Jerusalem Letters of Lasting Interest
VP:96 3 Kislev 5750 / 1 December 1989
EARLY WARNING: IDENTIFYING POTENTIALLY GENOCIDAL POLITICAL MOVEMENTS
Franklin H. Littell
What Kind of University Produced Mengele? / How Can Democracies
Protect Themselves? / The Nazis Murdered 344 by 1922 / What is a
Legitimate Government / The Difference Between Terrorists and
Freedom Fighters / Developing the Ability to Predict / Fifteen
Criteria for Identification
Forty years after the Holocaust we now have a flood of writings,
biographies, testimonies, and documents on the part of survivors,
rescuers, liberators, and even bystanders. The "forty years in
the wilderness" are now behind us, and voices are raised where
silence once ruled supreme. Telling the story is the first stage
in learning from the Holocaust; but every person has his own
language, his own experiences, his own idioms, and the impact
tends to be divided. When we talk about the general lessons of
the Holocaust, however, we come into an area which can be more a
What Kind of University Produced Mengele?
We might start with the question: What kind of a university
produced Josef Mengele -- and the other doctors who worked with
him? Mengele had two doctorates from universities which were of
world-rank before the Nazis took them over and ruined them. What
did he learn there?
What kind of a university educated Roland Freisler, the head of
the hanging courts -- and all those hundreds of lawyers who
searched all the precedents and put their initials on the right
What kind of universities educated Kittel and Hirsch and Althaus
-- and all those accommodating world-rank theologians and church
teachers who supported the Nazis?
This line of questioning has very troublesome implications for
those of us who love Alma Mater, and who would like to be able to
say with purity of heart and certainty of soul that the medical
school at Temple and the law school at Michigan and the
engineering school at Northwestern is doing a better job of
teaching ethics and morals and professional discipline than was
being done in Tuebingen, Marburg, Heidelberg, Goettingen, and the
other great German universities in the 1920s.
That is a sector where Jews and Christians can work together, as
they think about the nature of a real university.
How Can Democracies Protect Themselves?
The issues and lessons raised by the Holocaust go far beyond the
immediate horror of the events themselves. They include the
whole problem of how democracies maintain themselves in a world
in which by living up to their own principles they put themselves
at risk. How can human beings overcome their own baser
instincts, which can be mobilized under certain conditions by
those who are the foes of all that we believe is human? Indeed,
what can we do to protect ourselves as humans against a possible
repeat of the Holocaust?
Terrorism and genocide -- like infanticide, widow-burning,
slavery and duelling -- were wrong before a body of laws was
developed effectively to suppress them. The style of a terrorist
movement is predictive of the kind of government it will operate
if it comes to power, and genocide is one of its logical options.
Societies that are attempting to maintain the creative tension
between liberty and popular sovereignty will recognize that
terrorist movements are, by self-definition and chosen style of
action, outside the arena of full, free, and informed discussion
that informs a free society. The task of democratic societies is
to create a body of laws that protects loyal citizens in the
exercise of their liberties, while at the same time rendering
impotent potentially genocidal movements in time.
How do we deal with populist movements which are really outside
the covenant, which say so in their writings and act like it in
their behavior? What is our response to conduct which is
destructive of the constitution? Some people have a very simple
answer. They wave the populist slogans of the nineteenth century
and arrive at what is today known as totalitarian democracy.
Every dictator in the twentieth century has claimed to represent
the will of the people; if he did not represent it at first, he
soon did by killing the opposition or driving some into exile and
silencing the rest. We want to protect to the full the rights of
"loyal opposition" -- and at the same time not open the society
to suicide or destruction by anti-democratic elements.
The Nazis Murdered 344 by 1922
By the time the Nazis assassinated German Foreign Minister Walter
Rathenau in July 1922, they and their immediate allies had
already killed 344 political opponents. That is not a political
party; that is a terrorist movement. We did not understand it
then, of course, nor did we understand it in 1933. We did not
even understand the truth in 1938 in most parts of the so-called
civilized world. But by now, 50 years later, we should begin to
draw some of the implications from these facts.
Ingmar Bergman once used a very vivid metaphor in explaining his
movie The Serpent's Egg. He said, "the membrane of the egg
thin that through it you can already discern the perfectly formed
body of the reptile." I would argue that by 1923, as far as the
German Nazi party is concerned, the perfectly formed body of the
reptile was already there to see -- in the structure of authority
in the party, in the barely restrained violence toward the public
at large, and in the skillful use of violence against political
opponents. Shortly before the last open election in Germany (it
was not really free because there had been so much street
fighting and intimidation generally), Goebbels wrote in his
diary: "Once we have the power we will never give it up. They
will have to carry our dead bodies out of the ministries."
The lesson is that we have to get them in time. We have to
identify and render impotent potentially genocidal movements
before they become strong enough to induce civil war, or, God
forbid, get government power in their hands and commit genocide,
which they will certainly do according to their basic nature. In
a democratic society we need a network of laws for the control of
the behavior of all citizens that act in an intimidating way, a
network that will constrain those who have drawn the knife and
have broken the covenant of trust upon which the society rests.
Terrorist movements, if not stopped in time, will fashion
governments of criminal content and genocidal intent.
What is a Legitimate Government
What is a legitimate government? Textbooks in international law
traditionally define a legitimate government as a government
which is able to maintain order in a given territory and which
has been recognized by a sufficient number of other governments.
In a period when we are moving toward the protection of liberties
-- with affirmative expression of the will of the people,
accompanied by adequate checks upon the mob -- I would propose
that a legitimate government be defined rather by two other
principles. The traditional definition suited dynastic
government, but is inadequate for today.
One basic principle is whether there are structures for
channeling -- rendering effective, and also sometimes putting the
brakes on -- popular sovereignty. The second point
characterizing a legitimate government is protection of
individuals and groups who are at some point or another part of
the loyal opposition.
Kurt Leibholtz, the brother-in-law of the Christian martyr
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who survived in exile and came back after
the war and served on the supreme court in Karlsruhe for some
years until his death, already discerned and wrote in late 1933
that no Nazi government could be a legitimate government because
of the way it treated opponents and minorities.
What then are the dues to be paid legitimacy? I am always
challenged these days about what Israel is doing. I respond that
the U.S. government is doing some things that I do not like too
much either, but Israel has a legitimate government and sooner or
later the people -- who have structures and channels to make
changes -- can get at mistakes when they are made by those making
decisions. But there is not a single legitimate government in
the Arab League. Every one of them is either an old-fashioned
despotism -- one that has not yet entered the period of liberty
and self-government -- or a typical twentieth century
dictatorship. That fact should make some difference when people
are talking about policy matters and decisions that have to be
made, and also how we judge what respect we owe what types of
The Difference Between Terrorists and Freedom Fighters
The argument also works out in a very interesting fashion when
you ask the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters.
We see rampant stupidity on this question. Even the President of
the United States said a few years ago something to the effect
that if they are our boys they are "freedom fighters" and if they
are on the other side they are "terrorists." I have read this
twice recently in speeches by State Department officials. Where
do we get these people?!
Terrorists characteristically attack a whole society to
destabilize it, to terrorize it -- by killing women shoppers or
children, or attacking medical convoys or innocent people riding
buses, ships or airplanes. Freedom fighters are soldiers, though
sometimes not in uniform, who strike at police or military
targets. If they strike at civilian targets at all, they attempt
Today we have in the United States all kinds of what Lenin called
"useful idiots" who compare Arafat to George Washington. Arafat
praised and rewarded his people for killing an unarmed American
Ambassador in Khartoum. Think of the other crimes that have been
committed in the name of the PLO and its associates, that they
have praised and rewarded. George Washington would have had
court-martialed and ordered shot any soldier who did such a thing
to unarmed civilians! It is an obscenity to even make a
comparison. The PLO is definitely one of these terrorist
movements we need to defend free societies against.
Anyone who does not know the kind of government that the PLO
would operate if it ever came to power has not noted the
string of violence associated with it, has not studied his
Developing the Ability to Predict
It is not enough for us to record and review history. We also
need to cultivate the capacity to predict that certain patterns
of overt political behavior indicate the existence of potentially
genocidal movements. It is crucial to identify and act against
them early on: once in power, the only way they will be dislodged
is with outside help -- in other words, through war. Once Hitler
had consolidated himself, by 1937-38, there was no chance
whatever that the German people could remove him.
Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who is usually more perceptive of the issues,
wrote an article recently on the self-determination of peoples,
saying with regard to Panama that we do not have the right to
interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. But we
have reached a situation where technologically that simply does
not fit the facts. In Brazil, they scream patriotism to shut up
outside interference with the destruction of the rain forest that
produces 40 percent of all the oxygen that we live on.
Bangladesh, the most intensely populated area on the face of the
earth, is washing away -- with tens of thousands perishing every
year, because they cut the trees in Nepal and China. Are we
going to say, simply let every nation rise and fall on its own?
It is immoral to think that way.
Gideon Hausner, speaking to an international trial lawyers
convention some years ago, called for the democratic governments
in the free world to unite in treaties of cooperation to deal
with terrorist movements, movements with programs potential
genocidal. It is time to realize this proposal.
Fifteen Criteria for Identification
When we come to the question of political responsibility in a
world as explosive as ours, we must begin to make some
distinctions. To do this I would suggest testing the overt
behavior of political movements according to the following 15
criteria. If out of 15, 10 or 11 clearly apply to some current
movement, it is time for the alarm bells to start ringing.
1) The group or movement prints, distributes, and uses
anti-Semitic material for recruitment of membership.
2) The group or movement makes anti-Semitic appeals through the
media or in evangelistic meetings.
3) and 4) The same actions as 1) and 2) are directed against any
other ethnic, religious, or cultural community, using targetting
and intimidation as a weapon in the quest for political power.
5) Members cultivate violence toward opponents -- publishing
slanderous charges, bombing meeting places and homes and media,
beating and assassinating.
6) The movement pursues the politics of polarization, destroying
the middle ground of conciliation and compromise, rejecting the
politics of moderation and orderly change. If it becomes large
enough, instead of being a loyal opposition, it builds the
structure of a state within a state, like the PLO in southern
Lebanon before 1982.
7) The group or movement deliberately drives a wedge between the
generations, alienating young people from their heritage -- a
very characteristic part of the policy of the Nazi party. In the
last open election the average voting age of the Nazi list was 10
years younger than the voters of the other parties. They got
these votes by teaching the young people to be ashamed of and
then to turn with bitterness against their elders.
8) The movement maintains camps for paramilitary training,
including practice in the use of anti-personnel weapons. The
United States has camps in Oklahoma and Arkansas right now, in
the Ozarks, at Hayden Lake in Idaho and elsewhere.
9) The movement maintains private armies, demonstrating in public
in uniform, parading and marching to intimidate loyal citizens.
10) Leaders of the movement elaborate a quasi-religious structure
of authority and sanction, with political hymns, shrines,
martyrs, and liturgies.
One could never tell with the Nazi movement whether it was a
religious movement with political ambitions or a political
movement with a host of religious overtones. In July 1939 I was
taken by a young German I had met in a church in Nuernberg to
what turned out to be a Party rally at the stadium. There were
100,000 people, with the "cathedral of lights" that Albert Speer
said he invented evoking all of the subterranean emotions. There
was some kind of pageant going on -- about the spirit of eagles.
Siegfried comes in with his shining armor and killed the dragon.
Suddenly the lights went off; all was in total darkness. And
then the spotlights come on and there he was -- Hitler -- with
Himmler and Goering and several others of his entourage. And the
whole crowd jumped to their feet in a terrible antiphonal: "Seig
Heil! Seig Heil! Seig Heil!" One who lived through the period
wrote a book in which he said there was more spirituality
(geistigkeit) in Germany during the Third Reich than there
been in 200 years, but it was a spirituality devoid of integrity,
ethical grounding, or biblical foundation. The person who says
"secularity" or "secularism" is the problem of the age hasn't
been where the action is. The problem is demonic, murderous,
religiously impelled, genocidally inclined "true belief."
11) Archaic tribal, clannish, or religious symbols are worn by
members as public insignias; secret passwords, handshakes, and
other recognition signals are used to signal co-believers.
12) Induction and termination of membership are observed as
pseudo-religious rites. Straying members are treated as
heretics, subjected to exorcism or intensive group therapy.
13) The movement's basic unit is the closed cell, with three to
seven the standard number. This is the classic unit of a
revolutionary party or intelligence operation, but inappropriate
to exercise influence upon a legitimate government.
14) The movement practices deception and confusion of public
opinion by launching one-issue "fronts" without clear
identification of sponsorship, financing and control. A great
deal of money is raised this way, ostensibly for a good public
purpose but actually to serve the movement's power drive and
internal interests. This is also the "large net" within which
"innocents" are caught.
15) The movement's tactics include infiltration and subversion of
public institutions and voluntary associations, to bend their
direction from public service in the declared purpose to
organization of the group's drive for power. Positions
controlling the schools, police and public safety forces are
Dealing with governments where terrorist movements have already
come to power is a much more difficult question than answering
the question of how to smash terrorist movements when they are
still weak enough to be dealth with at a minimum of violence. At
the time when the UN Assembly cheered Arafat with his pistol,
there were 88 member governments in the UN Assembly that were
either despotisms or dictatorships, as compared with about 30
governments which had some measure of liberty and
These unbalanced numbers make it all the more imperative for
democratic governments to protect their ranks by developing the
necessary Early Warning System to identify potentially
threatening political movements and to generate the necessary
courage to deal with the reptile before it hatches and grows.
There are too few legitimate governments to let anyone fall from
* * *
Professor Franklin H. Littell, one of the world's most renowned
experts on the Holocaust, is Emeritus Professor of Religion at
Temple University, Adjunct Professor at Hebrew University, and a
member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the
International Council of Yad Vashem. This Jerusalem
Letter/Viewpoints is based on Professor Littell's presentation to
the Jerusalem Center Fellows Forum on November 1, 1989.
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