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If you see something, say something. And then what?

REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
Today, social media are filled with stories about the Rohingya in Burma (Myanmar).

Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass, is an event that many people think of as the beginning of the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jews.

author photo
Ellen J. Kennedy

On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi party officials and Hitler Youth throughout Germany and Austria ravaged and burned more than a thousand synagogues and Jewish homes, destroyed 7,500 Jewish shops, attacked Jewish cemeteries with sledgehammers, and rounded up and incarcerated more than 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps.

Ordinary German and Austrian citizens, including children, stood by and watched. Some cheered.

A new scale of violence

The level of violence against Jews was unprecedented. The Nuremberg laws that were passed in Germany in 1935 had stripped Jews of their citizenship, their jobs, their radios; their freedom to walk on the sidewalk, take a tram, sit on a park bench, go to the cinema; their right to be treated at a public hospital or attend a public school. Books by Jewish authors and scholars were turned to ashes in giant bonfires, presaging the burning of Jews’ bodies in crematoria five years later. But until Kristallnacht, physical violence on this scale had not occurred.

The Night of Broken Glass is named for the glass shards littering the streets, remnants from the shattered windows of stores, homes, and synagogues – and the shattered lives.

This pogrom, or massacre of a targeted group, was reported with horror in the international media and in local newspapers in cities and towns around the world. The New York Times. Cincinnati Inquirer. St. Paul Dispatch. In newspapers in all the capitals around the world.

People saw something. People said something. Diplomats in Berlin and Vienna reported the events. Travelers were witnesses.

In 1938, there were no extermination camps – yet. There were no mass transit schemes to deport Jews to Poland to their deaths. There were no Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads that hunted down and shot more than a million Jews in Soviet republics.

People said something – but nothing happened. And soon it became too late.

The Rohingya's plight

Today, social media are filled with stories about the Rohingya in Burma (Myanmar). Articles appear in Slate, Time, newspapers, and on U.N. websites chronicling the "ethnic cleansing" of this Muslim minority. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship, rounded up and put in concentration-like camps, and subjected to torture, rape, and arbitrary killings. The United Nations calls them “the most persecuted people on earth.”

The Burmese military is now forcing the Rohingya out of the country and into neighboring Bangladesh, burning their villages behind them in a scorched-earth policy and planting landmines along its border with Bangladesh in violation of all international law. This is classic ethnic cleansing, almost always a precursor to genocide, which many human rights experts and organizations say is now occurring.

We’ve seen something. We’ve said something. Now what? We knew about Kristallnacht, and we let 6 million Jews perish. We know about the Rohingya.

We must take responsibility

On this anniversary of Kristallnacht, we must take responsibility. A global doctrine endorsed by the United Nations in 2005 is called the Responsibility to Protect. R2P, as it is known, calls on world leaders to intervene to protect innocent people when their own leaders are either unable or unwilling to do so.

R2P outlines ways to prevent these crises from occurring, but when prevention is too little or too late, we have a "responsibility to react." It includes economic, political, and diplomatic responses.

While the R2P framework strongly endorses nonintervention to maintain a nation’s sovereignty and self-reliance, direct intervention is advocated in two extreme circumstances: when there is large-scale loss of life, with or without genocidal intent, the product either of deliberate state action, state neglect inability to act, or a failed state situation; or when large-scale ethnic cleansing occurs by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror, or rape.

We see the warning signs, and these signs are all too clear for the Rohingya – ethnic cleansing leading to genocide. Urge our elected officials to protect the vulnerable men, women, and children. We must say something – and we must do something. The time is now. It is our responsibility to protect.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

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