Why do you say the Holocaust was unique?

That’s what a commenter asked me a few minutes ago, even after I said I didn’t want to address this subject. Well, too late now. After I wrote my reply, I decided it was worthy of its own post:

Genocide has been here forever and it will probably never go away. Turks and Armenians, Serbs and Croatians, Pol Pot and the Cambodians, Chiang Kai Shek and the Communists, Stalin and Lenin and Mao against the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. In terms of numbers, Stalin may have murdered more than Hitler did, and Mao just may top them all. So why does the Holocaust stand apart?

The Germans were a people that had attained an unmatched level of civilization — lliterate, educated, sophisticated and artistic. They had brought the world some of the very greatest geniuses, Bach and Mozart and Kant and Nietzsche and Goethe and Heine, to name just a few. That this most-refined society then descended to the point where barbarism was licensed and actively encouraged is one of the great anomalies of history, and new books come out every year as to why Nazism was able to take root and thrive.

The Nazis inflicted this barbarism against the people of Eastern Europe in a way that is literally unimaginable. This in itself is extraordinary enough considering Germany’s great culture. But then, just when we know they couldn’t get any more monstrous, they bring us The Holocaust.

Here was something that no one could have envisaged because it was simply beyond the scope of human capabilities. An advanced society, technologically adept and renowned for its efficiency and force of will, actually turns this knowledge and skill and determination to a cause so profoundly evil, so totally bad that even today, 60 years later, we try to grapple with it, usually without success. For the first time in man’s history, modern assembly-line efficiencies and state-of-the-art technologies were implemented for the primary purpose of exterminating an entire race of people. The sheer level of collaboration and organization is staggering. And it showed us “sophisticated Westerners” just how thin our veneer of civilization really can be.

At least when Stalin and Lenin ordered the mass shootings after the glorious revolution they believed (deludedly and insanely) that they were shooting active, threatening enemies. In the case of the Jews, the Nazis butchered babies, children, mothers, husbands, grandparents, teens — people who had posed literally no threat, who had done nothing aside from exist. Yet their mere existence was cause enough to invest billions of dollars into the gulag of death camps that would commoditize the mass murder of innocents.

There are many other aspects of the Holocaust that set it apart, like the wanton cruelty of doctors educated in the world’s finest universities. (And when I say cruelty, I mean really, really cruel.) Man’s inhumanity to man is an old story. But never did we see it displayed like this in the modern age and in the Western world, which had supposedly been reshaped by the Enlightenment into a more tolerant and rational society. It was a grotesque hiccup of history, as though in an instant an entire modern society dropped through a time warp into the dark ages.

There is a reason why the Holocaust has the mystique it does, why it is so disturbing. Unfortunately, “the Holocaust industry” has exploited it, created several myths and in some cases exaggerated its history. But that doesn’t take away from what actually happened. Genocide was a thing of the past in Europe. It was from a darker, more violent age. And then the unthinkable happened, and we were forced to face the fact that there is a dark side to man, no matter how civilized or educated he may be.

It’s a subject I can go on and on about. Studying the Holocaust offers infinite insights into all aspects of man, from the most base to the most noble, and it will always stand apart as one of the great aberrations in man’s history, and one that must never be forgotten. Men were capable of doing it then, and we can repeat it at any time if we fail to remain vigilant against intolerance, hatred and tyranny.

The most poignant photograph ever captured?

The Discussion: 13 Comments

Totally agree with you. I also think that it’s because the Holocaust is probably one of the first examples of wartime atrocity that is introduced to schoolchildren during history lessons, so we know what the Holocaust is from a young age. Apart from that, many films (commercial or otherwise) have themes about the Holocaust than other wartime artrocities like what Mao, Lenin or Stalin did. So perhaps there is more exposure and hence, it stands out more?

February 7, 2004 @ 3:31 pm | Comment

Exposure certainly has a lot to dio with the Holocaust’s immortalization. Obviously, it is images like the photo of the boy that I include in the post, and the footage of the Allies liberating the death camps that have so shocked civilization. But again, it was the fact that these images were so incongruent with “Western civilization that made them so extraordinary. I’ve seen the photos of Chiang’s men shooting suspected communist sympathizers on the street, and shocking as it is, it’s not really that surprising — that was the norm at the time. It was in the context of “civilized Western culture” that the Holocaust images were so frightening and incomprehensible.

February 7, 2004 @ 3:44 pm | Comment

This has immediately made me think of the Rape of Nanjing – which I’ve been planning to write about on my site.
Your reasons about what makes the Holocaust unique are certainly correct, and I would not want to argue with them at all. However, like Idle, I wonder about the way we are educated. During my entire education I never heard anything about the Japanese atrocities during WW2, and it was not until I began reading about China, some years later, that I ever heard of the thing called “the Rape of Nanjing”.
In her book, Iris Chang calls it a “forgotten holocaust”. Whilst it cannot match up to Hitler’s final solution in many important aspects (there was never an explicit, openly-published declaration of genocide, and it was perpetrated by a military population, with no civilian collaboration), the massive numbers involved force me to pause.
Why does no education system (except for the Chinese) teach that 19 million Chinese civilians were murdered during the Japanese occupation? Why does no education system (except for the Chinese) teach that more than 300,000 Nanjing residents were murdered in a period of 6 weeks?

February 7, 2004 @ 4:47 pm | Comment

Fiona, you are quite right. I was never taught about the Rape of Nanking in school either. This has to do with something called “the ethnic phenomenon,” and it actually merits a whole separate post. I’ll try to explain it as best I can.

The ethnic phenomenon dictates that by our very nature, we have a different level of sympathy and empathy with people of our own ethnicity than we do those of other ethnicities. This is clearly manifested all the time. The average American, for example, will have much more of an emotional reaction to news of a train derailment in England that kills 30 than they would to news of a ferry in Bangladesh sinking and killing 300. (These ferry tragedies always appear in the back of the paper in a very short story; the European accidents often go on page one.) No matter how atrocious the Nazis were, I do not believe the US would ever have considered dropping a nuclear weapon on Germany. The horrific firebombing of Dresden is still looked at as one of the most terrible thing the Allies did in the war — a tragic mistake. And more American have empathy for those German families who were incincerated that night than they do for the Japanese families who perished in numbers far greater in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Due to this single fact, that they were Asians who were butchered in Nanjing, the sympathy and interest level among most non-Asians plunges. Of course, this is not a Western sickness. It applies to most ethnicities I believe.

For anyone skeptical, just think about how the most powerful nations have reacted to AIDS in Africa and genocide in Rwanda. They express their deep concern, of course, but they haven’t been moved to do very much about it. When crises involving even a tiny fraction of those numbers occur in a country of the same ethnicity, the reaction is altogether different. Sad but true, this is just a part of human nature; we tend to watch out for our own.

February 7, 2004 @ 6:40 pm | Comment

But Richard, how does this make the Holocaust morally unique? Surprising != more evil.

(By the way, if I’d known you really didn’t want to discuss this, I wouldn’t have asked. Sorry.)

Agree with you on the ethnic phenomenon. It’s a sad, sad reality. I think the truth is that events concerning people far away and of a different colour simply don’t feel real. I don’t see how this can be changed; you can concievably bash tolerance into people’s head, but how do you do the same with empathy?

February 8, 2004 @ 12:58 am | Comment

I’m with you on this one Richard …

(Thought I’d say so since we were disagreeing on an issue related to anti-semitism recently)

February 8, 2004 @ 5:02 pm | Comment

Nicholas, the question of moral uniqueness will have to wait until another time. It’s too big and painstaking a topic for right now.

February 8, 2004 @ 7:30 pm | Comment

Fair enough, Richard. Only curious.

February 9, 2004 @ 3:42 am | Comment

>never did we see it displayed like this in the modern age and in the Western world
Ah, Western world!

February 9, 2004 @ 9:14 am | Comment

Yes, cytolysis — the fact that it was in the “civilized, enlightened western world” was certainly a big aspect of what made the Holocaust so shocking, at least to the other countries oin the civilized western world. I think it showed us all we really aren’t quite as sophisticated and enlightened as we want so much to believe.

February 9, 2004 @ 9:45 am | Comment

they should say sorry

May 24, 2004 @ 10:18 am | Comment

why did they do that stuff. if it was me i know i would say sorry.

May 24, 2004 @ 10:21 am | Comment

Just stumbled across this blog, and I thought that I’d point out a few things about the Shoah that make it different from other examples of mass murder.

The difference lies in how one defines the term “genocide”. Genocide means to destroy a people/nation/tribe/ethnic group (“genos” is Greek for people or tribe). It DOES NOT mean simply the death of large numbers of people, as horrible as that might be, and as much as the victims deserve out sympathy and help. What the Nazis did was different in essence from what Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao did.

Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao killed their own people. Stalin did not say “the Finns are the root of all evil, let’s exterminate them root and branch”; he killed other Russians (or, should I say, other Soviets; Stalin was a Georgian) for political reasons. The same with Mao and Pol Pot; Chinese murdered other Chinese, Cambodians killed other Cambodians. These were not genocides since the goal of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao was not the total eradication of the peoples of which they themselves were members, it was the destructon of “class enemies”, a different thing altogether. The Russian, Chinese, and Cambodian people still exist, and the idea that Mao intended to murder every last member of his own nation is ludicrous.

The motivation for the German genocide was a complex miasma of ethnic fear and loathing coupled with a messianic belief that the Aryan race was going to save mankind though purging the earth of the racial and spiritual “pollution” that was the Jewish people. Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao killed class enemies who could, theoretically be “re-educated”, they did not seek the destruction of an entire people which was viewed as beyond redemption.

What happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks was a genocide, as was what happened in Rwanda. Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao killed millions of their own people for political reasons. Their body count may indeed have been higher than Hitler’s and they deserve every opprobrium that can be heaped upon them. But they did not commit genocide.

July 26, 2004 @ 2:16 pm | Comment

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