Ongoing Genocide: The Lessons of the Holocaust and the Fate of the Yazidi

Persecution of the Yazidis
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate August 11, 2014. Rodi Said/Reuters

For historians of the Holocaust, the plight of the Yazidi religious minority in war-torn Iraq and Syria summons particular images. Men who are led away from women to be killed first. Communities stripped of valuables before they are destroyed. A small group defined as beyond the pale of human concern.

How can the Holocaust help us to understand such crimes today? In order for Nazi Germany to carry out the unprecedented policy of the total extermination of the Jews of Europe, three things had to happen. A leader who blamed all evil on the Jews had to come to power; a war for resources had to be undertaken in the part of the world where Jews lived; and states had to be destroyed so that Jews were stripped of political protection. As a general rule, the presence of two of these three factorstotalitarian ideology, ecological panic, and state destructionmakes an episode of mass killing much more likely.

Of the three causes of the Holocaust, we in the West remember only the one that is usually beyond our power to alter, the ideological leader. Americans in particular live within the myth that the U.S. can take out a Hitler or a comparable figure and thus halt a genocide. This has never happened, and the swagger can crowd out both historical truth and sensible acts of prevention.

The U.S. entered the Second World War for other reasons, and reached the shores of Normandy after the Holocaust was essentially over. American troops did not liberate any of the major killing facilities, nor see any of the hundreds of death pits. NATO intervention in Yugoslavia was meant to halt mass killing, but America's Croatian clients ethnically cleansed Serbs and the bulk of Serbian cleansing of Albanians followed rather than preceded NATO bombing. The Holocaust was mobilized as a reason for American, British, Polish and other troops to invade Iraq in 2003, even though Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Kurds, his most cited crime, had taken place fifteen years earlier at a time when he was an American client.

In Iraq and Syria today, there is no shortage of despicable individuals and ideas. The Obama administration has declared that it aims both to defeat ISIS and the Assad regime, but shows limited capacity to do either—even though the forces in question are fighting each other. The U.S. did airlift supplies to the Yazidi and target air strikes against ISIS in the area where mass murder and rape took place. This laudable action, sadly, did not halt the genocide.

As Yazidi men are murdered, women are raped, and families flee, we should keep asking what else we can do. But we must also ask what we might have done instead, or might now do to prevent future calamities.

In some measure, the fate of the Yazidi is a consequence of state destruction and ecological panic generated by American choices. The decision to remove the Iraqi regime in 2003 created the space for the emergence of ISIS, and drove more than one million Iraq refugees to Syrian cities. The drought in the entire Fertile Crescent in the four years before the Syrian uprising was the worst in recorded history. It is seen by experts as a man-made climate disaster. Small farmers and herders generally went under by 2009. In 2010 and 2011, larger herders and farmers also went bankrupt, food prices doubled, and some 1.5 million people moved from the countryside to the eroded outskirts of overpopulated Syrian cities.

The overcrowding of impoverished suburbs by desperate and alienated people set the stage for civil war. As one Syrian farmer put it, "when the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, 'It's enough.'" Popular opposition brought brutal repression and civil war, which created a further opening for ISIS.

We are right to be outraged at Assad's brutal persecution of his own people and at ISIS's despicable claim that Yazidi as pagans can be murdered and raped. Russia's entry into the war will very likely generate more havoc and more refugees. We can, if we like, compare Assad, Putin, and ISIS to leaders and formations of the past. But if in remembering the importance of individuals and ideologies we neglect the two other lessons of the Holocaustecological panic, state destructionwe ourselves make genocide more likely.

Outrage, even when justified, can stop us from learning what we ourselves might do to make catastrophes less likely. Dismantling a polity, as the U.S. did in Iraq, has deep consequences that are quite the opposite of those intended. Warming the globe desertifies the Middle East and North Africa, making conflict and migration all but inevitable.

Acting now to halt climate change will not stop the war in Syria, nor will it save the Yazidi. But it might mean that we, and generations to come, will not have to look on helplessly as genocide spreads around the globe.

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and the author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.