Douglas Davidson
Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues
Opening Session of the Conference on "Training Teacher-Trainers: European Holocaust History, Human Rights, and Tolerance Today"
Kaunas, Lithuania
June 13, 2011

I am very pleased to be in Kaunas here this morning. I am even more pleased that this seminar is taking place with such distinguished and interesting participants. You are lucky to have Ambassador Anne Derse as the United States Ambassador to Lithuania. You are also blessed to have Stephen Feinberg, who is normally hard at work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as your organizer and convener here today too. This seminar would not have happened without these two remarkable people. It would also not have happened without the enthusiastic cooperation they received from all levels of the government of Lithuania, which I’m pleased to see is well represented here today. It is more than fitting that you are holding this seminar at what is approximately the mid-point of the Year of the Holocaust in this country. In other words the stars seem to be aligned for a successful seminar.

I hardly need to tell you, as educators, that education vitally important. But education is an elastic term; it can mean many things. In many countries today, there is also a tendency to play down the importance of the study of history. Many people, not least experts in education, think it’s more important to teach students economics, business, engineering, and other practical and profitable pursuits than to have them study things that were written or that happened long ago.

Nevertheless, there are still good reasons why we should study and try to learn from the past. I think the great American novelist William Faulkner said it best, when he wrote: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” But these days people more often quote a similar sentiment written by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. It goes like this: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Like many such aphorisms, this sentence is actually part of a larger and more interesting whole. The entire paragraph from which this line is drawn is worth repeating:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience. (George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905)

The Holocaust was many things, none of them good, but it was among these many things a monumental and pervasive exercise in barbarism. If we fail to learn its lessons—that is, as Santayana would put it, if we fail to learn from experience—then we are quite likely to see something like it repeated again. I think we can all agree that that should not happen. But how to make sure it does not happen is a question that goes to the heart of what you must do in your classrooms.

This is why, I also think, there is much focus today on preventing present and future genocides through the study of the Holocaust. In fact, as far as I can tell, an increasing number of universities link Holocaust and Genocide Studies and place them together as a single unit of academic study. Rafael Lemkin, a learned Jewish international lawyer who was originally from Poland and who like so many of his kind fled to the United States, as I’m sure you know better than I, coined the term "genocide." This term first appears, I believe, in a monograph he published in 1943 called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he analyzed the crimes of the Nazis from a legal perspective. He saw genocide first and foremost as a crime.

From this notion of genocide as a crime many things have followed. As far as I know, one of the most important was the Nuremburg Tribunals, which placed many of the most important Nazi leaders in the dock. We can see the legacy of these Tribunals today in the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. In the latter government officials from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been charged with a relatively new crime under international law—that of “Joint Criminal Enterprise.” It strikes me that the Holocaust was a Joint Criminal Enterprise on a vast scale, one that spanned an entire continent and beyond.

But it was also more than that. It was also an attempt to single out certain communities, most particularly the Jewish population of Europe, for blame and then for extermination, as if this particular group of people, along with Roma and the physically and mentally handicapped, and maybe even the Slavic peoples as well, were not only responsible for all the evils in the world but also did not belong in the same space as the predominant ethnic group, even if they had shared this space for centuries. As Lemkin put it, one of the lessons we learn from mass atrocities on such a scale is: "That the diversity of nations, religious groups, and races is essential to civilization."

This seems to me a good lesson to impart to forthcoming generations as well. Genocide may at bottom be a crime against all humanity, but it is also a function of the loss of a sense of the universality and commonality of that humanity—of a sense that we are all in this together. Where we single out others and condemn them for their differences from us, troubles inevitably follow. You can see this clearly in American history. I saw it firsthand in my diplomatic service in the Balkans as well. There a term coined by another person who had to flee the Nazis, Dr. Sigmund Freud, applied. He described it as the “narcissism of small differences.” But these small differences were enough to lead to a conflict in the 1990s that caused the International Court of Justice to say that genocide had been committed there as well.

Still, the death and destruction in the Balkans or in Rwanda or in other areas of our modern world, however grim and gruesome they are, cannot really compare to that of the Holocaust. I would have said that the Holocaust is a unique even in history, if the prominent Holocaust scholar Professor Yehuda Bauer had not taught me to say instead that it was unprecedented. He uses the latter term because he thinks that if we fail to learn the lessons of our experience it could happen again.

Allow me to close on that grim and sobering note. In fact, all of what I have tried to say here this morning is just a long way of expressing a simple but essential truth: that what you are doing is important. We forget the past at our peril. You hold it within your power to help prevent that from happening. This is not a small responsibility.

You certainly have an interesting three days ahead of you, too. I’m sure you’ll profit from them. I also trust you’ll share with others what you have learned here. As I hope you realize, you are setting something of a precedent or even creating a model for others in Europe to follow. So I shall end these remarks by saluting you and wishing you every success in your difficult but essential task, now and in the years to come. Thank you.