The Language of Transgression before and after the Holocaust

IES was honored to host Dirk Moses, Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney and a leading historian in the field of comparative genocide studies, for a lecture on the language of transgression as compared between the pre- and post-Holocaust periods. Moses started off his lecture by discussing the concept of genocide – specifically in relation to the situation in Aleppo – and how western nations are hesitant to classify situations as “genocide” because doing so would require them to intervene. The western tradition of legalizing language dealing with transgression, he claimed, narrows its possibilities, especially in discussing the Holocaust. Delving into this example, he explained how, before the Holocaust, the language of transgression was fluid, extensive, and registered politically on a national scale, whereas today it is widely associated with horrific bigotry. In general, Moses expressed outrage that, due to linguistic discrepancies, the United Nations has made it so that civil war would no longer be considered a form of genocide despite the fact that millions are still killed under such acts. The deeming of genocide as the “crime of all crimes,” he claimed, allows nations who have allies in the UN to commit heinous atrocities under the guise that they are performed for attestable political reasons. This selective acknowledgement of brutal events puts specific countries’ citizens at risk because not all crimes against humanity are equally recognized. Moses thus stressed the importance of paying attention to the lexicon used to describe atrocities, emphasizing that such vocabulary must be extended so as to include mass killings instigated by both political and ethnic atrocities. With a lively question and answer session ensuing between Moses and the 25 in attendance, the lecture proved to be thought-provoking in its illumination of problematic nature of how genocide is classified and treated today.