Responses to the Holocaust and its Aftermath by American Presidents: Realpolitik or Real Justice?

Aired: October 24, 2010
Ann Saltzman, Co-director of the Center for Holocaust Genocide Study at Drew University, and Harry Reicher, Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, discuss the sociological, legal, and psychological circumstances that led to the Holocaust. Delving into how a society can be prepared for state-sponsored genocide, Saltzman looks to the German civilian population, without whose support the Nazi party would never have gained power, and tries to understand how they came to be acclimated to the horrors of the Holocaust. Additionally, Reicher provides a unique legal perspective, exposing the Nazis’ near-obsessive need to justify by law their acts of genocide and their motives in doing so. Ranging from a wide-reaching discussion of the systematic dehumanization process which led to the Holocaust, to the Truman administration’s unfaltering support of the Israeli state, this episode raises issues pertinent to modern violations of human rights and calls into question what conditions necessitate U.S. intervention. The topics raised by this episode are based in part on Responses to the Holocaust and its Aftermath by American Presidents: Realpolitik or Real Justice?, a Drew University conference on genocide, made possible by a grant from NJCH.

How can genocide, a universally abhorrent and reviled atrocity, become acceptable in any rational society? Using the systematic process by which 1930s Germany was gradually acclimated to the separation, dehumanization, and eventual eradication of many of its ethnic and religious groups as a model, Saltzman describes the 8 stages through which a society not only tolerates, but becomes actively engaged in state-sponsored genocide. Providing a legal perspective, Richer points to the codification of nearly 2000 laws under which the Nazis transformed virulent anti-Semitism in a form of civic duty.

In this segment, Reicher delves into the issues central to President Truman’s response regarding the Holocaust, a discussion that raises the complex questions surrounding modern U.S. involvement in instances of genocide. Reicher lauds the U.S. for the order and civility with which the war trials at Nuremburg were carried out. He further employs his experience as a representative to the United Nations of Agudath Israel World Organization, an international Non-governmental Organization, to discuss how international human rights shape foreign policy, particularly the Clinton administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide.

Exploring the seeming complicity of the German people with the inconceivable violence of the Holocaust, psychologist Saltzman points to collective psychological change. By gradually excluding Jews from social activity through an orchestrated campaign of anti-Semitic propaganda, the Nazis were able to affectively cause the “social death” of this religious minority, relegating them to a position of inferiority and contempt. The pervasive anxiety that resulted from Germany’s defeat in WWI also played a crucial role in the psychological shift: convinced by a charismatic leader that German Jews were a threat to national stability, an insecure population internalized a racist ideology and came to see participation in the Holocaust as the correct way to restore control over their society.


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