Human Rights and the Crisis of Modernity

by | 19 Oct 2009

‘Truth’ emerges when a victim, from his present catastrophic position, gains a sudden insight into the entire past as a series of catastrophes that led to his current predicament. (Walter Benjamin)

The horrors of the Second World War and, in particular, the ‘real hell’ of Auschwitz’, are usually seen as the background from which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged. For Rorty, we live in a Post-Holocaust human rights culture. It was in this spirit that the 60th anniversary of the Declaration was commemorated last year. Such a contextualization of international human rights law is sustained by a certain interpretation of the crisis of modernity. Critical Theory and Postmodern philosophy -from Adorno and Habermas, to Derrida, Lyotard and Agamben-  share the assumption that ‘Auschwitz’ occupies the place of the founding event of our times. Thus, the Holocaust has been adopted by the European intelligentsia and the dominant historical consciousness as the event that incarnates the crisis of the modern age. The killing of more than six million people in the Nazi extermination camps meant that modern culture produced the opposite it sought and, as a result, civilisation collapsed.

And yet, a more comprehensive understanding of the historical experience that orientates the interpretation of the Declaration is possible. The point this paper wants to make is that the sense of the Universal Declaration can be grasped in a non-Eurocentric and less partial way if we take distance from the standard history of rights and look beyond the Second World War, the 20th century and the borders of Europe. In other words, when faced with the task of the conceptualisation of the predicament of our age, we should not underestimate the contribution that can be made by approaching history from the perspective of the Third World. Two sets of questions appear when we consider the definition of the crisis of modernity. On the one hand, whether or not the common concept of the crisis encompasses all the cases of widespread brutality that the Second World War brought to history. What about the outrageous legacy of the First World War and of the 20th century as a whole? On the other, if it is reasonable to look for the meaning of the Universal Declaration in the study of the cruelty displayed by 500 years of modern colonialism.

Regarding the first issue we need to ask if the contemporary recollection of the Second World War is broad enough as to accommodate a full elucidation of its moral consequences. It is evident that mainstream history has put emphasis on some of the horrific sights of the conflict, while it has sidelined others equally dreadful. This is one of the scenarios per excellence of the politics of memory, as the interests of the powers that won the war and that are dominant in current world politics shape the perception we have more than sixty years after the hostilities ended. While the crimes of the losers are rightly remembered, a veil has been thrown over the crimes of the winners –the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union- hiding what happened or downplaying their consequences. This is not only convenient in political terms, but it can also operate as a collective defence mechanism that protects developed societies from the menace that represents recognising barbarism within them, and not only in those few already encountered guilty –mainly Nazi Germany.

A more open and sensitive survey of other geographies of the atrocities of the war can give us an idea of what we are speaking about. The bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki lead to the vanishing in just a fraction of a second of more than 200,000 human beings, and the firebomb raids over Tokyo left an estimated 100,000 civilians killed. (Stewart Ross, Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II. The Myths and the Facts, 6). Neither should we forget the extermination campaign of ‘loot all, burn all, kill all’ advanced by imperialist Japan in China, the result of which was the death of 4 million of civilians (Rudolph Rummel, China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, 112 & 137).

Returning to Europe, we can identify some episodes that should be taken into account when remembering the crimes against humanity committed during the war. The carpet-bombing of German cities by British and US air forces left between 35,000 and 135,000 victims in Dresden alone. Hundreds of small towns and villages were also destroyed putting the total number of civilians killed around 570.000, including more than 30.000 foreigners and prisoners (Michael Hughes, Shouldering the Burdens of Defeat: West Germany and the Reconstruction of Social Justice, 15). Germany was destroyed twice in the war: by its own crimes and by its enemies. The elaboration of the former has been advanced, although the crimes committed by Neo-Nazis gangs testify to its failures. However, the exploration of the wounds and scares left in the German people and its collective unconscious has rarely been advanced. Perhaps we could refer here to what has been done in the field of literature by Kurt Vonnegut in his Slaughterhouse 5, the novels by W.G. Sebald and by Günter Grass’ Crabwalk. Elementary justice and the collective working through these traumas require putting the deeds of the Allies under proper moral scrutiny.

But there is even less talk about the carnage committed by the Soviet Union on German civilians during the war, and about the mass murder of Russians citizens by the Stalinist death machine. The result of the transportation and internment in Soviet camps of Reich and ethnic Germans, and of other foreigners of different nationalities, is estimated in 3 million. And the combination of state-terror, internal exile and camps led to the killing of around 10 million Russian citizens by their own government (Rudolph Rummel, Lethal Politics. Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder since 1917, 184-6). Paradoxically, the consciousness of democratic societies appears to be short of the condemnation reclaimed by these crimes and by Solyenitzin’s moral condemnation. On its part, the Left has not been committed enough as to expose the real extent of the crimes of real socialism, or has simply refused to accuse Stalinist totalitarianism. A debate on the criminal record of Stalinism that includes the question as to whether or not it is reasonable to locate Auschwitz and the system of the Gulag under the same category of horrors is overdue.

Moving away from the Second World War, it is possible to see that the historical review of the brutalities of the 20th century is still very sparse, partially because interested parties do not want them to surface. The case of the genocide of the Armenian people and the opposition of Turkish nationalism to its recognition is an example of the struggle for truth and historical awareness. The exploration of the history of infamy of the last century should also include incidents that happened after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration, among them the genocides of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. And, when China is rising as a world super-power, we should not turn away from the claims made by dissidents about the killing of around 80 million by the Maoists over the sixty years they have remained in government. Such events do not only constitute breaches to the Declaration, but they should also be part of the historical background that now gives sense and orientation to its letter.

Does not the vast number of victims of these other instances of total violence require a moral condemnation that puts them among the causes of the crisis of modernity? A single focused account of the history of the Second World War and a willing or ignorant inclination not to see the gigantic shadow of the ‘other crimes’ of the 20th century has to be questioned.

Let’s consider now an interpretation of the crisis of modernity that goes back beyond the immense capacity for destruction unleashed in the 20th century. Perhaps the awe-inspiring ghosts of the Nazi mayhem and the pervasive Eurocentric perspective have not allowed the contemporary consciousness to look beyond the European borders and before the 20th century as a suitable landscape for the crisis of modernity. However, the marriage of slaughter and bureaucratic reason that Hannah Arendt singled out as the core characteristic of the Holocaust was already actualised to full extent in the Conquest of America. Modernity was constituted not only by the hallmarks of the rise of modern civilisation, as in the cases of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. Modernity has also a ‘destructive and genocidal side’ because the Conquest of America and the colonisation of the Third World are also essential to its formation.  The crisis of modernity is not to be found only at its end but also at its very beginning, as modernity was born already in crisis. If this conclusion is reasonable, surely a fairer and more inclusive understanding of the Universal Declaration as a response to the crisis of modernity should lead us to frame the Declaration as a response to Conquest and colonialism too.

What was the real extent of the slaughter carried out by the conquistadors? The significance of the conquest of America for moral history is portrayed in adequate terms by Todorov who claims that ‘the Sixteenth century perpetrated the greatest genocide in human history’. (Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, 5). On his part, David Stannard has referred to the conquest of America and the later colonisation of the West of the United States by white settlers as ‘centuries of genocide’, and as ‘invasions that brought in their wake wanton slaughter and massive population collapse that dwarf anything that happened in Europe under Nazi rule’. While entire indigenous peoples were wiped out in some cases, the common case was that of the extermination of between 90 and 95% of their population (David Stannard, Uniqueness as Denial: The Politics of Genocide Scholarship, 165, 166 & 170). And if we consider the phenomenon of colonialism as a whole, the sheer scale of the butchery of human beings through America, Africa, Asia and Oceania in a period that comprises 500 years, there is no doubt about the meaning of this process for modern history.

We should take seriously Sven Lindqvist when he warns the contemporary consciousness in the following terms regarding the extent of the shadow of genocide in modernity: ‘You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions’. If we are to follow Lindqvist we need an interpretation of history that looks at the past from an array of geographical and historical points of view. A more comprehensive vision of modern history and of the crisis of modernity will provide us with an all-encompassing landscape in which human rights need to be thought. Having as a background this vast landscape of the disasters of modernity, the Universal Declaration can be seen as a response to all modern crimes in which widespread massacres of civilians were involved. The genocides and crimes against humanity committed during the First and Second World War should all be taken into account, as well as the genocides that occurred once the Universal Declaration was proclaimed. And looking at the entire history of modernity, the Conquest of America and the colonisation of the Third World should also be adopted as part of the panorama of absolute cruelty that the moral fibre of the Declaration opposes.

We citizens of the world at the dawn of the Twentieth First century should understand ours as a Post-Conquest human rights culture. Perhaps in this way, the universal appeal of the Declaration would come as a result not only of the world constituency of states that have signed its text, but also from the ecumenical jurisdiction of the victims of modernity, from which the Universal Declaration seeks inspiration and breath in the times of globalisation and neocolonialism.

1 Comment

  1. Why should the Universal declaration be read with the Third World in view. If it can not be established that this was the rationale for the declaration then it can not be reasoned backwards to make it the rationale.

    Rather, if we take the insights of the article into account then the declaration would have to revised with the history outlined here at center stage…this is what it would in part mean to:

    ‘You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions’.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,622 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4500 subscribers.