideology” of the Holocaust.

In turn, this dehumanization coupled with an oftentimes bureaucratic operation, she added, led to a system that showcased the “banality of evil.” She noted that many of the crimes of Auschwitz and other death camps had been told to the public through escaped prisoners, yet there was a “relative lack of outrage” until months after the liberation of Auschwitz and other camps.

However, the Holocaust did teach the international community a valuable lesson about the “vulnerable” nature of human rights. In the months and years after the Holocaust, a “worldwide revulsion” to the crimes committed by Nazi Germany lead to the codification and safeguarding of human rights, such as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the classification of genocide and other crimes against humanity, Swett explained.

However, she continued, these lessons must be remembered by subsequent generations.

“A lesson learned once doesn’t mean it is mastered forever,” Swett said, pointing to the persecution of communities around the world such as the Yazidi, Rohynga Muslims and religious minorities in Sudan and elsewhere.

“In practice, we know that there continue to be genocides,” she said, warning that the lesson of the Holocaust “is only effective in protecting people when there is the political will.”

This emphasis on ending genocide was apparent in the political and religious statements made by world leaders on the legacy of the Holocaust as the world marked the liberation of the Nazi death camps by Allied forces.

“Honoring the victims and survivors begins with our renewed recognition of the value and dignity of each person,” stated U.S. President Barack Obama. “It demands from us the courage to protect the persecuted and speak out against bigotry and hatred,” adding that such an atrocity “must never happen again.”

“Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among peoples,” Pope Francis said via Twitter.

Steven Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum told CNA that, looking into the past and the questions surrounding the Holocaust, can help shed light on similar contemporary examples of genocide and persecution.

Society keeps asking “How did this happen?” particularly in “a society that is very well educated, very well read, well advanced,” Luckert said.

Looking to the rise of the Nazi Party and the implementation of the Holocaust, he said, “What you see is a triumph of an extremist political party dedicated to very radical, extremist goals that were imbued with racism and anti-Semitism.”

Today, he said, “we know that other genocides have happened, and persecution still exists,” but there are some safeguards against horrors to the extent of what occurred in World War II.

While there has been a “spread of intolerance” and anti-Semitism in Europe as well as other “potent” examples of discrimination and persecution around the world, there have been concrete changes in international law, Luckert explained.

“There’s more of an international concern and effort to do something about it,” he said.

The remaining Holocaust survivors also help to keep “this history alive” and serve as a testament for the need to stop the violation of persecuted peoples.

These witnesses, Luckert said, show “the importance of speaking out about racism, about anti-Semitism, about contemporary genocide, that ‘never again’ really can mean ‘never again.’”