What have we learned from history?

Yesterday, at the final of the Kent Schools Public Speaking Competition, a young boy stepped up to the podium.

"What have we learned from history?" he asked. "We have learned that no good comes from killing people".

And he went on to speak eloquently, first of World War II: "There has never been another major war," he said.

True, there has not. The uneasy peace of the Cold War did not descend into outright conflict, though it was a near thing: the world very nearly went up in nuclear flames in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. But have we really learned, or did we just find other weapons? War can be fought in many ways. 

Then he went on to describe, in poignant terms, the Rwandan massacres of 1994. He explained the unhealed tribal rifts that underpinned Rwandan society at that time. He commented that people who had lived together for years in apparent harmony suddenly turned on each other. In the course of three months, hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered.

The Rwandan genocide was indeed one of the most terrible events of our time. For those who have forgotten it - or who perhaps, being young, have never known about it - this is the (self-proclaimed) United Human Rights Council's description* of what happened:
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence began almost immediately after that. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Political leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation and other high profile opponents of the Hutu extremist plans were killed immediately. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped. It is estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide.
In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were murdered because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.
Of course, it didn't suddenly happen out of the blue. As the Holocaust Museum explains, it was preceded by three years of civil war, never satisfactorily brought to a conclusion, which itself grew out of Rwanda's history of discrimination on tribal and ethnic grounds both under Belgian colonial rule and after independence. Genocide is never without cause. It is always "justified" by past wrongs and future fears. 

But....."We have learned from this", said my young speaker. "There has never been another genocide".

If only that were true.

The year after the Rwandan genocide, 8,000 men and boys were massacred in the killing fields of Srebrenica under the noses of UN peacekeepers. This was towards the end of the 1993-5 Bosnian War, in which about 100,000 people died, 80% of them Muslims. The Guardian, reporting on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, describes how the "great powers" - the US, UK and France - decided to "sacrifice" Srebrenica, which at that time was one of three UN-administered "safe enclaves", for the sake of "peace" in Bosnia. What kind of peace is it that is constructed on the dead bodies of thousands of civilians? The British prime minister Neville Chamberlain is vilified in historical narratives for his policy of "appeasement" towards Hitler. But what was this attempt to reach an accord with Serb leaders by sacrificing those who depended on the UN for safety, if not "appeasement"? How did Radovan Karajic's policy of "ethnic cleansing" differ from Hitler's "final solution", except in degree? Half a century later, the great powers still seek "peace at any price".

Then there is Darfur. This is the Holocaust Museum's account:
When the western region of Darfur experienced increasingly violent internal disputes over access to land and power in the 1990s, the Sudanese government responded by rewarding and arming local leaders who shared its ideology. Fighting began in Darfur when members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit ethnic groups created the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and attacked a government airfield on April 25, 2003. Another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), joined the fight against the Sudanese government armed forces. 
In response to the April 2003 rebel attack, the Sudanese government began recruiting local militias and transforming them into semi-regularized forces known as the Janjaweed. A period of intensive, systematic targeting of the civilian populations from the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaalit ethnic groups resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 people between 2003 and 2005 alone. More than two million people—a third of the population—were displaced. 
The attacks often began with government planes bombing villages, followed by combined Janjaweed and Sudanese Armed Forces attacks on the ground. Villagers were killed, tortured and raped during attacks, and thousands of villages were destroyed. The greatest civilian tolls came during the forced flight that followed. Pushed into the desert without water or food supplies, many civilians perished due to malnutrition and disease.
Additionally, in the early years of the conflict, the government obstructed the delivery of aid to these vulnerable groups. Millions of displaced civilians settled into enormous camps, many on the outskirts of major towns in Darfur. Over 200,000 fled across the border into Chad. 
The conflict in Darfur continued well beyond this intensive phase, with the core effects of the genocide unaddressed, and today, violence continues sporadically across the region.
Nor is Darfur the only place where genocide continues. Today, Yazidis, Christians and Shi-ite Muslims are being murdered in their thousands by the monstrous ISIS, itself born of inept and ill-advised Western military interventions in the Middle East. As in the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, those murdered are mainly men and older women. Younger women, girls and small boys suffer a different fate. In Bosnia, it is estimated that between 20 and 50 thousand women and girls were raped. Today, women and girls seized by ISIS become sex slaves: they are the spoils of war. Boy children are taken by ISIS to train as soldiers. Slavery takes many forms.

And genocide goes by many names. If we call it something else, we can pretend it isn't happening. We can pretend murderers aren't really murderers, and refugees aren't really refugees. We can justify doing nothing about it. What shall we call it today?

No good comes of killing people. But what have we really learned from our history?

Related reading:

When the world turns dark
Horror story


Image from the Baltimore Sun.

* The United Human Rights Council describes itself as an "Armenian youth committee". It is nothing to do with the United Nations, though its name and logo are clearly intended to suggest this. I have used its description of the Rwanda genocide here because it is accurate and succinct. This should not be taken as recommendation of the website. 


  1. The genocide of the Welsh continues. As you say, there are many ways of waging war.

    Genocide, noun, The deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

    That the extermination of the Welsh people (cultural group) is not recognised as genocide is testament to the English nation's vast experience in this, and to people's inability to recognise it when it happens over generations, rather than months and years. The end result is the same - the extermination of a people.

    1. Please show me the mass graves where English authorities have murdered thousands of Welsh civilians. I'd like to see those from the last fifty years, please - not the Dark Ages.

      Also, last time I went to Wales all the road signs were in two languages - English and Welsh. And in North Wales, the pubs were full of people speaking Welsh. Isn't it a bit odd, really, for an English nation intent on genocide to permit its victims to continue using their own language, and even pay for road signs in their own language?

    2. As my original message made suggested, a little too subtly obviously, you don't have to physically kill people to commit genocide. And credit where credit is due, the English are subtle and smart.

      There is a history of England trying to kill the Welsh language, in the statute book, and in public policy (banning its use in public office, courts, education etc). This isn't something they've even tried to hide, so I'm surprised you contest this.

      As for road signs etc, what little concession we've had has been fought for. Thousands of people imprisoned to fight for the most basic rights for the language. And those people you hear in the pub speaking Welsh are reducing in numbers, squeezed out by deliberate public and economic policy.

      And of course they're derided and belittled, with the implicit intention of bullying them to submission. Which is what is happening, and which is why younger generations tend to be reluctant to speak the language so as not to be scorned by a people and culture perceived as superior.

      It's astonishing to me that anyone is still in denial about what we see and experience every day. Such is ignorance, I suppose.

    3. Anon, have you formulated a plan to foil this perfidious English genocide? Does it involve forced expulsions of English people and removing all traces of those alien aggressors? Every genocide involves copious self-pity and exaggerating differences between people. Give it a rest.

  2. Minor typo - Cuban Missile Crisis was 1962 (as in the link you provide)

  3. As soon as I started reading the post, my mind switched from Rwanda to the Balkans. For too many people, genocides in Africa can be dismissed racially, as a "normal" part of primitive nations. But the Balkans shows how, "even in Europe", under the veneer that is our civilisation, lurks an intense violence that can easily be brought to the surface.

    Re Welsh genocide, we shouldn't forget that, even if we ignore Ireland, we have a recent history of violence in both Scotland and Wales (and Cornwall?). Given the rise on English Nationalism, we should never be complacent.

  4. "But what have we really learned from our history?"

    The great lesson of history is that we learn nothing from the lessons of history.

  5. This is the lesson of history that we have not learned, and if we don't, we will destroy our civilization and perhaps our species.

    Evolution by natural selection has two sides—on one it creates new life forms; on the other, it destroys them all. It has ruled our species since the beginning. It is mindless, purposeless, relentless, merciless and amoral—it is a force of nature. It has produced two living varieties of humankind who instinctively follow their evolved natures: democrati who are timid and altruistic, and tyranni who are aggressive and selfish. Democrati naturally work for the common good—they act rationally. Tyranni naturally work against the common good—they act irrationally.

    The Cycle of Human History

    • Tyranni naturally, aggressively push forward to take power.
    • Democrati naturally, timidly step back to let them pass.
    • Tyranni naturally use that power to indulge their selfish urges.
    • Innocents (tyranni and democrati alike) suffer and die unnecessarily.
    • A great commotion occurs—from elections to wars.
    • Tyranni-outs seize power from tyranni-ins.
    • And the cycle renews.

    But because Nature has been so bountiful, because democrati greatly outnumber tyranni, and because humans are so resilient and so creative, this brutal process could not stop progress—very costly progress, often needlessly tragic and unevenly distributed, but progress nevertheless—of that there is no doubt. However, we are now dangerously near the end. Nature’s bounty is nearly exhausted. She can no longer heal our self-inflicted wounds, she cannot replenish what we take from her—she cannot forgive our greed.

    Without the assistance of Nature, we humans are finally on our own. Our millennia of adolescence are over. It is time to grow up. We can no longer afford to indulge our selfish urges—we cannot afford to just do what comes naturally: act reflexively, act without thinking, play political games instead of doing the hard work of facing and solving the immense problems we have created for ourselves. If we continue to follow the instinctive natures given to us by evolution by natural selection we will go the way of countless other species—we will decline, even become extinct—and it will be sooner rather than later.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

WASPI Campaign's legal action is morally wrong


What really happened to Signature Bank NY?