By Gerry Caplan
From the first, the decision to build the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Washington’s National Mall was controversial. The Mall is dedicated to enshrining the American experience, with its memorials to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Yet at the time it had no memorials dedicated to the black or Native American experience. Martin Luther King didn’t join the pantheon until 2001. The National Museum of the American Indian, opened only in 2004, was the first national museum in America dedicated exclusively to Native Americans.
There is no such thing as too many reminders of how six million Jews were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis and their willing confederates. But the fact of the matter is that the Holocaust didn’t happen in the U.S., the U.S. had no more direct involvement with the Nazi death camps than any other Allied country, and few Americans were direct victims. This was obviously not true of America’s own crimes against Native Americans and African Americans, the first constituting genocide, the second protracted crimes against humanity.
So it’s understandable why some felt it a curious priority to erect in the Mall a Holocaust memorial before one to blacks and aboriginals.
Nevertheless, the Museum immediately became the preeminent American institution of its kind, opened by President Bill Clinton himself. Each of Clinton’s predecessors had previously paid obligatory fealty to the god of “Never Again!”, a pledge each in turn soon violated — Jimmy Carter in Cambodia, Ronald Reagan in Guatemala and Iraq, George H. W. Bush in Bosnia. Naturally, nothing would do but that Clinton had to one-up them all.
Dramatically describing America’s response to the Holocaust as nothing less than “complicity” in what happened, he vowed that “We must not permit that to happen again.” That was on April 22,1993.
History does play its little tricks. Precisely one year to the day later, the Clinton administration led the UN Security Council in literally decimating General Romeo Dallaire’s UN Force in Rwanda, slashing it by 90 per cent and leaving an almost helpless rump force. This happened to be exactly two weeks into the genocide in Rwanda, when, as Bill Clinton was fully aware, tens of thousands of Rwanda Tutsi were being systematically slaughtered each and every day in one of the purest genocides on record.
As it happens, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for which the Holocaust is of course the overwhelming concern, also has a secondary mandate related to genocide prevention and other genocide-like crises that humankind cannot seem to avoid. Appropriately enough, Rwanda has always received a certain attention, although some insist that recent crisis in Sudan have not.
Not least among Museum priorities has been combating the despicable phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Imagine the shock, then, when last January 9 an essay appeared on the Museum’s website that played directly into the hands of those malevolent forces that deny the genocide in Rwanda ever happened. Intended to launch the Museum’s recognition of the 20th anniversary of that genocide, it was written by one Michael Dobbs, someone not known to those of us who have studied Rwanda. Here is Dobbs’ central proposition: “Whether the genocide was planned, and was thus foreseeable, has been hotly debated by scholars, politicians and lawyers.” And he adduced some other information that he claimed added to this debate.
Here’s the significance: If it were unplanned, that meant the killings were spontaneous. If so, perhaps there was no intent to exterminate all Tutsi. If so, according to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, there was no genocide at all.
This was not only deeply inflammatory, it was utterly untrue. There has never been a debate among experts as to whether the genocide was planned. All agree it was. There is no more legitimate debate here than there is on whether the Holocaust was planned. Just as with the Holocaust, experts disagree on details, but never on the central truth. Only supporters of the Hutu genocidaires and a small gang of cranks question the essential nature of the genocide in Rwanda. A few of us have worked hard to expose their notorious lies.
Sadly, a version of Dobbs’ essay then appeared as an opinion piece in the New York Times. Soon eleven of us with deep backgrounds in Rwanda, from four countries, sent a letter of rebuttal to the Times, which appeared on January 21, and another letter in confidence to the head of the Museum. As well, several members of our group contacted senior Museum officials. We demanded the obvious: that Dobbs’ piece be immediately removed from the Museum website.
Slowly these officials seemed to grasp why we were so angry and agitated. As they should know, nothing thrills deniers more than legitimate sources echoing their distortions. Yet the Dobbs post was not swiftly removed. Further contacts ensued. Still, inexplicably, it remained. It was a very poor show.
Finally, several of the offending statements were removed from Dobbs’ original post. But for weeks ammunition for deniers sat provocatively on the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It must never happen again.