Often it is said that we should understand genocide to prevent it. This is wrong. Understanding is not the key. An explanation is: specifically, explaining genocide as due to unlimited power.
Let’s first consider the Holocaust, which is the paradigm case of genocide. Scholars and historians have tried to understand the Holocaust in terms of Nazi racism, their hatred of the Jews and belief that the Jews were "vermin"; their idea that the betterment and future of German society demanded purifying it of these "bloodsuckers"; traditional German submission to authority, even to their racist Nazi rulers; and so on.
But to prevent genocide or mass murder generally, understanding the Holocaust in this way is not enough, not if one wants to know as well why Jews were murdered in earlier times by the Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Croatians, Ukrainians, Russians, etc. Nor is this understanding of the Holocaust sufficient to have prevented the Rwandan rulers’ murder of up to a million Tutsi; the Young Turks’ murder en masse of nearly 2 million Armenians; the Pakistani military’s mass murder of over a million East Pakistan Bengalis and Hindus; the Khmer Rouge’s murder of hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks, Chams, and Vietnamese-Cambodians; and so on. To deal with these genocides, we need an explanation.
An explanation provides the basis for predicting a behavior will occur. Understanding helps form an explanation, but also may inhibit it. That is, understanding that the Nazis characterized the Jews as vermin that they were eradicating does not help in predicting genocide elsewhere. For example, the belief of top leaders that the Jews (or some other minority group) are something like vermin would not have forecast many other major genocides in the 20th century. For example, some French and Polish political and military leaders held this view, and yet did not try to promote a large-scale genocide of Jews in their respective countries.
Many sociologists and political scientists have been searching for an explanation of genocide and mass murder that would give us a warning of when it might happen. The problem has been that what seems predictive via understanding in one national/cultural context has not been in another. Accordingly, some of us have taken a different approach. Can we find a condition X, such that its presence or absence makes it more likely for situationally unique factors to result in genocide and mass murder? We have studied many such possible predisposing conditions, such as education, ethnic/racial diversity, population density, religion, ethnicity or race, regional location, and culture. For example, is genocide more likely when there are many ethnic groups in a country and when one particular ethnic group dominates others? The answer is no, not generally.
But, one condition does stand out in all such research, and that is the kind of political system that a nation has, and particularly, the power at the center. Virtually all genocides and non-genocidal mass murders obey the following social law:The more power those who rule have, the less libertarian the government, the more likely the rulers will commit genocide and mass murder.
Note that throughout contemporary Europe, including Germany, Rumania, Hungary, Russia, and Ukraine, any repeat of a mass murder of Jews is inconceivable at present. So it will be as long as these countries remain free. For free countries commit no such murder of their citizens; totalitarian regimes murder in the millions, and some in the tens of millions, such as the Soviet Union, China, and Nazi Germany. Power kills, absolute power kills absolutely.
This is the explanation of the Holocaust and almost all genocides. It says that when any regime, such as the Nazis, can command their subjects as they wish, then those unique elements, such as hatred, economic envy, threats to power, etc., can have their lethal effects. So understanding does have a crucial role. It provides insight into why, given authoritarian or totalitarian rule, something like the Holocaust can occur. But alone, this understanding will not provide much help to prevent it or other genocides. The explanation in terms of power does, however.
Therefore, how do we try to assure “never again”? Foster freedom – reduce power at the center.