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Genocide: What's in a word?

Mick Hume takes issue with Holocaust-mongering over Kosovo

From the first week of the war against the Serbs, New Labour defence secretary George Robertson and foreign secretary Robin Cook seemed hardly able to open their mouths without uttering the 'G' word. They have told us time and again that President Milosevic is 'intent on genocide' and 'ethnic extermination' in Kosovo, insisting that the NATO air strikes have 'one purpose alone and that is to stop the genocidal violence' against ethnic Albanians, and denouncing Serbian 'fascism'.

New Labour's German allies, the Social Democrats, have also weighed in with some ominous historical references. Defence minister Rudolf Scharping claimed that there was 'serious evidence' in Kosovo of 'concentration camps like there were in Bosnia', and of 'systematic extermination that recalls in a horrible way what was done in the name of Germany at the beginning of World War II'.

Predictably others replied in kind, the Russian foreign minister accusing NATO of committing genocide against the Serbs, while Serbian TV renamed the US-led alliance the 'Nazi American Terrorist Organisation'.

Where NATO politicians have tended to imply that there are parallels between the Serbs and the Nazis, the newspapers have insisted upon it and added the dreaded 'H' word. On 29 March the Daily Mail's front page reported, beneath a picture of Kosovo Albanian children in a lorry headlined 'FLIGHT FROM GENOCIDE', 'Their terrified and bewildered faces evoke memories of the Holocaust'. On 1 April, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page black and white picture of refugees with a child picked out in colour, Schindler's List-style. Under the headline '1939 or 1999?' it reported that 'Nazi style terror came to Kosovo yesterday in a horrific echo of the wartime Holocaust'. That same day, the Sun bluntly headlined its Kosovo spread 'NAZIS 1999 - Serb cruelty has chilling echoes of the Holocaust'. By now, the pattern was well established.

The continual, deliberate talk of genocide is much more significant than the usual wartime rhetoric. In terms of international law, the allegation of genocide provides a possible get-out for NATO governments accused of illegally invading the sovereign state of Yugoslavia. As the New York Times reported, 'Policymakers in the United States and Europe are invoking the word to help provide a legal justification for their military campaign against Serbia. It is one based in part on concepts of humanitarian law, where no word is more evocative' (4 April). In particular, the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 could allow for international intervention to prevent it.

In political terms, the way we have been bombarded with the language of genocide and concentration camps is even more significant. These words invoke modern moral absolutes. If there is genocide, the line is, then there can be no question of the need for intervention and retribution. The deployment of this language is designed to give an air of moral certainty to NATO's war against Serbia. Yet its real effect can only be to cloud and confuse the key issues further.

'Genocide' is not just another word for brutality, making people homeless, putting people on trains, or even murder. It means, according to the OED, 'annihilation of a race'. The word was first used in the 1940s, specifically to describe the Nazi campaign to wipe out European Jewry.

Similarly, for more than half a century, 'concentration camp' has not meant a place where large numbers of people are concentrated, even if it is against their will. Everybody should know that it means a death camp, on the Nazi model, designed for the industrial implementation of a policy of genocide.

On what basis have the likes of Robertson, Cook, Clinton and Scharping used this language to describe the crisis in Kosovo? Of course they have produced plenty of atrocity stories, but precious little independent evidence to support them. We should surely have learned our lesson by the end of the twentieth century. From the embellished tales of Belgian nuns maimed by Germans in the First World War, to the bogus reports of Kuwaiti babies thrown from incubators by Iraqis during the Gulf War of 1991, it is clear that horror stories coming out of a war zone should be viewed with a sceptical eye. (LM will be publishing a fuller analysis of this issue in relation to Kosovo at a later date.)

But let us be clear: even if the worst accounts of Serb brutality we have heard to date were true, it would still be wrong and dangerous to use the term genocide. To deploy that language, with all of the historical baggage that comes with it, is automatically to suggest that the Milosevic regime should be put on a par with the Nazis. And anybody who seriously tries to compare Hitler's Germany with Milosevic's Serbia is in danger of losing all sense of perspective and proportion.

Hitler's Germany was the dominant economic and military power in Europe, a superpower of its age which applied all of its might to pursue the imperialist goals of colonial conquest and racial superiority. Milosevic's Yugoslavia, by contrast, is an inefficient and economically powerless state, desperately trying to hang on to what remains of its greatly diminished territory after a decade of war and sanctions.

To compare the two with talk of genocide and 'echoes of the Holocaust' is to risk seriously distorting the image we have of the Balkans today. It means branding the Serbs as the evil new Nazis. And once that is done, there is no need for (indeed there is no tolerance of) any further discussion of the issues. Never mind about the real situation in the Balkans, or the role of the Western states in stoking up the conflict; if there are Nazis involved, what more do we need to know? Anything becomes permissible to put a stop to them.

But the damage does not stop there. Comparisons between the Serbs and the Nazis distort not just the present, but also the past. They risk belittling the horror of the real Holocaust, by putting the slaughter of six million Jews and many others in the Nazi death camps on a par with a local conflict, bloody though it may be, in Kosovo or Bosnia.

The danger of rewriting history in this way is a point which LM has insisted upon throughout the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It is one important reason why we sought to expose the truth about the famous ITN pictures that wrongly convinced the world that the Bosnian Serbs were running Nazi-style 'concentration camps'. And it is why we have fought the ensuing libel case for more than two years. See http://www.informinc.co.uk/ITN-vs-LM for details.

Now, as the cries of 'genocide' in Kosovo have grown louder, the diminishing of the Holocaust which this comparison implies has become an issue of concern for many others too. 'The sufferings of the Jews in the Second World War were special: effectively without precedent, almost without parallel', writes Felipe Fernández-Armesto. By contrast, 'Serb war objectives are depressingly familiar'. Nazi camp survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has also complained about the comparisons, insisting that 'the Holocaust was conceived to annihilate the last Jew on the planet. Does anyone believe that Milosevic and his accomplices seriously planned to exterminate all the Bosnians, all the Albanians, all the Muslims in the world?'.

But while Wiesel argues that what has been happening in Kosovo cannot be called genocide, he and many like him nevertheless support forceful NATO intervention. The Kosovo nightmare, he says, 'demands action, not comparison'. Yet the accusation of genocide levelled against the Serbs is not incidental to the West's legal and moral case for an extraordinary intervention - it is at the heart of that argument. Without such a rhetorical dressing, the local conflict in Kosovo would look like just another nasty little civil war. Similarly, the plight of the refugees only became an argument for increased intervention because it was viewed through the prism of the Nazi Holocaust. If their suffering had instead been interpreted as a consequence of NATO air strikes, some quite different conclusions could have been drawn.

The media must bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the way that the constant accusation of genocide has been used, both to distort perceptions of the situation in the Balkans, and effectively to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. Too many journalists have spent the war acting as audio typists for NATO, simply writing up the speeches of ministers and generals and splashing their spin across the front pages.

The loss of perspective brought on by indulging these casual comparisons between the Serbs and the Nazis is nowhere clearer than in the press stories mentioned above, where various papers dared to compare the experience of ethnic Albanians travelling out of Kosovo to that of the Jews being transported to Nazi death camps. As Julie Burchill commented, in her '40 reasons why the Serbs are not the new Nazis and the Kosovars are not the new Jews': '1. Because the Nazis did not put Jews on the train to Israel, as the Serbs are now putting ethnic Albanian Kosovars on the train to Albania.' Yet in the wave of Second World War nostalgia now engulfing the debate about Kosovo, to question the emotionally correct line on any of this is to risk being accused of 'appeasement' or even 'Holocaust denial'.

A more reasoned attitude surely comes from 76-year old Aca Singer, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, who lost 65 members of his family in the Holocaust. Sheltering from NATO bombs in Belgrade in April, he told the New York Times of his fury at the way in which the word 'genocide' was being degraded by all sides in the conflict. 'I don't at all agree that this is genocide', he said of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. 'There was no effort to wipe out an entire race - men, women and children - merely because of their ethnic or religious identity. Both the Serbs and the Albanians pressure us for sympathy and comparison. Both sides it seems want to be Jews. I put myself on neither side.' And Blair and Clinton, he added with disgust, by comparing Serb actions in Kosovo to mass murder by the Nazis, 'are also manipulating with the Jews'.

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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