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Let's Talk Human Rights

Remembering Kristallnacht in 2020

By Shelley Inglis

Thank you, Crystal and Campus Ministry for inviting me here this evening to share in this remembrance of Kristallnacht. I’ve spent most of my career working at the United Nations on the norms and institutions related to international law, including genocide and in conflict-affected countries. There is much I could say about what has been done to prevent and respond to genocide since the holocaust, and about the challenges we face today in this area. 

But because this is 2020, I can’t help but reflect on the meaning of Kristallnacht in today's unique circumstances in America. We are experiencing this commemorative event for the first time amidst a global pandemic which has killed over 230,000 Americans and over 1 million people worldwide. The numbers of infections recorded daily continue to reach all-time highs.

Looking around there are few of us here to experience this evening in person- normally these pews would be full of people of faith sharing in the solemnity that comes from gathering in this beatific church.

A sense of loss permeates almost every dimension of American life today - the lives departed or destroyed, the businesses closed, the schoolyards abandoned, festivities canceled, the family and friends quarantined. Losses felt most by Black and Brown communities and working women with families. In the West, Wildfires have caused the loss of homes, farms, and breathable air, while the loss of many Black lives to police brutality has propelled tens of thousands of Americans to take to the streets to protest racial injustice.

In 1994, I lived and worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a genocide perpetrated by Serbs against Bosnians took place. While I traveling throughout the small decimated villages and towns of Central Bosnia - Mostar, Jablanica, Gornji Vakuf, Prozor - I was struck by how each town had its frontline, between Croat Catholics and Bosniak Muslims- usually a roadway width, with houses on each side completely shot up, destroyed and abandoned. I had lived in the unified country of Yugoslavia and knew its complexity and conflicting ethnic narratives. Even so, I was at a loss to understand how neighbors could turn on each other like this; how does hate emerge so overwhelmingly and violently?  

Hannah Arendt - a German-born American Jew, who survived the Holocaust as a refugee and became one of America’s best known - but not uncontroversial - political thinkers - explored the origins of totalitarianism. In her descriptions of the Nazi - Adolf Eichmann - during his trial in Israel for crimes against the Jewish People, she coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” While Eichman played a major role in the Holocaust, Arendt’s insights help illuminate how ordinary people without extraordinary malice - but with a strong need for group cohesion and a lack of critical thinking - can contribute to a broader system that results in mass atrocity.

There are many factors, grounded in specific contexts, that make a society prone to conflict and mass atrocities. These include deep structural inequality, grievance and victimization along ethnic, race or religious lines, vested economic interests in retaining power, propaganda and disinformation, widespread availability of weapons, and a lack of accountability and independent institutions. But ordinary people play an indispensable role- when they lose empathy for others and can rationalize unacceptable actions of their self-identified group, creating a deep void of responsibility and accountability for those in power within their group.    

The best prevention of conflict and mass atrocity is democratic societies where the rule of law is respected, media is independent, power is held to account, and citizens have the fundamental rights required to act civically in public life. Today, these principles are under threat globally, even here in what is considered the world’s most established and powerful democracy.

Hannah Arendt was deeply concerned with the subjugation of political life to economics in the modern world. She surmised that political life is premised on individual agency, capacity for judgment, and the efficacy of collective action. For Arendt, ordinary people cannot in good conscience avoid political life; the most effective politics is one where citizens are capable to gather together to deliberate on decisions that affect their lives.  

Like many of you, my focus this past week has been on the election. With record-breaking turnout and despite the global pandemic, and a climate of distrust, the electoral process was smooth and peaceful. Beyond casting a vote, thousands of people were civically engaged - as poll workers, observers, and organizers. Young people voted at record levels. Experts warned of potential extraordinary threats to democracy and the media widely reported on these issues. The population has waited for results and remained calm; it appears we may be able to prevent a potential crisis in our democracy. At least as we gather here tonight, it is still uncertain if we will see a peaceful transition of power - a hallmark of our democratic process.

It is a truism that the world’s wealthiest democracies have been built on acts of mass atrocity. The spoils of oppressive systems - colonization, slavery, and Jim Crow, apartheid - bolstered by patriarchy and misogyny - undergird this wealth and today the richest countries remain the most responsible for the exploitation and consumption of the earth’s natural resources to the detriment of our shared environment and climate.

This history remains potent in our institutions, the inequities of our domestic and global economy, and in our American way of life. While the US is not completely exceptional in this regard, it is particular in America that every new generation - especially of White Americans - struggles anew with the contradiction between our exceptional self-image and the real-life unjust outcomes of our systems.

For Arendt, action is fundamental to the human condition. She prioritizes two forms of human action - unfixing the fixed past and fixing the unfixed future. For countries transitioning from conflict and mass atrocity, I have promoted the expectation that transformation requires the extremely difficult task of simultaneously reforming institutions, norms, and relationships while adequately atoning for both past and recent trauma and injustice.

America of 2020 with its poverty, polarization, exhaustion, and inequities demands that people of conscience act in this way. Educational institutions like the University of Dayton can contribute to building the individual agency, capacity for critical thinking, and judgment required of ordinary people to fulfill the responsibility of active citizenship in a democracy, and avoid unthinking participation in grave injustices. In Arendt’s view, the ultimate expression of human freedom is the ability to create something new in our political life. This is the type of freedom that we need most right now: in the United States, in the world, and in our own community.

Shelley Inglis is the Executive Director of the HRC and Research Professor of Human Rights and Law. She has worked extensively in the field of human rights and has held various positions within the United Nations. Her most recent being with the UN Development Programme, working on peace-building, democratic governance, rule of law and human rights, and the Sustainable Development Agenda at headquarters in New York and regionally based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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