Staunton, April 21 – Adolf Hitler was convinced that he would get away with the Holocaust of European Jewry because “nobody talks about the Armenians anymore,” a reference by the Nazi leader to the world’s failure to focus on the mass murder of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
Hitler was wrong on both counts: he and his regime were held accountable for his acts of genocide by an international community which has committed itself to the proposition that no such crime must ever be allowed to happen, and ever more governments around the world are officially recognizing the events of 1915 as a crime against humanity.
But the Nazi believer’s calculation has been replicated by other leaders who assume that the enormous flow of events will mean that few will keep track of what they have done and thus allow them to escape responsibility, as Hitler thought he could, for their actions either by lying about what happened or quite often by eclipsing one crime with others.
All too few people today, for example, talk about Vladimir Putin’s crimes against the Chechen people or against the Georgians, preferring to focus instead on his more immediate crimes in Ukraine, in the elections of Western democracies, and in the poisoning of Skripal. As a result, each new crime becomes a kind of “cover up” for the earlier ones.
Given the limited attention span of most individuals and nearly all governments, this use of one crime to obscure others is often successful; and all too often after an initial expression of horror about an action, many stop their criticism, turn away, and focus instead on more recent outrages.
Media-savvy politicians like Putin – and he is far from alone in this -- count on this all too human limitation; and all too often, they are rewarded when those who were initially concerned about some action turn toward other crimes as they are presented. That is something that all those who care about human rights, democracy and freedom need to fight against.
This week marks a case in point. One year ago, on April 29, 2017, the Russian Supreme Court banned the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Happily, the international community reacted with outrage to this action which, Moscow’s protestations notwithstanding, was about keeping the followers of that faith from professing it.
Over the last 12 months, the Russian authorities have violated the rights of that denomination more than 250 times; and this week, in a horrific “commemoration” of the court’s decision, they stepped up their persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses across the Russian Federation (sova-center.ru/misuse/news/persecution/2018/04/d39249/ and golos-ameriki.ru/a/jehovah-witneses-persecution-in-russia/4355976.html).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in the United States has issued a statement declaring that “these most recent raids represent a serious escalation of state-sponsored human rights abuse, one reminiscent of Soviet-era repression and Nazi persecution experienced by minority groups in the early days of these former regimes.”
“Without international awareness,” the Witnesses’ office in New York says, “we anticipate that this situation will increase in both severity and frequency in the days ahead.” Tragically, the international community now appears far less focused on this issue, and the Kremlin may assume that it can get away with its vicious campaign.
A half century ago, the great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelshtam wrote that “happy is that country where the despicable is at least despised.” Sometimes speaking out against the abuse of human rights is all that anyone can do; failing to speak out is never a good option: it gives those behind such actions the conviction that they can get away with their crimes.