Cohen: A Nuanced Analysis of the Holocaust and Its Influence on Postwar Human Rights Projects

by Gabby Deschamps

            G. Daniel Cohen is a practising historian who specializes in human rights history, French history, and modern European history as well as human rights law and international law. In his article titled, “The Holocaust and the Human Right Revolution”: A Reassessment,” he uses historiography and primary resource analysis to comment on the Holocaust and where it fits into human rights history. Cohen contends that the “human rights revolution,” and its cementing into international law, sought to solidify the memories of the Holocaust, and the corresponding war, with the goal of creating a framework by which the Great Powers could simultaneously project pro-democratic ideals and international altruism.           

       Within his argument Cohen makes a clear distinction between two major schools of thought. Firstly, he describes the “Holocaust-centric” interpreters such as Kofi Anan and Paul G. Lauren, who believe that the Nazi mass-extermination directly inspired the genesis of the Human Rights regime and a benevolent desire to redress humanitarian grievances. Cohen then parallels this interpretation with the more pragmatic belief, which dismisses the notion that human rights were born from the Holocaust and asserts that its inception was the result of cold-war preoccupations and the West’s desire to protect state sovereignty and colonial interests from the threat of totalitarianism.

            Cohen’s nuanced interpretation lies between the two opposing perspectives in which he asserts that the Holocaust concurrently played a central and absent role in human rights discourse in the postwar era. He argues that the ideational notion of the Holocaust creating “Human Rights” is incomplete because it wrongfully assumes that the desire for rights claiming did not predate the war. He also implicitly references a presentist approach noting that the leaders of human rights projects would not have been aware of the extent of the barbarianism, since the breadth of information pertaining to the Holocaust had yet to be fully discovered. Therefore, he argues that the casual correlation that has been made between the Holocaust and human rights is through memory and hindsight rather than contemporary knowledge. Cohen does, however, assert that the crimes committed by the Germans did have an influence, whether it be overt or implicit, on the formulation of the various human rights projects in the postwar era. In such, he discusses the involvement of “Jewish jurists,” like René Cassin, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin whose lived experiences influenced them while drafting international human rights projects, noting that this was often done without explicit mention of the Holocaust.

            Moreover, Cohen argues that complete rejections of the idealist interpretation, like those put forward by historians such as Mark Mazower and Samuel Moyn, negate the catalytic importance and historical significance of the Holocaust. Therefore, he argues that while the origin of “human rights revolution” cannot be solely attributed to the Holocaust, the outright dismissal of any form of influence offers an equally unfulfilling narrative. According to Cohen, the Holocaust acted as a trigger which allowed the already simmering humanitarianism, in conjunction with the Great Powers’ desire to protect democracy and colonial interests, to boil over into what became a “human rights revolution.” What emerged postwar was a form of memorialization for the victims, which enshrined genocide prevention and individualism into international law.

            In the next section of his article, Cohen dissects the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR]. He claims that while many of the UDHR articles can be superimposed on “Holocaust-centric” ideals of atrocity prevention, they were not necessarily written with this in mind. Within this context, Cohen enumerates each article and describes how they allude to aspects of the Holocaust, and contrasts this by highlighting other possible origins or inspirations to demonstrate the centrality and invisibility of the Holocaust.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, November 1949

            Cohen also discusses how the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was noticeably influenced by the Holocaust, as each article, while not directly calling it by name, made reference to the same patterns of mass annihilation and “group destruction” seen in the Nazi perpetuated genocide. This is contrasted with the European Convention of Human Rights, [ECHR] which Cohen argues was not rooted in humanitarian efforts to redress the atrocities of the Holocaust, but rather, as an arm for cold war diplomacy and the propagation of global democracy. The anti-Communist idealism caused them to steer away from any mention of the Holocaust and thus the genocide became an afterthought, allowing national interests to take the foreground.

            Moreover, Cohen comments on the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and contends that it was more so inspired by the Jewish refugee crisis and the Cold War than the Holocaust. While refugee acceptance acted as a tool to gain allies, Cohen argues that its creation was not solely strategical, but rather, acted as one of the first enforceable human rights acts which sought to redress the mistakes made prior-to and during the war. Moreover, Cohen references these displaced persons in regard to Eleanor Roosevelt who felt an extreme sense of benevolence for the survivors of the Holocaust and sought to advance the cause of individual rights through self-determination, once again demonstrating how the Holocaust and associated philosemitism influenced human rights projects.  

            While I appreciate Cohen’s dissection of this debate, I disagree with his middle-ground historiographical approach. Throughout the article it seems as though he himself was unsure where he stood in regard to the debate and this made his arguments very nuanced and therefore, hard to follow. Nevertheless, I think his approach to exploring the various human rights projects and to what degree they were influenced by the Holocaust was well done. I also appreciated that he made note of the pre-existence of the human rights concerns and that he recognized that the Holocaust did not create this movement but had obvious influence on its conception, as I believe this is the best way to understand the entangled relationship. His work, although convoluted, allows fellow scholars to explore additional avenues of understanding, opposed to the traditional polarizing perspectives, and adds to the debate regarding the Holocaust and its place within human rights history and historiography.


  1. Based on Cohen’s dissection of the various United Nations instruments, compare and contrast the influence of the Holocaust on: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refuges and on Eleanor Roosevelt’s interest in the rights and protections of refugees and self-determination. Do you agree with his analysis of the varying degrees of Holocaust influence, and can you think of any other causes that could have prompted their conceptions?
  2. How significant of an impact do you believe presentism and memory play in this debate about the Holocaust and its place in human rights history?
  3. Based on Cohen’s arguments do you believe that the Human Rights movement was “born from the ashes of the Holocaust” or was it more so the result of international diplomatic efforts? In other words, where do you lie within this debate?

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