Book Review: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Holocaust: An Endangered Connection

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Among the responses to the unfathomable and inhuman horrors of the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide stand out. Both were adopted by the nascent United Nations in 1948, and together were the cornerstone of the modern human rights movement.

However, as Johannes Morsink documents, recognition of the link between the Holocaust and these founding documents has eroded severely over the years. His work is largely aimed at the academic audience that focuses on these issues and is based on the accusation that many members of this group belittle the core connection between the Holocaust, the UDHR, and the institutions that were created in their wake. Responding to the new historians of human rights, he declares: “None of the writers who take the idea all the way back to the Greeks, Romans, or Christians and then connect that lineage to our own times do justice to the event of the Holocaust …. The contemporary notion of human rights burst on our world on account of the Nazi horrors …” (p. 19).

In particular, Morsink rejects theories that claim to trace the UDHR and the modern human rights movement to the Enlightenment and the tradition of European liberalism, predating the Holocaust by centuries. An entire chapter is devoted to critiquing the work of Samuel Moyn, professor of jurisprudence at Yale Law School and author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which has become the definitive analysis in relevant university courses. Morsink accuses Moyn, among others, of having “downgraded the UDHR text far below the status it should have in our modern  conception of human rights. The reason for this neglect is the lack of interest in the influence of the Holocaust on the writing ofthe UDHR” (p. 18).

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