The Meaning of Assad's Alleged Crematorium

Not every tragedy is a genocide or a Holocaust. But the Syrian president is making it easier and easier to make the comparison.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (Sana Sana / Reuters)

I write this from Cape Town, South Africa, where the remnants of the brutal apartheid system are visible everywhere: socially, economically, and culturally.

In the Cape Town Holocaust Memorial museum there are two pictures hanging side by side. One is of a German doctor using a caliper to measure a little girl’s nose to determine whether this was a “Jewish nose.” Next to that image, with which I was familiar, is a photograph of a young girl standing on a chair as a man in a white coat, obviously a medical official of some sort, places a pencil through her hair. This was South Africa’s infamous “pencil test” used to determine a person’s racial identity. If the pencil remained in their hair they were non-white (colored or black) and if the pencil fell out they were white. This a-scientific test resulted in families being divided, including one infamous case where a young girl was classified as colored even though she was born to a white mother and her white father passed a paternity test.

What the curators of the Holocaust exhibit seem to be suggesting is that there are elements of the apartheid system and the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews which parallel one another in racial absurdity. However, the South African ruling class, unlike the Nazis, could not afford to murder all blacks because they needed them to do the work which allowed the economy to thrive. In contrast the Third Reich, by confiscating the possessions of dead Jews, reaped great wealth.

In short, there are elements of the Holocaust which have parallels and those which do not. Therefore, most Holocaust scholars have long abandoned the assertion that the Holocaust was “unique.” Nothing is unique. Many of us prefer the term “unprecedented,” because no other government has ever attempted the systematic murder of an entire people, including those who lived well beyond its geographic borders. The victims were killed irrespective of their age, gender, or ability to do harm. The only requirement was that they were Jewish.

Had the Germans won the war, they probably would have conducted genocidal killings of other peoples. But only the killing of Jews could not wait. Even the annihilation of the Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) was only partial. Had victory come, it probably would have been made total.

Why is this relevant? Because in recent months an array of pundits has compared various despots to Hitler. Nowhere have these comparisons been more prevalent than in the discussion about Bashar al-Assad.

Who can forget Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s mangling of history as he attempted to make the White House’s case that Assad was worse than Hitler? His assertion that “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” left many people dumbfounded. He dug himself into such a hole that for possibly the only time in its 100-plus day history, a White House official apologized for having gotten something wrong.

Even without Spicer’s absurd non-history lesson, I have long argued that these analogies are historically incorrect. There is no doubt that Assad is one of the worst tyrants we have seen in many a decade. But unlike Hitler he is not guilty of the relatively unique crime of genocide.

According to the UN definition, genocide consists of killing, causing serious bodily harm, or bringing about the physical destruction of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. It is not simply mass atrocities or murder. Something quite specific, it is an attempt to do away with another group. That is why most scholars and legal analysts generally do not consider the Cambodian horrors to constitute genocide. They were horrific in a way that is hard to contemplate, but not as a genocide.

I can already hear readers gnashing their teeth in anger as they assume I am engaging in the Sean Spicer Olympics of Hitlerian comparisons. I am not. This is not an issue of a comparative pain, which is a useless endeavor. If my family had been killed in the Cambodian civil war rather than in a genocide, my pain would be not be mitigated by one iota. That is as absurd as thinking that were I to announce one morning: “I am in great pain because I have an impacted root canal,” my pain would be lessened if a colleague said, “Oh, I have two.”

Bashar al-Assad may not be committing genocide, but he is beginning to emulate Hitler in other ways. The State Department recently alleged that he has built a crematorium, apparently to help him more efficiently dispose of the bodies of the prisoners he is executing daily.

Documents show that at Auschwitz Birkenau the capacity of the crematoria was of great concern, not just to the administrators of the camp, but to their superiors in Berlin. The Germans knew that the pace of their killing operations depended on their ability to efficiently dispose of the bodies. A gassing operation was not officially concluded until every body had been cremated. The number of bodies that could be burned in a 24-hour period determined how many people should be killed in that same period. This was the industrialization of killing.

Could this be what is going to happen in Syria? Is Assad streamlining the killings? We don’t yet know but the evidence is ominous.

But there is another aspect to Assad’s alleged use of these crematoria that evokes a Hitlerian analogy. The Syrian crematorium seems to be intended to hide the evidence from the outside world. The Nazis also tried to camouflage the killing process. Using an array of verbal euphemisms—relocate, uproot—they tried to keep the truth from the victims. They designed the entrance to the Treblinka camp to look like a train depot. By giving them hope, they made their victims more pliable, manageable, and easier to kill.

I doubt that Assad cares about camouflaging his intentions from his victims. But he may be intent on camouflaging them from the larger world. Satellites can detect graves but not what occurs in a crematorium. The killings can be disguised and denied.

And finally, there is the use of gas. There really is nothing more to be said about this. Innocent civilians. Just like Hitler.

Let’s stop asking if Assad is worse than or not as bad as Hitler. That leads nowhere. Let us acknowledge that this man, with cover from the Russians and the Iranians, is doing things that the so-called civilized world should not tolerate.

But we have tolerated his actions up until now. (Bombing the runway to a nearly empty airport is hardly a sign of something we won’t tolerate.) We will likely tolerate them in the future. This is a terribly depressing lesson to those of us who have devoted our lives to teaching about genocide in the vague hope that we might make a difference.

More importantly, it is a horribly instructive lesson to the Assad-like despots of our world.