Why international law was not enough to stop the Holocaust

While international law existed prior to World War II, the form of law remained weak domestically in protecting stateless people, such as the Jews in pre-World War II Europe. Firstly, the rights an individual held under international law was granted in terms of their nationality and so if an individual believed his/her rights were violated, the effects would be foreseen on the nation. The Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe did not have their own state (Israel was founded in 1948 after the war). Hence, if international law was directed towards governing nations, the Jews were not fully protected by it. Only after WWII did international law broaden to encompass individuals (Article 4, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide). The fact that the Jews were a stateless nation also made them a unique evil and threat to nationalism in the eyes of Germany and surrounding countries that held large Jewish minority groups. It should be noted, too, that Jews did try to escape their persecuting countries but could not find refuge in other countries, like the United States, that rejected them. International law could have been stronger in refugee protection for all people, not just the Armenians and Russians post-World War I.

Moreover, the Minority Rights treaties in 1919 dictated by the Allies (signed by countries such as Hungary) were unsuccessful in actually protecting minorities like the Jews in nations like Poland where these groups were often discriminated against. The established treaties did set norms for non-discrimination but the League of Nations could have ultimately done more to ensure that minority rights were not infringed upon (as they were continuously despite treaties due to weak enforcement). The nations that created the league essentially placed stronger interest in political advantages in regards to minorities, usually siding with the stronger ally of the two opposing legal bodies. Thus an intrinsic power hierarchy was set in motion and no sanctions were emplaced on those who infringed upon the law. Especially when the League began to dismantle in the 1930s, when the major world powers left the intergovernmental organization, these treaties became increasingly irrelevant. It is important to note, also, that anti-semitic violence was not a novel idea, having taken shape in a racial sense during the 19th Century.

With the Great Depression weakening economies worldwide, Germany saw an opportunity to rise against the “unfair” regulations set upon them in the Treaty of Versailles. On the other hand, other nations also dealing with economic crises of the Great Depression and post-World War I reparations were distracted with their own internal conflicts. The United States only ended its isolationism from the war when Japan attacked in 1941. Another issue with international law was also that it was rather unenforceable. The Nazis, ultimately, ignored the laws of war detailed in the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact (Germany was also unafraid to invade Belgium, which was protected by international rule).  

In the early 1900’s we also saw that international law didn’t exactly extend to non-domestic spheres–legal rhetoric weakened the law, dampening its effect. With the Herero Wars between the indigenous Herero people and German Empire, the rules delineated in the Geneva Convention were not applicable as the Hereros were a “savage” people of imperial Germany. The Geneva rules also only applied between countries that signed the treaty and did not apply to the war on terror. Therefore, despite advances in “humanizing” warfare in 1850-1914, international law still had limited applicability in terms of imperial wars and internal conflicts (class lecture). In 1935, too, when Italy invaded Ethiopia (one League member invading another), the League of Nations did not act, possibly afraid to expose actual weaknesses present in the organization. However, this weakness was still evident as the invasion provided a testimony to the fact that the world would not react if Germany also undertook similar actions (i.e. invading Belgium). Thus, despite a time of enormous hope of international law’s success, big powers, who were at times the ones committing the intolerable acts, backed out and people ultimately stopped following the set regulations.

2 thoughts on “Why international law was not enough to stop the Holocaust

  1. “While international law existed prior to World War II, the form of law remained weak in protecting stateless people, such as the Jews in pre-World War II Europe, in a domestic sphere.”

    What do you mean, stateless? These people were citizens in their respective countries. Have international laws deterred the actions of Israel?


    1. By stateless, I mean that specific ethnic groups did not have their own groups and did not constitute the majority population in any nation state. So, they might have had citizenship in their country but they were still minorities. Similarly, the Armenians constituted a large minority in the Ottoman Empire but still remained stateless in the same sense until 1920 (post WWI) when Armenia became its own nationstate.


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