A message circulating on WhatsApp speaks of a country with more than 200 ethnic communities peacefully coexisting in contrast to another, of one ethnicity, whose nationals do not get along. The problem, the drafter concluded, was not ethnicity, but leaders, and what they tell their followers.
Many gathered at the Auschwitz concentration and extermination death camp in Poland last week, commemorating its 75th anniversary would agree Nazi leader Adolf Hitler convinced his followers that Jews, among others, were inferior people, “living lives unworthy of life” and a threat to racial purity. This resulted in Hitlers’ “final solution,” killing millions of the “inferior.”
Eight years ago, I went to Auschwitz for the annual Global Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention. Raphael Lemkin was a lawyer of Polish descent who coined the word genocide. Lemkin’s work also resulted in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Prof James Waller, who teaches the course, writes in his book, Confronting Evil, that Lemkin was inspired to find the name genocide when he heard Winston Churchill, in describing what was going on, say "we are in the presence of a crime without a name”.
We were in Auschwitz in the wet and cold month of November, bearing witness to one of the world’s arenas where human cruelty and misery met in equal measure. Sitting in one of the prisoner’s barracks, we studied several genocides including the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust.
A lot of things I saw and heard at Auschwitz made a lifetime impression on me. We walked through every single step of the extermination process, from trudging in gloomy silence on the railway tracks that brought in human cargo to their deaths, to finally, trembling in fear, in the gas chambers where millions died. I am short-sighted and seeing a room full of spectacles of the deceased invoked imagination on what it would have felt like to grope my way to the gas chamber.
Nothing in Auschwitz went to waste we learnt — a mountain of hair, harvested from prisoners lies in one room. The hair was used to make carpets and coats. Gold and silver teeth were extracted from dead bodies and sent to jewellers for melting. Corpses were burnt and strewn in fields as fertiliser.
The longest serving commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss, was tried after the war, sentenced to death and hanged next to the gas chambers, where prisoners attempting to escape were tortured.
I left Auschwitz haunted by one question. The primary responsibility was on Hitler and the leadership but what about the average citizens, train drivers of the human cargo, jewellers, doctors, bureaucrats such as clerks, propaganda academics and filmmakers who enabled Hitler’s ethnic cleansing?
Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist, outwitted and disobeyed the Nazi’s, saving the lives of thousands of Jews working for him. We visited his factory, made famous through the adaptation of his story into the internationally acclaimed film Schindler’s List.
Killing a million people is a difficult task made possible through ensuring obedience of people to implement without questioning consequences. I remember a genocidaire explaining, during a visit to Rwanda, how exhausting what he called “the work” of killing people using a machete was. He said he followed the leader’s instructions and had nothing against those he killed, both Tutsi and moderate Hutu. Obedience.
Prof Waller in describing the killing of more than a million people in 100 days says, “Rwanda stands as the most rapid, efficient and intensive genocide in recorded history”. Many were, however, saved in Rwanda by those who did not obey the instructions.
In many African contexts, ethnic identity politics is a powerful and disruptive force for violence. If we begin to talk in markets and communal cattle dips, in time we will move from naming the problem to mapping an ethnic social cohesion plan. We shall be part of steering a radically different future for ourselves and future generations.
Writing to his son before he was hanged, Auschwitz Commander Hoss said, “the biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me.” Obedience.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org