Jay Winter is a professor of history at Yale University. His latest book, René Cassin and Human Rights, with Antoine Prost, is just out from Cambridge University Press.
When did the Second World War end? In the absence of a formal peace treaty in 1945, we celebrate on the dates of military surrender—V-E Day (May 8), or V-J Day (August 15). But in a sense, it would be better to see December 9-10, 1948, as when the war came to an end. It was then that the United Nations, sitting in plenary session in Paris, voted for two major advances in international law, which together said to the world: "Never again." The last joint operation of the war against the Axis powers was to establish a human-rights regime to affirm everything the Nazis tried to destroy.
The first law was the Genocide Convention; the second was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their passage in a 24-hour period was an astonishing achievement. Consider the moment. The Berlin blockade had been under way for six months. The bloodbath attending the end of British rule in India was continuing. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 had ended, for the time being. Mao's army was approaching Beijing. Eight months later, the Soviet Union would explode its first atomic bomb. The cold war was well and truly on.
And yet, for one moment, the two great powers did not let the present conflicts obscure what they and their allies had accomplished in the very recent past. And at what a cost. It is probably an underestimate to say that 20 million Soviet citizens died. The cold war has occluded that shocking statistic. By voting for the Genocide Convention, and by abstaining on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Soviet Union was acknowledging that horror. A nation would no longer have the right to treat "its Jews," as Goebbels had told the League of Nations in 1933, any way it liked. Absolute state sovereignty would be a thing of the past....