Is the Holocaust Unique?

Isn't this a stupid question?  Isn't every event unique?

What is uniqueness?  If by uniqueness we mean the dictionary definition  of "one and only; single; sole" them isn't every event unique?  Aren't you reading this lecture for the very first time ever?  (You must be, since this is the first time that I've ever submitted anything to JUICE.)  But would anyone call this a unique historical event?  Likely not.  Yet why not?

One answer is that dictionaries reflects usage, and people use words in contradictory, confused and inconsistent ways.   Webster's gives two more definitions for unique: "2. having no like or equal; unparalleled" and "3. highly unusual, extraordinary, rare".  From this we learn that the same word might mean different things according to the subjective intention of the user.

Let's look at a dramatic, contemporary event.  Was the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin unique?  Well, that might depends.  It was certainly "highly unusual, extraordinary, rare" but was it "having no like or equal; one and only"?  Politically motivated assassinations are not unknown in Israel (I can immediately think of Haim Arlasorov, Reszo Israel Kastner, Emil Greensweig).  Nor is the murder of a Head of State in the Middle East unprecedented (King Abdallah of Jordan was killed in Jerusalem) and then there is the example of Anwar Sadat, a Head of State who was murdered as a direct result of his peace policies.

The 2 aspects of Uniqueness

So what might make something unique?  I wish to argue here that there are two (2) key aspects: subjectivity and universality.  Subjectivity refers to whether the event is personally significant to ME.  An event of enormous significance to one person (such as a near fatal car accident) is likely to be largely irrelevant to the drivers in the cars behind it (at least once they get by the bottleneck).  The shooting of President John F. Kennedy was "an epoch-making experience"  (in the terms of Emil Fackenheim) for many of my generation, but is likely to engender blank stares from today's "screenagers" .

The second aspect is Universality, meaning that its significance is recognized on a broad and wide-ranging basis.  The event must be seem to be personally significant for many people, in many places, and over time, i.e. across generations.  In a paraphrase of E. H. Carr  I would argue that any big historical event may be a candidate for uniqueness but that few events actually make the grade.  On the face of it, the Holocaust is a very strong candidate indeed.

Absolute Uniqueness versus Relative Uniqueness

The absolutist side in the uniqueness argument assert that the Holocaust can't (often confused with the moral/ethical stand that it shouldn't) be compared with any other event.  It is grasped as being sui generis, an event that is, by definition, totally unique.  This is a position that reflects the first usage in the dictionary (one and only; single; sole).  The second dictionary usage (having no like or equal; unparalleled) cannot be asserted in isolation but must be shown through comparison with "unlike", "unequal" or "non-parallel" events.  For an event to be termed unique in the second sense of the definition the responsible user must be familiar with all possible parallels.  This is at the heart of the "relativist" side.

The "absolutists" often use mystical or theological frames of reference and it is hardly coincidental that they tend to be philosophers or theologians. They talk in terms of "knowing" the unique essence of the Holocaust, and of realizing it as a kind of awakening, a revelation of some hidden truth. "Either you get it or you simply don't" says Theology Professor and Methodist Minister Franklin Littel (Temple University) and it seems to me that this same paradigmatic approach (albeit expressed in different, sometimes contradictory ways) is also present in the works of  Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, Rabbi Richard Rubinstein and survivor- spiritual guru Elie Wiesel.

Who are the relativists?  They tend to be political and social scientists or historians.  Their approach is predicated on comparative human behaviour and they believe that understanding comes through the detailed study of conditions in their wider contexts and in relationship to other events, both more similar and less so.  My own training (history) and my personal predilections put me in the latter category as a relativist.  The rest of this lecture strives to expose the salient features of what makes sense to me around this issue of the relative uniqueness of the Holocaust..

Levels of Relative Uniqueness

There are 3: within Nazi Germany, within Jewish history and within General history.

a) Within Nazi Germany
Perhaps as many as 55 million people died in the Second World War, and 30 or 35 million in Europe, of whom nearly 6 million were Jews.  The Nazis oppressed and murdered a very large number of innocent human beings and that included a rather long list of  "politicals" (communists, socialists, democrats, liberals, and even monarchists), "social deviants" (homosexuals, prostitutes, vagabonds, the chronically unemployed), "religious  opponents" (Jehovah's Witness, priests and ministers that took their religious beliefs seriously), common criminals, as well as the "racials" (slavs,  gypsies or Romi peoples, Jews) and the "defectives" (those with physical or mental handicaps).

But the Nazis did NOT lump all of these prisoners together.  Rather, they carefully marked each separate category of prisoner with a sophisticated system of colour coordinated badges - red for communists, pink for homosexuals, black for priests, green for criminals, yellow for Jews... More than that.  The camps themselves were categorized to reflect the severity of the institutions (not unlike the principle of maximum, medium and minimum security prisoners.)

A document from 15 January 1941 drafted by Reinhard Heydrich head of the RSHA  and presented as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials of War  criminals distinguishes concentration camps according to three (3) levels, and gives examples.  Dachau was on level 1.  There was no mass extermination program at Dachau and out of a total of 206,206 registered prisoners there were 31,591 deaths .  Mauthausen is his example of a camp at level 3.  Post-war estimates are that 199,404 prisoners passed through Mauthausen; 119,000 of them died and 38,120 of those victims were Jews.

Simply put - most prisoners survived Concentration Camps.  If the Nazis wanted to build a place where every prisoner was to be killed, they both could and did.  The Death Camps were such a hell-on-earth and the few who escaped them did so against explicit Nazi intentions.  They were designed and built for the purpose of  murdering each and every Jewish person that was sent to them.

It is not a contradiction to maintain that Concentration Camps were not intended for Jews and that many hundreds of thousands of Jews were in actuality interned in the Concentration Camps of the Third Reich.  Initially (in 1933) 90% of the camp population was non-Jews and Jewish prisoners had not been arrested because they were Jewish.  The use of yellow badges coincides with the arrest of significant numbers of Jews (some 30,000) in  the wake of the Kristall Night pogroms of November 9-10, 1938.  But those Jewish prisoners who could get out of Germany were given their release  from the camps and few Jews were interred in Concentration Camps when the War began 10 months later.  After 1939 the destination of choice for Jews were ghettos in the East and then Death Camps.  Jews return to Concentration Camps (particularly their satellite labour facilities) after 1942, as slave to be worked to death while many others were marched westwards in 1945 when the Death Camps were liberated.  But as a rule Jews are not directed to Concentration Camps.

Concentration Camps were intended for  "politicals",  "social deviants", "religious opponents", and common criminals - not "racials".  These were prisoners whose crimes were seen by the Nazis as having come as a consequence of their own choosing.  A communist chooses to be a communist.  Just as any criminal who commits an illegal act, he must be punished, society must be protected.  But a person can change their politics, or their religion just as a bank robber can decide to stop robbing banks. 

Not so the "racials".  A Jew is a Jew because his blood is Jewish; being racially a Slav or a Gypsy is an immutable condition.  "Prisoners of choice" are curable (at least in theory) whereas "Prisoners by race" are not. Nothing they do or is done to them will affect their racial make-up.  They are "terminally diseased", like the handicapped who, by the way, were the first victims to be gassed to death.

Yet there was neither the drive nor the over-riding need to murder all handicapped persons or all Slavs.  Some could be useful; some could have a place in the New Order that was to be created in the Nazi-dominated World-to-Come.  A document presented to Hitler by Heinrich Himmler on 25 May 1940 outlines his plan for the enslavement of the Slavs .  It is a ghastly plan of oppression and subjugation, but it assumes that most of them will continue to live on this earth - an option that the Nazis deprived from Jews.  Until 1943 the German army knowingly allowed officers who were Gypsies to serve in its ranks whereas a decade earlier Jews had been relentlessly hounded out of the most casual social clubs in Germany.

The Nazis (Hitler and his cabal of true-believers) were fervently convinced that they were locked in a cosmic battle with the forces of Jewish evil for control over the whole world.  They were totally convinced that Jews were the source of all of the evil in the world and that evil would exist as long as the Jew remained in the world.  They knew that their struggle (Mein Kampf) was the battle to the death against the multi-faced Jewish enemy. Only one side could emerge victorious; the other would be totally eliminated. 

And only the Jew was seen in these terms; only the Jew was the total embodiment of evil; only the Jew was without any place in the world of the future; and only the Jew was to be totally murdered to the very last one. The final solution (die entloesung) applied to Jews and to Jews alone and it meant the death of each and every Jew.

This is the uniqueness of the Jew within the Holocaust.

b) Within Jewish history

The Jewish people have suffered pogroms and massacres before - but never like this, never on this scale, never applied to all.   The mass murder planned in Shushan was never implemented but even so, it was localized to Persia .  The Pharoah limited his killing to first-born sons  and the Spanish Inquisition did not actually target Jews (who were supposed to all be gone from the area) but focused on ostensible Christian converts who retained Jewish beliefs and practises in secret.   Like Bogdan Chmielnicki in the mid-17th century and the Legions of the Black One Hundreds (for example Kishinev, 1903) these attacks were geographically limited.  To none of them did it matter that there were Jews living in Amsterdam or Thessaloniki. 

But to the Nazis all Jews were the same; all Jews were part of the same deadly enemy and all Jews had to be eliminated, from wherever they would hide.

c) Within general history

The Turkish massacre of Armenians was centered geographically in Anatoly province. Except for two limited operations in Istanbul in April 1915, Armenians living outside of the area of dispute were left alone.  The Turkish authorities controlled Jerusalem until December 1917.  While the brutal massacres were proceeding in Turkey, not a one of the residents of the Armenian Quarter - or any other Armenian living in the Land of Israel of any other part of the Turkish Empire were in danger for their lives.  In this comparative context it is more similar to a big pogrom than to a Holocaust.

Biafra, Rwanda, Cambodia are contemporary examples of civil wars, tribal conflicts (partially with religious and regional overtones) and, at least in the case of the last example, self-inflicted "auto-genocides" - a people killing itself.  When CNN transmitted pictures of starving inmates standing behind barbed wire fences in Bosnia, everyone thought "Holocaust".  Yet when we look carefully at the similarities and the differences  I think that we see more differences than similarities.  It is this which leads me to conclude that the Holocaust has "no like or equal; unparalleled".

In itself though, the observation that the Holocaust is unique in history doesn't necessarily mean anything at all.  In later lectures I will try to sketch out what I think it might mean (or rather, what it means to me) and in the final lecture I intend to raise the question of whether or not there is anything to learn from the Holocaust and, if there were, is it desirable that we do so?

Final Word

I do not want to engage in a kind of "Genocide Sweepstakes" - we suffered more than you did; our pain is greater than yours.  A death is a death is a death and pain cannot, should not, must not be quantified or ranked in order.

What is being compared is NOT the suffering of the victims but the intentions of the perpetrators.  The uniqueness of the Holocaust is not connected to anything that the Jews did or did not do; it is rooted with the Nazis and their accomplices.

In my understanding uniqueness is NOT an inherent quality of an historical event that exists "out there" for anyone who wishes to discover it. Uniqueness exists in a personal relationship with an event and it is held only by those who choose to recognize it. 

Many people around the world consider the Holocaust to have marked a turning point in human history (an epoch-making event) and some of these see it also as a seminal event or "root experience" (Fackenheim again) that challenges them to reach a new faith, identity or understanding of the world.  Are you one of them?





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0