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In the wake of World War II, world leaders were faced with punishing Nazi perpetrators and collaborators for the atrocities committed against Jews and others during the Holocaust. All nations agreed that human rights (then called “crimes against humanity”) had been violated, but the mass scale was unprecedented in the modern era. War crimes depicted in the Geneva Conventions did not encompass the entirety of the Holocaust. The UN set out to address how to reconcile and prevent the colossal violation of human rights that had taken place in Europe, leading to the creation of two documents in 1948: The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; both inspired by the horrors committed by the Nazis during the war. Thus came the term “genocide”, to describe the intent to destroy a group, in whole or in part, of national, ethnical, racial or religious origin to describe the crimes committed by Nazis and others against the Jews before and during the war. While the Jews of the Holocaust are described as having suffered from genocide, the other, nearly 11 million, non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust are only cited as suffering from violations of their human rights. Many ask why this term only applies to groups of specific origins, and not to all groups that fall victim to mass murder. The answer to this question lay in the analysis of what constitutes genocide and what makes it different from other violations of human rights on a substantial scale.
Before WWII, war criminals were punished based on the conventions laid out in 1899 and 1907 by The Hague Peace Conventions that established punishments for wartime violations of human rights like treatment of prisoners of war, forbidding pillaging of towns, and treatment of civilians. All of these violations could be applied to Nazi leaders, followers, and collaborators in the post-war era, but they did not include all of the supplementary actions taken that had resulted in the lost of millions of civilian lives in Europe. Additionally, there were crimes committed prior to the war’s start, like anti-Jewish legislation of the Third Reich, which could not fall under war crimes, since they occurred during a time of peace. The Allied powers met several times prior to the trials of war criminals find solutions to unprecedented questions about these crimes.
In January of 1942 the St. James Declaration was signed to declare nations would work together to create a “world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security”. In November of the following year, the Moscow Declaration was signed by Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; declaring themselves committed to the punishment of war crimes for “major criminals” whose offenses have no particular geographical location and could be punished based on the joint decision of Allied powers. Since these types of crimes had been previously unparalleled, The United Nations War Crimes Commission was established in October of 1943 to investigate the human rights violations committed and to record names of individuals responsible in order to convict as many perpetrators as possible. Then in August of 1945, the London Agreement was signed establishing the International Military Tribunal to deal with substantive procedural rules for the criminal trials of Japanese and Nazi violators. The Nuremberg Trials began in November of 1945 to bring judgment on war criminals by the Allied powers, sentencing 12 people to death, 3 to life imprisonment, and 4 to fixed imprisonment terms for their war crimes and “crimes against humanity”; but none of these verdicts cited genocide or human rights as a reason for condemnation. The Nuremberg Trials satisfied the public international need for retribution and birthed the precedent for international law, allowing the UN to further access the vast crimes committed in Europe during the Holocaust.
The meaning of “human rights” in the 1940s was still developing, but the Holocaust helped to expand the discussion of human rights. At many post-war trials for war criminals, most were convicted for “crimes against humanity” during the war, but it was unclear exactly what constituted a crime against humanity. The concept of human rights was not entirely new, but a document of inherently human rights did not exist as a reference. As an international organization, members of the United Nations felt obligated to take action and prohibit future instances of mass murder and suffering like the Holocaust. In 1948 they produced two documents to disclose the meaning of “crimes against humanity” by defining both “human rights” and “genocide.”
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, held in Paris in 1948, met with the goal of determining a definition of genocide. First coined by Raphael Lemkim in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in 1944, describing the decimation of the Jews; but the term “genocide” was loosely understood and even more difficult to define. The United Nations General Assembly decided that genocide could mean a number of things including: killing members of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group; or forcibly transferring children of a group to another group. It required that these crimes be committed with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” to be genocide. The Convention became the first human rights treaty adopted by he General Assembly of the UN, focusing on eradication of racism and xenophobia and the protection of groups from threats to their existence. Unfortunately, this document did not reconcile all crimes committed under the Third Reich, and the UN would continue to discuss other violations.
Following the Conventions on Genocide, in December of 1948, the UN created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), outlining what rights were inherent to all human beings. The Nazis and other collaborators disregarded many rights in the articles of the document during the road to the Final Solution before and during World War II, specifically Article 3: the right to life, liberty, and security of person and Article 5: the right to not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or disregarding treatment or punishment. The UDHR accommodated not only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but all human beings whose rights had been neglected during the war. It is undeniable that Jewish people were not the only causalities of human rights infringements at the hands of the Nazis. Political and ideological enemies of the Third Reich including Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies, mentally and physically disabled, and political prisoners also were victims. Several of these groups targeted and persecuted do not qualify within the parameters of a national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups and others do meet those requirements but still cannot be considered victims of genocide because the intent of the Final Solution and of Nazi policy was not aimed at them in particular, but at the Jewish community.
Intent and identification are the two important components of genocide. The intent of the perpetrator must be to destroy a group in part or in whole through certain actions, and the victim must identify with a group of a specific origin (national, cultural, ethnical, religious). Studying Nazi policies and strategies before and during the war are vital to understanding why only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust are considered to be victims of genocide, leaving the non-Jewish victims only as victims of human rights violations; and why it is important to keep genocide as a separate, exceptional category of murder.
From the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the Jews immediately became victims of violations to their human rights, targeted specifically for being Jewish. Persecution of other groups did not come until later after the construction of ghettos and camps; and few legislative actions were taken specifying groups aside from the Jews. During the first six years of his dictatorship before WWII, from 1933 until 1939, Jewish people fell victim to numerous regulations violating their human rights, restricting both the public and private sectors of life. Legislation under the Third Reich violated Jews’ right to work, given in Article 23, by removing them from positions in the civil service and replacing Jewish business owners with German ones; the right to own property by seizing all property for Germans and relocating Jews to ghettos; the right to nationality given by Article 15 by revoking recognition of German citizenship; the right to education from Article 26 by banning Jewish students from German schools and universities; the right to own property as stated in Article 17 was taken away from Jews, as they were required to surrender their property over to the state; the right to leave and return to any country given in Article 13, first by requiring immigration and then by ending immigration for forced deportations to the East; and the Article 25 right to a standard of living adequate for health by depriving Jews of sufficient nutrition and living conditions in both ghettos and concentration camps.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 separated the Jews as the target of Nazi policy by segregating Jewish people according to racial criteria and putting the entire Jewish community under “alien status”. The Nuremberg Laws prohibited marriages and sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews to isolate Jews from the private sector of society and to prevent contamination of German blood with Jewish blood; violating the right to marriage granted by Article 16 of the UDHR. To qualify as a Jew, the Nuremberg Laws stated you had to have 3 Jewish grandparents, forcing people to categorize themselves as Jewish regardless of whether they had previously identified as a Jew; violating the right to not be compelled to belong to an association in Article 20. Under the Nuremberg Laws, 1.5 million people living in Germany were considered Jewish and would become targets for the Final Solution with the rest of European Jewry.
Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi police chief, announced the answer to the “Jewish question” at the Wannsee Conference in January of 1942, the answer came in the form of the Final Solution. The Final Solution included the deportation of all Jews to the East, where they would either be killed or worked to death, and the survivors “dealt with accordingly.” Heydrich headed the conference to inform fellow high-ranking officials, beaurocrats and Nazi German agencies the final decision made by Hitler to solve the pressing question of what Germany should do with the responsibility of European Jewry resting on its shoulders. The conference was not a place for officials to discuss other possible solutions to the Jewish question, but to “listen and nod” to ensure their support, clearing the way for genocide of European Jewry. The conference was not centered around the political and ideological enemies of the Third Reich, but on European Jewry.
Non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust suffered extensive disregard for human rights that cannot be discredited, but there was no legislation to the extent of the Nuremberg Laws that categorized any specific group as alien. There were statutes created to assist in the persecution of Jews that made other groups in Europe collateral damage to The Final Solution. The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, enacted in July 14, 1933, allowed for sterilization of anyone recognized as suffering from supposedly hereditary diseases such as feeble-mindedness, schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, genetic epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, genetic blindness, genetic deafness and severe alcoholism. This directly violates Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, but it does not constitute genocide because mentally and physically disabled people are not categorized as national, ethnic, cultural, or religious in nature.
Under Aktion T4, physicians, scientists and geneticists were permitted to kill inside German hospitals to experiment with methods of mass killing for the Final Solution. Hitler delegated the task of experimentation to skilled academics to practice killing techniques like gassing using mentally and physically disabled people. This eliminated two problems with one program: it started the wheels turning for the technology that would eventually lead to the Final Solution, and it eliminated the economic burden of taking care of mentally and physically ill citizens. T4 was not genocide, because it wasn’t created with the intent to destroy mentally and physically disabled persons, but as a stepping-stone towards solving the Jewish question in Germany.
Blacks and gypsies both meet the identification requirement, but are left out of the Holocaust narrative as victims of genocide because of German intent. Europeans persecuted Jews, gypsies and enslaved blacks for hundreds of years before Hitler and the Nazi party developed racist ideology. Much like the sterilization of the mentally and physically disabled, blacks and gypsies in Germany also faced sterilization. Similar to the Nuremberg Laws, blacks were discouraged from marrying or having intercourse with Aryans, and mixed children were called “Rhineland Bastards” or “Black Disgrace.” Blacks and gypsies were sent to ghettos and concentration camps with Jews and deprived of the same rights; but the intent of the Final Solution was the settle the “Jewish question”, not the “Black question” or the “Gypsy question.” Regardless of the goal being Aryanization and these two groups being non-Aryan, the German intent was never explicitly stated as to get rid of all blacks and gypsies, but to get rid of all Jews.
The holocaust of other groups in Europe has to be understood in terms of a Nazi world-view, taking Aryanization and German expansion to an extreme; but the full blow of Nazi machinery and violence in terms of legal, political, economic, and social institutions was aimed at the Jewish population. All mass violations of human rights do not constitute genocide according to the definition laid out in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide because there is a need to keep a separate category for crimes against specific national, ethnical, cultural, and religious groups as opposed to categorizing all large-scale human rights violations as equally important. While the homosexuals, mentally handicapped, physically handicapped, political prisoners, and others targeted by the Nazis all were victims of the same violations of human rights as the Jewish victims, there are inherent differences. If the Nazis targeted and exterminated every homosexual, political enemy, ideological enemy, and handicapped person in Europe, people born later could identify as homosexual, dissent the government politically or ideologically, or be handicapped; however, if the Final Solution succeeded in eliminating every Jewish person, there could not be another Jewish person in the future, explaining the importance of defining genocide and the separation from all other human rights violations as an exceptional form of mass murder.
Without the mass transgressions of the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, it is unlikely that the language established in 1948 through these two documents would have emerged this early on. Progressing from the Nuremberg Trials, the United Nations used Nazi war criminals as the starting point to resolve extensive violations of human rights. The Holocaust allowed for precedents to be set for future violations of human rights and punishments to be delivered using international law.
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