Problem From Hell, A: Chapters 1 – 3

Book cover: red and white blinds, a pair of blue eyes looking through.

I re-started reading A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide today. Samantha Power takes us through the major genocidal events of the last century and the American reaction (or lack of). I’m gonna blog my notes:

Chapter 1

1915 persecution of Armenian population in Turkey (Wikipedia Entry)

Pasha Talaat: (Turkish Interior Minister)

We have been reproached for making no distinction between the innocent Armenians and the guilty. But that was utterly impossible, in view of the fact that those who were innocent today might be guilty tomorrow.

Talaat attempted to get New York Life Insurance Company, which insured many Armenians, to pay up saying: “They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs. The Government is the beneficiary now.”

This mass murder pre-dated Hitler. Before WWII, the yardstick for slaughter was Abdul Hamid (kiled 200,000 Armenians in Turkey 1895-1896) and the Belgian king Leopold, who pillaged the Congo for rubber (late 19th/early 20th cent).

Djelal Munif Bey: (Turkish consul)

Discrimination is utterly impossible and it is not alone the offender who suffers the penality of his act, but also the innocent whom he drags with him…. The Armenians have only themselves to blame.

1918 – war ends – first war crimes tribunal is planned (to try Kaiser and friends + Talaat and Co.). No U.S. support (isn’t that a surprise). Fell apart when Britian and Turkey did a prisoners/war criminals swap.

Chapter 2

Raphael Lemkin – Polish Jew – linguistics prof – came up with the term ‘genocide’
Apalled that ‘state sovereignty’ shielded wiping out a minority.

Sovereignty cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people.

Youth: Occupied with studying atrocity. Russian/German battle came to his home. They hid in the woods.

Talaat’s assassination (by an Armenian survivor) brought him back to the topic. Wanted to link barbarity and vandalism – not just physical extermination, but cultural/intellctual as well.

Advocated for international law – always rebuffed (incl League of Nations).

WWII Persecution of Jews (and other groups) by Hitler Germany (Wikipedia Entry)

Hitler: (1939)

The aim of war is not to reach definite lines but to annihiliate the enemy physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living space that we need. Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?

(one week later – invasion of Poland, Hitler later restored Talaat’s ashes to Turkey where he was enshrined as a fallen hero)

Molotov-Ribbentrop pact: secret Soviet/German agreement. Poland divided into 2 zones.

Lemkin frustrated by his fellow Jews’ apathy, a baker said:

There is nothing new in the suffering of Jews, especially in time of war. The main thing for a Jew is not to get excited and to outlast the enemies. A Jew must wait and pray. The Almighty will help. He always helps. How can Hitler destroy the Jews, if he must trade with them? I grant you some Jews will suffer under Hitler, but this is the lot of the Jews, to suffer and to wait. We Jews are an eternal people, we cannot be destroyed. We can only suffer.

Lemkin tried to get his brother and parents out but they resisted leaving.

I read in the eyes of all of them on plea: do not talk of our leaving this warm home, our beds, our stores of food, the security of our customs. We will have to suffer, but we will survive somehow.

Lemkin makes it (alone) to Sweden in 1940 then to United States, began campaigning and lecturing. No result from Vice President (Wallace). No result from Roosevelt (who requested Lemkin prep a one-page summary).


We are in the presence of a crime without a name.

Chapter 3

Szmul Zygiebojm, also traveled Europe/U.S. lobbying and lecturing.

Why the apathy?

  • Hitler presented a threat to civilization – overshadowing his targeting of the Jewish population.
  • Anit-semiticism contributed as well, people were indifferent to their fate.
  • Belief that the Allies were doing all they could (no point in getting depressed).
  • Cremation factories/gas chambers sounded too far-fetched.

April 1943 Allies reject proposals to expand refugee admissions (limiting the number of Jews granted refuge in U.S. and Europe).

Zygielbojm kills himself in May 1943, suicide letter:

By my death I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people. I know how little human life is worht, especially today. But as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall contribute to destroying the indifference of those who are able and should act.

Nov 1944 Lemkin published Axis Rule of Occupied Europe. 712-page exam of rules/decrees in 19 Axis countries:

The present destruction of Europe would not be complete and thorough had the Gemran people not accepted freely [the Nazi] plan, participated voluntarily in its execution and up to this point profted greatly therefrom.

Came up with ‘genocide’ term: ‘geno’ (tribe/race) ‘cide’ (killing).

Many of Lemkin’s Jewish contemporiaries desparied, wanting silence preferable to naming.

Also from Axis Rule:

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.

(A group did not have to be physically exterminated to suffer genocide – they can be stripped of cultural identity)

On to Chapter 4…







One response to “Problem From Hell, A: Chapters 1 – 3”

  1. palochi Avatar

    Two words why there has always been an apathetic American government response:

    Native Americans

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