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On paths not taken
Uğur Ümit Üngör
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

In Amsterdam, there’s a street named after Raphael Lemkin. It’s in the southeast, historically a mostly Surinamese neighborhood. Once, walking through, I saw two teenage kids playing football on a corner.

« Yo guys, » I tried, « do you live here? »

« Yes, » said the eye-rolling goalkeeper.

« Do you know who Raphael Lemkin is? » I asked.

« No we don’t, » replied the other, and kicked the ball with an aggression I suspect was directed at me.

In 1943, Lemkin coined the term genocide, defining it as: « A coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups. » A Polish-Jewish lawyer who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust, he dedicated his life to the criminalization of genocide under international law. His definition in turn informed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

Street names index history in curious ways. After liberation in May 1945, Amsterdam’s city council voted to add a ‘Stalin Lane’ in the south, uniting Roosevelt Lane with Churchill Lane – a relic of our alliance with Uncle Joe. In 1956, after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising, they voted almost unanimously (Communist Party excepted) to change ‘Stalin Lane’ to ‘Freedom Lane’ (Vrijheidslaan). The UN Genocide Convention, too, was inflected by Cold War politics: Stalin went through the draft convention personally, striking out elements he deemed harmful to the Soviet Union and emphasizing what was usable against the West. He argued against the establishment of an international criminal court and, crucially, against the inclusion of political groups in the definition; he had, after all, been killing a good number of them. What was left was a gutted Convention that Lemkin himself was unhappy with.

The institute where I work, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, is on the Herengracht (Lords’ Canal) in Amsterdam’s ‘Golden Bend’, where patricians used to live in double-wide mansions. Enchanted tourists plod along the narrow sidewalk. Once, an American tourist asked: « Excuse me, what time does all of this close? »

« What do you mean, close? »

« All of this », she gestured, « the canals. »

As an academic field, « Genocide Studies » is a house with many rooms. It accommodates and even encourages a broadening of its central concept. And like all academic fields, it presumes its object of study will always be there.

In 1961, the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch went to Jerusalem to observe the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann. After the trial, he retreated to a hotel in Warsaw to write down his impressions, which became Criminal Case 40/61, an undervalued book. « So what must the murder of the Jews mean for Eichmann? » Mulisch asked. The question, asking what genocide means to the perpetrators themselves, was ahead of its time. In his answer, it meant mostly fond memories and romanticized regret:

Linked up with the power, the status, the uniform, the car with chauffeur, the mistresses, the Schnapps, the parties, and of course the beautiful things he saw: the cities, Budapest, the music he heard, his children – but naturally tears come to his eyes, with emotion and nostalgia when thinking back to the days of the gas chambers. How could anyone assume that he would show fear or remorse when hearing the witnesses: those were the good old days.

Mulisch’s portrait anticipated a distinction important to my own work: perpetrator vs perpetration. Perpetrator refers to the individuals who commit violence, perpetration refers to the processes of mass violence: the different layers of authority, different motives of involvement, and different types of social ties, the things not reducible to an imagined figure of ‘the perpetrator’.

The studiable archive of both perpetrator and perpetration is now infinite. Perpetrators have smartphones. Violence against civilians is broadcast online in real time: torture, bombardments, executions, you name it. Never before could we look the perpetrator straight in his face while he shoots someone in the head and makes a selfie. The study of perpetration, though, also illuminates non-perpetration: people who edged close, looked into the abyss, but veered away, sometimes at the last minute, often to be faced with ostracism and isolation. Paths that weren’t taken tell us a lot about the paths that were.

The conflict in Syria has now dragged on for over a decade. Some 600.000 people have been killed, millions more injured, maimed, and traumatized, 12 million people (half of its pre-war population) are displaced inside and outside the country; economic and civic life are devastated. The uprising that began in 2011 was an overwhelmingly non-violent mass movement, to which the Assad regime responded violently, rapidly militarizing the conflict and brutalizing society. Perpetration is a collective effort. Syria’s violence is organized enough that only a purposeful policy of annihilation can explain it. My colleague and I interviewed the commander of a Shabbiha militia, Ali al-Shilli, who has a popular Facebook page. His militia of hundreds of men has committed arrests, killings, kidnappings, sexual violence, and plunder, in central Syria. This is what he had to say for himself:

Of course, I have a bit of a difficult background. I used to love weapons, love trouble. This is basically my nature… Yes, we killed and kidnapped and have done things that shouldn’t be done, but we did not kill anyone innocent.

We are dealing here with the essentialization or ‘racialization’ of political identities as indelible and even hereditary. Examples abound: « Kulaks » under Stalin, « Monarchists » under Pol Pot, or « Communists » under Suharto. The Suharto regime viewed affiliation with the left as a sin of inheritance: a child of a Communist was a Communist. A political category is thus made « ethnic ».

Most Europeans treat the Middle East as a foreign planet, where violence is part of the atmosphere, as if that planet’s atmosphere is not our atmosphere. As if it was not, after all, the Eastern Mediterranean region, as if Syrian food was not a lot like Greek food. I’d say Syria is more European than any other Middle Eastern nation: If Turkey can be a candidate for joining the EU, then it’s nonsensical to exclude Syria on « cultural grounds ».

Why would Syrian killers be any different from German ones in their cruelty, or their banality? Why would German perpetrators be ‘ordinary men’, but Syrian ones different, opaque, inexplicable? Is it the long beards or voluptuous moustaches? Is it because they didn’t listen to Beethoven and Wagner?

The catastrophes in Syria, as well as in Iraq, are near to Europe: in space, in time, and in uncomfortable complicity. (It was a Dutch businessman who sold Saddam Hussein chemicals in the 1980s, and it was France that allowed Bashar al-Assad’s murderous uncle Rifaat to live in Paris undisturbed for decades.) Refugees fleeing violence brought their memories; those memories are now European memories. Ukrainian refugees flee the same Russian air force that bombed Syria for years.

There used to be a direct KLM flight from Amsterdam to Aleppo. I wish I had taken it; it would have been convenient and comfortable. But the Aleppo airport was partly destroyed in heavy fighting between rebels and the regime. That flight likely won’t be revived anytime soon.