Holocaust Scholar Defines Bosnian Genocide
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has been recognized internationally for his research on genocide. A recipient of a Nobel Lectureship, the Holocaust Memorial Award, and the Gandhi Peace Award, he has written more than a dozen books on the psychological ramifications of the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and war. His 1986 book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, won the national Jewish Book Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history. In 1990, he co-wrote The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and the Nuclear Threat.
Bosnian Horrors Termed Genocide by a leading Holocaust Scholar
By John Nichols
Toledo Blade, section A, p.2
28 February 1993.
A weeping 12-year-old tells of how she was raped by Serbian troops; a Muslim woman recalls the day soldiers shot her children; an emaciated man describes mounds of bodies in a death camp.
When he hears tales of horror from what was Yugoslavia, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton applies the most chilling label he knows.
“What’s happening there merits the use of the word genocide,” says the director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at City University of New York.
“There is an effort to systematically destroy an entire group. It’s even been conceptualized by Serbian nationalists as so-called ‘ethnic cleansing.’ That term signifies mass killing, mass relocation, and that does constitute genocide.”
Even in a society in which linguistic imprecision is a given, certain labels cannot be applied casually. “Genocide” is chief among them. No one knows this better than Dr. Lifton, and perhaps no one is better prepared to discuss what a 1946 United Nations resolution described as the “denial of the right of existence of human groups.”
Since the 1960s, this pioneer in the field of psychohistory has been recognized internationally for his research on genocide. A recipient of a Nobel Lectureship, the Holocaust Memorial Award, and the Gandhi Peace Award, he has written more than a dozen books on the psychological ramifications of the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, and war.
His 1986 book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, won the national Jewish Book Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history. In 1990, he co-wrote The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and the Nuclear Threat. He now is working on a book on “species consciousness,” an awareness of one’s connection to humankind that might help overcome genocidal tendencies.
“What I mean by that is a way of forming a sense of self that includes an awareness of being a part of humankind,” he says. “I mean that much more than a noble ideal; I mean that as a nitty-gritty way of functioning psychologically.”
It is a concept he will discuss Thursday at Bowling Green State University, when he delivers the eight annual Edward Lamb Peace Lecture. The lecture series, endowed by the late Toledo millionaire and peace activist for whom it is named, has become a respected forum for discussion about the resolution of global conflicts.
Dr. Lifton will speak at 8 p.m. in the BGSU Union. The lecture is free and open to the public.
His lecture comes at a time when the world is focusing anew on the subject of genocide.
Reports of death camps, mass killings, and rapes in Bosnia last week moved the U.N. Security Council to create the first international war crimes tribunal since the end of World War II. Dr. Lifton hails the move, but he worries about whether the commitment is sufficient.
“The U.N. has taken a strong stand against genocide, but they haven’t really developed any means of intervention,” he says. “That has been blocked by the narrow political concerns of particular countries.”
Although genocidal acts committed during World War II generated broad revulsion, Dr. Lifton believes recent acts have failed to inspire appropriate responses.
Despite detailed reports of mass killings of ethnic, religious and political minorities in India, Uganda, and Cambodia, he says, “For the most part, the world stood by. There has been a pattern of inactivity.”
He hopes a growing awareness of what is happening in the Balkans will break the pattern.
“These events in Bosnia are particularly reminiscent of the Nazi genocide because they have some similar features: camps and systematic killing,” he says. “That may have an impact on people.”
Despite all the bloodshed in Bosnia, and the sense on the part of some that it is unstoppable, Dr. Lifton hopes an international commitment to the region could save thousands of lives and challenge genocide. “It’s very late, but not too late,” he says. “It’s never too late to begin this process.”
He favors large-scale intervention by the international community and creation of “safe-haven zones” where international forces ensure that citizens of Bosnia, Croatia, and other regions are protected.
“These approaches take a lot of troops and a lot of will, which hasn’t been forthcoming,” he says. “What has determined the inactivity has been the political dynamic, rather than the need for urgent action.”
How are people able to watch reports of atrocities and fail to act?
Dr. Lifton suggests that most people fail to reconcile their horror at genocide with their daily lives.
Regarding awareness, World War II was “a fundamental turning point,” he says. “Nazi genocide and the atomic bombings combined in people minds to create a sense that we have the ability to annihilate ourselves as a species by our own hand, with our own technology, and to no purpose. Before World War II, there were visionaries who knew this — H.G. Wells and others — but my sense is that after World War II that imagery of extinction became the property of everyone.”
Awareness does not always equal action, however. “People live simultaneously in two realms,” Dr. Lifton explains. “An aspect of them becomes aware of the imagery of extinction — that sense that we have an ability to destroy our world — but otherwise, they go on to live their own lives. I call it ‘double lives.’ In a sense, we have all been living double lives since World War II.”