January 27, the date on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp complex was liberated in 1945, is observed as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is an occasion to honor the millions of Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its accomplices. Despite statements after the Holocaust that “never again” would such a tragedy be allowed to happen, and despite pledges of vigilance, the crime of genocide has been committed again and again since the Second World War: in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Xinjiang, and areas formerly under ISIS control.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was the first legal instrument to codify genocide as a crime. It defines genocide as specific acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such. The Convention recognizes five such acts, which include killing members of the group, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group, and further criminalizes conspiracy, complicity, attempt, or incitement to commit genocide.
The Holocaust [was a] genocide that refers specifically to the attempted annihilation of European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
Although it is generally known that the Holocaust coincided with the Second World War, its beginnings go back to the 1930s. Once the Nazi Party came to power, the Nazi regime began to target political enemies and those they deemed to be inherently inferior. Over the course of the 1930s, more and more measures were put into place that made possible the marginalization of the Jewish community and other groups in German society. With the start of the Second World War, crimes against civilian populations became more common. And, with the launch of the attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, crimes against Jewish communities in Eastern Europe began. By early 1942, Nazi leadership formalized the implementation of what they called the “Final Solution”: the systematic annihilation of a specific segment of the population as government policy.
It was a part of the Second World War, yet it was separate from the Nazi war effort. Indeed, the “Final Solution” often took precedence over the war effort: despite a desperate need for personnel and materiel on the front lines, no assets were diverted from death camp assignments. In the end, the “Final Solution” resulted in the deaths of six million Jews.
“Evil on a grand scale can and does happen in our world – and … we have a responsibility to do everything we can to stop it,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “That’s why it’s so important that we speak the truth about the past, to protect the facts when others try to distort or trivialize Holocaust crimes, and to seek justice for the survivors and their families.”