Elie Wiesel got mad at me once.
In 1996, I was attending Harvard Divinity School and taking a seminar with Wiesel at Boston University on “Literature of Prison.” The room was packed with fawning, silent, ‘participants’ who took down Wiesel’s pronouncements like they were revelation. We were reading books written from or about prison life: Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Danilo Kis’ A Tomb for Boris Davidovich; a fantastic syllabus. After a while, one’s literary experience of prison becomes numbing, all bondage seems the same: the harsh labor, the capricious cruelty of guards, the rock-hardened souls. Breyton Breytenbach’s apartheid prison memoir was as devastating as Dostoevsky’s account of tsarist work camps. One’s suffering, big or small, Victor Frankel observed, fills one’s consciousness as gas fills the room. By the end of the course, even the Japanese internment during WWII seemed as tragic as the Gulag and the Death Camp.
To suggest that the experience of imprisonment in Pretoria is as pernicious as a death camp in Poland is to commit heresy in Jewish circles. The Jewish community has rightly kept aflame the memory of the European Holocaust, though not without some absurd fall-out. For example, we proclaim loudly and often that our Holocaust was the worst, the winner of the suffering sweepstakes. The Holocaust is, we declare, unique. The reasons for this uniqueness, however, changed over time, like the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq war. Sometimes it is the size or percentage of the population killed, often it is the intention of complete annihilation, or the unprecedented mechanization of mass killing. None of these reasons hold up to much historical scrutiny. Rather, assertions of uniqueness are metaphysical or poetic claims, speech-acts, expressions of pain, not description of a historical state of affairs. Such rhetoric serves the sad function of overshadowing other tragedies. “You think Christian Poles suffered under the Nazis? Well, at least they weren’t gassed…”, “millions of children die each year? But it is not systematically intended…” and so forth.
The Holocaust merits at least one world record: it is the most commemorated and regarded human tragedy of our time. Auschwitz marks a significant border after which the West was never the same, politically, theologically, or philosophically. The Holocaust ushered in a new phase of Christian-Jewish relations; theological anti-Judaism virtually vanished after the war. The State of Israel was founded. Astoundingly, after centuries of human misery and disaster, the Holocaust produced a voluminous literature on the nature of evil and suffering. The waves of trouble the Holocaust posed for theories of a benevolent deity are still being surfed to this day. The absence of God was duly proclaimed by thinking believers, his non-existence asserted with plausible cause by non-believers. As Wiesel writes in Night after the death of a child is exclaimed a sign of God’s abdication: “Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
More absurdities: in the last few decades the currency of suffering, Holocaust discourse, has been inflated, mostly due to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some Israelis framed Arafat (or the current Iranian president) as a “new Hitler”; some Palestinians use the language of genocide (in its open-ended 1948 definition) to describe the Palestinians catastrophe. I once read that a Palestinian youth, having just visited the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, asserted that the Jews had to only endure their suffering for a few minutes in the gas chambers while Palestinians have had to endure their suffering (occupation) for fifty years.
Despite these perverse inflations, there are real cases of evil that deserve the comparison with the Jewish Holocaust. The impoverished Romi people lost a higher percentage of their population than Jews at the hands of the Nazis and today they are terribly disorganized, their tragedy largely forgotten. The Rwandan massacre saw the most rapid destruction of human life in the shortest period of time. One might argue that the Rwandan case was comparably horrific because it entailed the use of machetes and knives, not gas and bullets. Some Armenians have bemoaned the fact that the Armenian Genocide is even more tragic because the perpetuators, the Turks, have yet to acknowledge their guilt or make amends.
Let me suggest an even greater genocide, more gruesome than Rwanda, entailing more deaths than the Holocaust, and less remembered than even the Armenian genocide: the Belgium Congo.
I have just finished Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. It is indispensable reading and the most stirring example of the evils of colonialism and “progress” I have read. In the 1880s, the megamaniacal King Leopold acquired large areas of central Africa for his own personal use. He colonized the area under the guise of humanitarianism. Indeed, he was known as a saintly ruler who fought “Arab” slavers and brought Christianity and civilization to the “natives.” Meanwhile, his minions brutalized the population, swindled land and resources from countless villages, and enslaved untold numbers of Africans. By the turn of the century, the population was reduced by half, with an estimated ten million Africans dead of brutality, starvation, and murder. Africans were treated worse than animals, used as target practice, sex slaves, and slave labor. Leopold lined his royal pockets with profits from the ivory and rubber trades, all under the nose of the Belgium government.
Hochschild illustrates how the atrocities in the Congo spurred the first major international human rights campaign of the 20th century. Because of the tireless efforts of a few British and American activists, some of Leopold’s evils were revealed to the world. Cutting off Africans’ right hands became a widespread practice, emblematic of colonial cruelty. By 1910 or so, the Leopold’s reputation was disgraced, and the Congo passed into the slightly less cruel and capricious hands of the Belgium government. Still, the exploitation of the area’s resources and peoples continued.
Unlike the libraries of testimonies by Jewish survivors, almost no record of the rape of the Congo exist by Africans – nearby all of our sources derive from European missionaries, reformers, or diarists. Hochschild notes that as recent as the 1970s, even Belgium diplomats to the African countries were unaware of Belgium’s complicity with this fin-de-siecle holocaust.
In the spirit of charity and truth, let’s commemorate the Jewish Holocaust by recalling other people’s holocausts. Nazism is an easy target for paradigmatic evil; the drive for profits by companies and governments less so. The demands of rubber then were like our demands for cheap labor and cheap oil now. Today’s Leopolds are less obvious, more diffused in corporate boardrooms and legislatures. Still, it is we who benefit from the exploitation of millions…
Wiesel did not get mad at me because I denied the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I never contested that claim in his presence. Rather, it was during one class I challenged the premise of his rhetoric. The topic came up “if we could go back in time and kill the young Hitler, would we?” “Of course!” I asserted, “no doubt.” “Does this mean that the ends justify the means?” Wiesel asked. “Sometimes, sometimes not” I pragmatically continued “but this is not the right question. It should be, ‘what ought we to do right now?’ That is, we should not be asking the big metaphysical questions about the nature of evil, or dwell on hypothetical moral dilemmas, but instead ask the small logistical questions about how we actually fight contemporary ills. What are we not doing right now? What shall we do tomorrow?” It was my advocacy of the small questions that made Wiesel furious. He fumed, “we must ask the big questions, and only then can we answer the small questions!” On this, he is wrong, we must ask, and answer, the small questions first…
….The bus for the national D.C. march against the Sudanese Genocide in Darfur leaves Sunday morning, April 30. Email Jeremy Golubcow-Teglasi (golubcow@Princeton.EDU) to secure your free seat today.