Friday, September 23, 2005

The Holocaust: was it unique?

Norman Geras is a man who has thought long and hard about the Holocaust. Recently, he tackled the controversial question of whether the Holocaust was, "in some significant moral sense, singular or unique in the long catalogue of calamities that human beings have inflicted upon one another."

Norm has anticipated many possible objections to the discussion and responded to them convincingly. He anticipates and deals with the question of whether the Holocaust stands in some mysterious way outside the realm of such inquiry, whether the discussion of singularity is meaningless because all events are unique, whether the Holocaust must have had one absolutely unique feature to be called unique, and whether the question of uniqueness is ill-advised because it places one group of sufferers above all others.

This last question is one that especially interests me. In attempting to deal with it, Geras places the focus squarely on the acts of the perpetrators rather than on the suffering of the victims:

...the consciousness that developed in Nazi-occupied Europe and in the decades after the Second World War that what the Nazis perpetrated was something historically new and exceptional was not based on any historical computation of the suffering of the victims in relation to other groups of victims. It was a judgement about the nature of the crime. So, at any rate, I propose. It was not some particularity of Jewish suffering, or of the suffering of the other targets of Nazi barbarism - gypsies, Russian prisoners of war (of whom some 3 million died in German captivity), gay people, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, Poles, and so on - but a particularity of the Nazi offence, an offence against humanity itself, that stood out.

Norm makes it clear that the Holocaust was not uniquely terrible because it was perpetrated primarily against Jews; it was uniquely terrible for other reasons. He uses the language of Nuremberg to describe the crime as one against humanity. The Holocaust was indeed also a crime against the Jews, but its uniqueness does not lie in its choice of victims, it relies in some qualities inherent in the offenses of the perpetrators.

Norm sees this uniqueness as having three characteristics, all of which acted together in a vile synergy to create an evil that was singular: (1) the industrialization and bureaucratization of death, using the full resources of a modern state; (2) the comprehensiveness of intent, in which the aim was to wipe out an entire people for no practical reason; and (3) spiritual murder, a devotion to destroying the humanity of the victims before killing them, a sort of blanket impulse to sadistically humiliate and dehumanize.

Geras does not suggest that we ignore the fact that the Holocaust targeted Jews, nor the long history of persecution of Jews throughout the millennia. His point is simply that the identity of the victims is not what makes the Holocaust unique.

I've been thinking of adding a possible fourth element to these three elements of uniqueness. The fourth is related to the second element on Norm's list (and perhaps is only a subset of it), comprehensiveness of intent. I would call this fourth element "global scope" or "comprehensiveness of reach." By that I am referring to the fact that, in any other genocides or mass murders that come to mind, the boundaries of the geography involved were far more limited, either because the people who were targeted lived in a single region, or because the perpetrators only controlled a certain area. The Turks, for example, did not pursue the Armenians around the globe to hunt them down in countries to which they had emigrated.

If the Nazis had rounded up and murdered only the German and Austrian Jews, for example, it would have been a terrible crime indeed, but it would not have been the Holocaust. Instead, the Nazis were geographically expansionist in their genocide, because the Jews were widely scattered throughout Europe. In each country the Germans conquered and occupied, one of their most basic goals was to get the cooperation of the local populace in rounding up its own Jews and helping the Germans to eliminate them from the face of the earth. In this activity, most of Europe was compliant and cooperative, with only a few notable exceptions, among them Denmark and Bulgaria.

So some of the unique horror of the Holocaust is therefore the wide geographic reach of the genocide as well as the international cooperation involved. The Nazis were in charge, but they had many willing and eager collaborators in a large number of countries. The Holocaust was not just a murderous impulse, a question of marching into a country and slaughtering people indiscriminately; it required an intense effort of picking, choosing, and sorting out .

The Nazis lost the war. But they accomplished one of their major goals: the virtual elimination of the Jews of Europe. Before the Holocaust, the majority of the Jews of the world resided there. Afterwards, only a tiny fraction remained. Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered during the Holocaust, and most of the rest emigrated. This is part of the unique horror of the Holocaust, as well: that it succeeded almost completely in its audacious and seemingly impossible goal of making Europe Judenfrei.


At 1:20 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Bookworm said...

Brilliant posts -- both yours and Geras'. Thank you both for the link to Geras and for your own valuable insights. I'm linking.

At 1:28 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Charlie (Colorado) said...

Hmmm. The phrase "Cartago delenda est" comes to mind.

At 4:50 PM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous diane wilson said...

Understanding everything that your post says, I have a great deal of trouble thinking of the Holocaust as unique. After all, Hitler was only the third worst mass murderer of the 20th century. Stalin and Mao both killed many more of their own civilian citizens.

Both Mao and Stalin meet Geras's three criteria: Bureaucracization of mass murder. Comprehensive murder programs against whole segments of society, whether ethnic (Kulaks), educational (intellectuals, professionals, and artists), or regional (specific cities such as Leningrad, or all cities in general in China's Cultural Revolution). Spiritual murder before physical murder? Oh, yes.

What should we call all mass murders that fit these criteria? Pol Pot may not have killed as many as Hitler, and I don't know whether Cambodia meets all the same criteria, but I certainly wouldn't suggest that the German Holocaust was unique without thinking long and hard all the horrors of the twentieth century.

At 9:03 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The holocaust, in one way, was a huge eugenics program to reshape humanity according to someone's desires. In those terms, it was a crime against humanity and an apt way to put it too. A crime in this sense being a nullification or stringent denial of certain basic rights of self-determination, and as such, it was a crime of making humans as something other than humans. Not just treating humans inhumanely, that might just be rude, bad, and insensitive, but recreating people into things against their will.

A crime against humanity, is indeed, a nice way to put it.

The scope of the killing is indeed critical, but in my view, it is important because this eugenics program required as a function of its success, the broad reaching projection of power. It wouldn't be a eugenics program, a successful eugenics program, without reaching every human being on the planet, a feat requiring an immensity of power, and a projection of such power.

You might say it is the difference between negligent homicide and murder/attempted murder.

Stalin killed more than Hitler did, but Stalin did it through starving people, and not on purpose either, but only as a means to an end. Therefore the deaths he caused was on a basis of psychopathic and sociopathic negligence, while Hitler planned it out like a murder.

To Stalin, the deaths resulting from his "five year plan" was simply a side-effect. To Hitler, his deaths were necessary to achieve his Aryan Master Race plan.

Reading S.M. Stirlng's the Domination of the Draka, Hitler's Master Race plan might be seen today as pure poppy cock, but if you give him a couple of generations to work with, he might have gotten what he wanted. What with today's genetic research, and finding of certain genetic traits, Hitler could genetically engineer his people to be disease free and superior in strength, while engineering the subject people to be docile, weak, and so on. He need not be barred by such restrictions as the FDA.

He could even make his Master Race infertile to the Slave Race, something his "racial purity" laws were trying to do but which technology might accomplish much more completely.

If making "humanity" into something other than humanity, is not a crime against humanity, then I don't know what is.

The theories of communism is not genetically based, it is socially based. And eventually, the controls on society, force and the secret police, fell apart.

Once you genetically engineer a person's genome, there is no such thing as it "falling apart" if you do it as well as nature has done with us. Thousands, if not millions, of years after we came about on this earth, and our actions are still dictated primarily by our instincts and values based upon our genetic heritage.

Permanent evil, believe it or not, is really more evil than impermanet evil.

True evil has to have a certain idealism to it, the idea that you could make everyone perfect for example. It also has to have a certain aesthetic quality, a certain kind of deadly beauty, as the Aryan Master Race of blond headed, blue eyed, model fullfills.

But all that fails in comparison to the one quality true evil needs to elevate itself above the "petty" evils of the UN, Saddam, and the Sudan. And that is, efficiency.

Alles ist Ordnung.

Or it will be.

At 10:37 PM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Levans said...

That the Jews were primary victims in the Holocaust may not be what makes that horrendous event unique in history. Isn't it strange, though, that it is precisely in the reality of the Jews as primary victims that Holocaust denial still thrives among people of so many nationalities and all socio-economic classes and holds near total sway among some of these groups? Hatred for the Jews is hardly singular as a case of racial hatred, but it is certainly unique in it perpetuity, consistent virulence, and widespread nature.

At 9:47 AM, September 24, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

Have noted this before, but Matthias Kuntzel's english language translations, such as those historically and unambiguously connecting Hitler's genocidal vision with fundamental currents in Islamicist thought and praxis, might be of interest. Also, de facto Leftist collusion and alliances, as noted in Kuntzel's German Silence: Nazis, Jihad, and the Left.

At 9:49 AM, September 24, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It's more like a bacteria infection, in which if you only treat it a couple of times (Jews vs Arabs), then the bacteria will mutate to become resistant to the type of anti-bacteria you are using. You have to fully treat the infection, and that requires full sterilization.

Otherwise some offshoot (Like Nazi's offshoot in the ME) will grow and become just as big of a problem as the original infection.

At 10:40 AM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Daryn said...


I think that your added fourth element is the real key to what makes the Holocaust unique; Hitler engaged the world in his mad quest (globalization of genocide). Stalin or Mao, by contrast, generally limited their depravity to their own country. Thus, the Holocaust forced every country to confront the evil of genocide.

Desposts who limit their evil to their own country (Saddam Hussein, for example) allow other countries to turn a blind eye because it doesn't directly involve them.

At 11:40 AM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

I would quibble with the thought that Stalin stayed at home with his murders.
The Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltics, was the old Russian Empire, a good deal of which had been brought into the Empire within living memory of older people at the time of the revolution.
See "Reconnoitering Central Asia" for mid-to-late nineteenth century examples of Russian expeditions into the areas now called "the Stans".
Siberia was a version of the Wild West.
Whether Stalin and his cronies felt this was purely old home week or that they were trying to bring the new arrivals under control is known only to them, I expect.

I believe genocide is an overused term, since the UN treaty counts the disappearance through assimilation of an identifiable group as genocide. And, of course, any change in welfare rules is genocide.

However, the desire--and a major effort put in train-- to wipe off the face of the earth every member of an identifiable group is close to unique.

As may have been mentioned earlier, this effort cost the Germans. John Keegan, and others, point out that the relative combat power available to the Germans vis-a-vis their potential enemies was less going into WW II than it was going into WW I, which they lost.
The question is why try again--future posts on pacifism will see this issue raised--and why, knowing they were short, did the Germans think killing Jews was so important that they would divert needed resources to the task when battle called for every last man, trainload of supplies, tank of fuel, pound of steel they could find?
They were willing to reduce their chances of winning the war in order to kill Jews.

At 4:05 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous dilys said...

First of all, congratulations to you and Norm on your approach. These factors are the decisive ones that justify all-systems-go for a wise culture to resist.

When the thinking is not clear, when the Holocaust is "unique" because of a specific group of specified victims, its "never again" instructiveness is clouded as a tool for humanity to repent and civilize itself.

As catechists know, the implication and shape of concepts, matters. The twisted combination of European amorphous semi-faux guilt (leading to PC etc.) and a well-meaning "unique"ness characterization, may have been an important factor in following the execution of six million Jews and many others, with the favored admission and non-assimilation of 20 million -- some very disaffected -- Muslims.

And, Ymarsakar (above), please get a blog. Your thought is very interesting.

At 7:13 PM, September 24, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

Speaking as a ¼ Native American, I'd have to say no, it wasn't unique.

At 11:32 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking as a native american of considerably less fraction, I'd say the implicit connection or comparison is nonsense.

Going through, just now, "The First Americans" by Adovasio. Among other things, he discusses the native american situation, and points out that as many as ninety percent of the native americans--less in some places--were killed by disease, mostly before any sizeable number of whites showed up.
This happened before anybody had figured out the germ theory of disease.
Many of the rest assimilated.
The Eastern Pequots were down to about five people--with no massacres on record--when an enterprising attorney connected them with the new gaming laws. Now they are one of the biggest sources of revenue to Connecticut state funds. There are more of them, too.
Point is, assimilation takes people out of the accredited distinct ethnic group quite silently. And, although they weren't killed, their absence can supply support for accusations of genocide.

The fate of the native americans was similar to that of any other people who were subject to what the Germans called "folkwandering", where peoples move, bouncing off other peoples, setting them in motion, like billiard balls. Added to which was disease.
And assmilation.

At 12:22 AM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

if you click on my name while in the "Post Comment" page, you can actually see my profile, which has my blog on there.

It is conveniently, a blogger account after all.

At 6:36 AM, September 26, 2005, Blogger still realizing said...

The fact that the victims were Jews does enter into the equation somewhat. For killing 6 million Chinese, might not be genocide. It might just be mass murder. May God forbid such a thing from happening.

The difference is that there are many, many more Chinese in China. Their culture would survive and recover the loss of 6 million. Indeed, this website estimates the Chinese lost about 10,000,000 in WWII. And it has recovered. Whereas Jewry will never be the same.

At 3:28 PM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous greenmamba said...

There are certain things about the history of the Jews that make the Holocaust something of a singularity.

The real uniqueness exists specifically for modern Westerners. The Germans, in 1930, were considered and considered themselves, at the height of civilization. To suggest that they could up and start murdering Jews willy nilly is like suggesting that the U.S. could do that today. In the framework of modernity, this is a unique event.

I find it most interesting (singular?) that this point has been forgotten.

At 10:13 PM, September 26, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

“To suggest that they could up and start murdering Jews willy nilly is like suggesting that the U.S. could do that today.”

I strongly recommend that everyone view the movie Rosenstrasse. The father is an Aryan bigot who is upset that his own daughter married a Jew. Still, he is appalled that the Nazis are reportedly murdering Jews. The Nazis made a conscious effort to hide their evil from the general German public. Only those who were fairly astute or members of the Nazi Party really understood what was actually occurring. Hitler’s own secretary didn’t know anything about the Holocaust. The Nazis were ordered to employ euphemistic language around the hoi polloi.

At 6:30 AM, September 27, 2005, Anonymous greenmamba said...

David Thomson: the Nazi party's main theme was anti-Semitism, period. This was clear even at Nazi rallies outside Germany.

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" was made in 1940 and it shows anti-Jew animosity clearly. Once that environment was created, the rest followed.

Do you really think the German population would have risen up had they known about the genocide?

At 2:05 PM, September 27, 2005, Anonymous Jim said...

"Speaking as a ¼ Native American, I'd have to say no, it wasn't unique."

Very true. Remember the Huron Genocide? It may fit all the criteria. The intent was to totally exterminate the Hurons, wherever they might be found, not just in the area the Iroquois controlled, so it was really more universal in its aim that perhaps even Hitler's, which seem to have been content at stopping with Europe. There was also an almost mechanistic level of sophistication in the Five Nations political organization and the execution of its policies, for the time, quite beyond any of the neighboring peoples including the English.

The point about the strangeness of so advanced a society as Germany committing such a crime is important. I think it is a mistake to think that that level of sophistication lessens the likelihood - I think it increases it, both in providing the means and also in making it more emotionaly attractive. I can't remember the writer's name, but the essay was called "The Cunning of History" where this line of thinking is laid out. Can oyu think of any hunter-gather or pastral socieites that have caried out genocides? I would expect them to want instead to subdue and exploit a conquered population like livestock or a wild resource

At 8:46 PM, September 28, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

One way in which the Holocaust was different is that it was recorded. An enormous percentage of the Jewish population was literate. Gypsies may have been equally targetted, but they scarcely remember it now. The Rom generally have no interest in what happened to previous generations. We are far more interested in what happened to their grandfathers than they are.

The perpetrators also recorded a great deal of material, in both film and writing. Further, after the war Germany resumed a type of normalcy, which gave us at least some access to eyewitness accounts. It may be that the evils of Stalin and Mao exceeded those of Hitler, but we can only study them and learn from them indirectly. The Solzhenitsyns and Applebaums of the world give us a glimpse into the Soviet way of humiliation and death, but it does not approach the amount of remembrance we can discover about Central Europe. What we can learn about genocide, we will have to learn from the Holocaust.

At 2:07 PM, February 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said... here is a site that shows what the 10 worst regimes of the 20th century were, it is very good


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