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Lessons from the Holocaust Are Relevant to the Crisis in Kosovo

by Robert Brent Toplin on Apr 16, 1999

Robert Brent Toplin

The current debates about NATO’s actions against Slobodan Milosevic demonstrate the usefulness of the past for thinking about the present.

Both critics and defenders of the bombing attacks on Yugoslavia are attempting to draw lessons from history to support their points of view. While many examples from history are relevant to the present crisis, none is as significant as a great European tragedy that occurred earlier in this century.

Critics of the military decisions made by President Clinton and other NATO leaders find plenty of evidence from the past that suggests a need for caution. They point out that European involvement in the Balkans created the sparks that led to World War I. In 1914 naive enthusiasts of small-scale military actions failed to recognize that their assaults could ignite nationalist passions and create wider hostilities.

Furthermore, critics of NATO’s bombing note that assaults from the air cannot totally subdue an enemy. Sooner or later, ground troops must be introduced to secure a victory. The Allies needed ground action to supplement their air bombardment of Germany in World War II, and even the high-tech bombing of Iraq by U.N. allies in 1991 required additional support from ground forces.

The critics use their favorite historical analogy, Vietnam, to remind Americans of how difficult it is to intervene in a civil war in a far-off place. U.S. troops had to operate against hostile people in a strange terrain. When the war did not progress as planned, military commitments escalated. America’s credibility had to be defended, making an exit from the conflict difficult. A similar kind of disaster, they warn, can now occur in the Balkans.

From the other side, President Clinton has turned to historical analogies to defend his actions, offering one of his most controversial references during the first days of the bombing when he pointed to the West’s failure to act against Hitler’s aggression in the 1930s. Pundits properly slammed the President for this misguided reference to history. Milosevic was troublesome, acknowledged the critics, but the Serbian dictator was not threatening all of Europe as Hitler did, and NATO’s attacks seemed more likely to fan the flames of ethnic, religious, and national rivalries than to put them out.

Clinton does have one historical analogy working in his favor, though, that is more compelling than all of the so-called “lessons of the past” presently being bandied about. It concerns the West’s response to the Holocaust.

The horrible brutality perpetrated by Serbian military and para-military units excites recollections of the tragedy of the six million European Jews who were systematically exterminated by the Nazis. There are differences, of course. Hitler’s policy called for genocide, a murderous extermination. Milosevic’s strategy can best be described as “ethnic purging.” It involves executions, massacres, destruction of property and mass deportations. Much of the violence aims to intimidate. Milosevic wants to scare most of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians into leaving Yugoslavia, and the tactic is working. In the last few weeks thousands of shocked refugees have become homeless and desperate.

The West’s response to this disaster has been much more impressive than its response to the crisis of Europe’s Jews before and during World War II. Today the combined forces of 19 nations are taking controversial military action. The Albanian victims are receiving emergency shelter and food rations, and leaders of several countries, including the United States, have agreed to take in thousands of refugees.

In contrast, the West did little in reaction to the persecutions that began against Jews in Germany and spread across the continent once Hitler’s troops marched into war. In the late 1930s and early 1940s nations were reluctant to loosen immigration laws so that fleeing Jews could find a safe haven. The United States’ record is particularly embarrassing. Despite repeated pleas from American Jews, leaders in Washington refused to make exceptions to the country’s tight immigration laws (eventually they took some symbolic actions that occurred too late).

One of the most emotionally wrenching memories from those days concerns the “St. Louis,” a ship that carried 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939, including a number of children. Authorities in Cuba and the United States refused to accept the passengers. When the ship sailed within sight of Miami, a Coast Guard vessel picked up some desperate people who had plunged overboard and placed them back on the decks. The ship had to return to Europe, and eventually many of the 900 perished.

When we recall the lessons of this example from history, our present actions seem commendable.

The easy response to today’s crisis is to say that the problems in far-off Kosovo are not our business, and engagement is not in our interest. The tougher response is to acknowledge that the Albanians’ tragedy is a monumental humanitarian problem that calls for commitment rather than looking away. Thankfully, the West is demonstrating much greater moral substance in facing this challenge than in its timid response to the Holocaust 60 years ago.


Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published books on popular culture and politics, and is a writer for the History News Service.