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The Uniqueness Of The Holocaust
by Alex Grobman, Ph.D.,
Director, Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust
In ever larger numbers, states throughout the country are mandating that the history of the Holocaust be taught in public schools. At the same time, an increasing number of parochial and private schools are also teaching the subject. An important reason for this emphasis in the schools, in addition to the enormity of the event itself, is the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust.
A key objective of this essay is to overcome a tendency to equate the Holocaust with other modern tragedies. This is not to disparage the horror and tragedy or the scope of other nightmarish events-some persisting today because of the failure to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust but to clarify distinctions. By equating the destruction of the Jews of Europe with other events such as the bombing of Hiroshima, the treatment of Native Americans by the United States government, the institution of slavery in America, the deportation and incarceration of Japanese Americans in American concentration camps during the Second World War, the Armenian tragedy of 1915-1917, and the mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere we view everything on the same level as the Holocaust. However, to do so is historically misleading, for it distorts the historical reality of both the Shoah (Hebrew term for Holocaust) and these other crimes, and in the end, trivializes the importance of this unprecedented and unparalleled event in modern history, and minimizes the experiences of all those who suffered.
In August 1945, when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, 130,000 people were either killed, injured, or could not be found. About 75,000 suffered the same fate when the Americans dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. But the United States never intended to destroy the Japanese people. They wanted to demonstrate America's superior military strength which they hoped would persuade the Japanese to surrender so the killing would end.1 As soon as the Japanese surrendered, the Americans ceased their attack. With the Nazis, the mass destruction began after the victims had surrendered.2
From the eighteenth to the twentieth century, the United States pursued an exploitative, self-serving, and heartless policy toward the American Indians. These policies wreaked havoc with their traditional way of life. Nevertheless, the American government never expressed, advocated, or initiated any official decree to destroy all the Indians. The Indian population declined significantly between 1781 and 1900, but these deaths resulted primarily from pandemic disease first brought to the New World by the Europeans and carried westward by waves of migration and by missionaries. Though this decline was undoubtedly assisted by organized and spontaneous acts of aggression, the American government never adopted a policy of genocide. Indeed, the official government policy-the removal of the Indian population and later placing of them on reservations-was intended to maintain the Indian peoples from extinction, no matter how wretched and brutal the conditions under which they were then forced to live.3
White Americans imported African slaves to the United States so they would have cheap labor with which to exploit the vast natural resources of America and to farm sugar, cotton, and other cash crops. The slaves were not treated humanely, but their owners had a vested economic and utilitarian interest in keeping them alive to work and procreate. Killing them would have defeated the very purpose for which they were brought to the United States. That the American government acquiesced in the exploitation of human beings in this manner is a blight on the nation, but the government did fight a war against its own citizens to free them.4
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No.9066 on February 19, 1942, he set in motion a process resulting in the deportation and incarceration of almost 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, two thirds of whom were American citizens. Included were men, women, and children who were sent to concentration camps and U.S. Justice Department Internment Camps located in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arkansas. Some were imprisoned for up to three and a half years. They sustained enormous financial losses, from which few ever recovered. The psychological trauma will remain with them for the rest of their lives and probably will be felt for generations to come by Americans of Japanese descent. The insidious and unprecedented use of race, of collective guilt, by the United States government against its own citizens should serve as a warning. Nevertheless, though it incarcerated the Japanese on the grounds of national security, the American government never officially planned to murder these people individually or as a group nor to use them for slave labor, for medical experiments, or even as scapegoats for the ills of society at home.5
On August 22, 1939, several days before Hitler launched his attack on Poland, he implored his military leaders to show no mercy toward those who stood in his way.
Between 1915 and 1917, the Turkish government conducted a brutal campaign to deport Armenians from Turkey, which resulted in the slaughter of from 550,000 to 800,000 out of a population of 1.5 to 1.7 million. This translates into a loss of from 32 to 53.2 percent.7 However, although Hitler took comfort from the failure of the West to remember the massacre of the Armenians, this does not mean that the Holocaust and the Armenian tragedy are similar historical events. The Turks were driven by "extreme nationalism and religious fanaticism." They wanted to establish a new order in Turkey, and the Armenian population was in the way. This was a situation of competing nationalisms-a collision between Armenians and Turks, between Christians and Muslims. To achieve this new national order, the Turks had to remove the Armenians and did great violence to the Armenian people in the process.
But the Turks did not view the Armenians as a satanic or biological threat to themselves or the world. Although they referred to Armenians as a race, the Turks accepted those who converted to Islam and did not harm them. Moreover, Armenians were not killed everywhere, particularly not in the Turkish capitol of Istanbul, where thousands sought refuge and survived the war. Once the Armenian nationalist threat had been thwarted, the Turks no longer felt a need to kill them.8
During the Marxist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Kampuchea, 2.5 million people out of about 7.3 million were forced to resettle under the most brutal conditions. Singled out for special treatment were the military and the cultural, religious, and intellectual elites of the country. However, none of these groups were marked out for complete annihilation. Other examples of large scale migrations and the destruction of culture include the tribal conflict that led to the persecution and removal of the Asian community in Uganda by Idi Amin, the attack against the intellectuals and Buddhist monks in Tibet by the Chinese; and the oppression and exile of the Chinese minorities to different areas of Asia. In all these Asian cases mentioned, there had been an attempt to create a pure communist state; and in all these instances the governments in power allowed for conversion to the new reigning ideology. No groups were marked for complete destruction.9
All historical events are not of the same magnitude. But this is not a contest to see which group suffered the most or sustained the greatest numerical losses. Distinguishing between different historical events does not, and should not, lessen or demean the suffering of others. Out of the 15-17 million Jews alive in the world in 1939, six million or about 40 percent, were annihilated. Counting only the Jews of Europe, the percentage is about 65 percent. In Lithuania, Poland, and Holland the percentages were 95-96, 92, and 80 respectively. When we contrast this with other tragedies such as the estimated 20 million Soviet citizens between 1929 and 1939 who died in Stalinist Russia, and the 34 to 62 million killed during the Chinese civil war of the 1930s and 1940s when Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-tung fought for control of China, we see that the rate of death surpasses the Holocaust by a factor of at least 3. But these people died under far different circumstances which are not comparable to those of the Holocaust.10
When Joseph Stalin killed millions of his fellow citizens, he did not murder all of the individuals of any one group. Among his many targets were individual academics, aristocrats, party and military officials, peasants, Ukrainians, and Jews who resisted his efforts to modernize and revolutionize the Soviet Union. His assault on the kulaks was intended primarily to force them onto collective farms as part of the collectivization of agriculture rather than to kill them. Stalin wanted to industrialize the country in the shortest period of time and to force collectivization upon the peasants. If this meant that millions of people would die in the process, that was the price the nation had to pay. In the Chinese civil war, the numbers include military and civilian casualties, but there was no genocidal intent.11
If we are to learn from history, we must be concerned about objective truth, with transmitting what actually transpired and not allowing those with their own particular agenda to obscure our understanding of what occurred. Every atrocity, every injustice in contemporary society does not have to be a Holocaust for it to be worthy of our deep concern and response.
The Holocaust has become the event by which we measure all other atrocities. Why? Because for the first time in history we have an entire group - the Jews - where every man, woman, and child was intentionally singled out by a state for total destruction. This has never happened before either to Jews or to any other group. Previously, Jews could convert to Christianity, flee for their lives, or remain in their cities and towns, hoping to prevail by using survival techniques that had sustained them throughout much of Jewish history.12 Once the Nazi regime decided to annihilate the Jewish people, these were no longer alternatives
When we refer to the Holocaust, we mean the systematic bureaucratically administered destruction by the Nazis and their collaborators of six million Jews during the Second World War people found "guilty" only because they were viewed inaccurately as a race. The Nazi state orchestrated the attempted mass murder of every person with at least three Jewish grandparents.13
Every primary social, religious, and political institution in Germany was involved in the process of destruction. This included the bureaucrats who were all too often more concerned with their own careers than with the plight of those they were sending off to be killed. Others involved in this system were the lawyers who enacted legislation depriving German Jews of their civil and property rights; the judges who ensured that these laws were binding, the military and the police who enforced these and other regulations and orders against the Jews, the railroad workers who transported the Jews to their death, the intellectuals, teachers, and scientists who gave legitimacy to the pseudoscientific theories serving as the foundation of Nazi ideology and practice, the students who rarely challenged their teachers and professors, the architects and engineers who designed and built the extermination camps, the physicians who were involved in the euthanasia program and later conducted medical experiments on human beings, the physicians who failed to speak out against these inhuman practices; the business community which supported Hitler once they recognized the huge profits that Jewish slave labor could provide, and the churches that were generally passive, or, if they protested, did so on behalf of Jews who had converted to Christianity - but rarely protested on behalf of the Jews in general-and did not see their speaking out as a moral imperative regardless of what the consequences might be.
The Nazis also annihilated a minimum of 300,000 Gypsies and many thousands of others: the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, socialists, communists, trade unionists, and political and religious dissidents.
None of these groups, however, were the primary target of the Nazis-not the mentally disabled, who were killed in the euthanasia centers in Germany (here it is to be noted that the Nazis did not export this program to the civilian populations outside the Reich); not the homosexuals, who were regarded as social deviants but for whom the Nazis did not have a consistent policy (homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich and in areas annexed to it but not in countries the Germans occupied); not the Gypsies, who were partly seen as "asocial" aliens and Aryans within society and therefore did not have to be annihilated completely; and not the Jehovah's Witnesses, who had refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and who declined to serve in the German army, but who were not marked for extinction; in fact, only a small number were incarcerated in the camps, and most of them were German nationals. The Nazis also did not single out every socialist, communist, trade unionist, or dissident-just those they perceived as a threat to the Reich. The Jews alone were the primary target of the Nazis.14
Why the Jews? To the Nazis, they were a satanic force that supposedly ruled the world through their control of Wall Street and the communist regime in the Soviet Union. A sophisticated individual would probably have recognized the inconsistency of this logic as well as the false assertion that Jews are a separate race. Yet, however simplistic, for the common German, and later for the rest of Europe, this absurd claim served as a useful rationalization. Sadly, there are people throughout the world who still subscribe to this and like myths.
Believing in all sorts of pseudoscientific and racial nonsense, the Nazis saw the Jews as a cancer, a dangerous virus, a bacillus that, if left unchecked, would allow the Jews to dominate the world completely.15 In 1942, Hitler told Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, that
Hitler believed that the Jews, through miscegenation, were race polluters whose aim was to obliterate the white race:
Failure to confront the Jew would spell disaster for the human race, Hitler thought, as the following excerpt from Mein Kampf shows:
In other words, as Steven Katz has noted, the
Those who understood national socialism as "nothing more than a political movement," Hitler rightly observed
This abiding obsession with destroying the Jewish people can also be seen in Hitler's Political Testament. In his last communication with the German people, written on April 29, 1945, at 4 a.m. just before he and his mistress Eva Braun committed suicide, Hitler declared that
No longer did the Jews have the option to convert to Christianity and escape being killed. As long as the Nazis viewed them a separate race, the Jews were destined for extinction. Nothing the Jews could do would change that.
When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, they did so not only for political and strategic reasons but also for the eradication of their mortal enemy-the Jews.23 They pursued this ideological war even when it meant diverting resources from their troops at the front. When the need for trains to transport soldiers and supplies conflicted with the requirement to transport Jews to the extermination camps, both received equal consideration. In June 1942, the Germans were preparing a new summer offensive in southern Russia, to which they were committing all of their 266 reserve divisions on the Eastern front. In preparation for the attack, a two-week ban on civilian traffic had been declared. After Wilhelm Kruger, Himmler's top agent in Poland, objected to the head of the railroad authority about this arrangement, they reached an agreement whereby some civilian transports would be permitted during this period. Himmler felt this was inadequate, so he intervened, leaving no doubt that regardless of the military needs the "Jewish problem" was still of the highest priority. As a result, from July 22 a train containing 5,000 Jews left Warsaw for Treblinka each day. In addition, twice a week a train containing 5,000 Jews from Przemysl left for Belzec.24
During the following winter, the position of the German military began to deteriorate. The German troops who were besieging Stalingrad had been surrounded by the Red Army. To break through the Russian lines, the Germans sent in a fresh Panzer division in mid-December. At the same time, the Germans imposed a one-month ban on civilian railroad transport beginning on December 15, 1942. Even after the ban ended, the disaster at Stalingrad required extensive rail transport. But Himmler again intervened, this time on January 20, 1943, to ensure that trains were available for moving Jews to the extermination camps.
From February 1943, trains were used to deport Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz and from the Bialystock ghetto to Treblinka. By March, Jews from all over Europe were being transported to their death. In July 1944, when the Germans were evacuating Greece and needed all available rail transport, the deportation of the Jews remained on schedule.25
What the Nazis had planned for the other nations that came under their control is not clear, in part because the Nazi leadership held differing attitudes towards them. What we do know is that the Jews alone were marked for total annihilation. Those Gypsies who were considered racially pure-that is, Aryans were for the most part spared in Germany even if they were "asocials"; those who were viewed as racially impure criminals were not. Gypsies were condemned to a "selective mass murder on a vast scale.26
The Slavic peoples were viewed as subhumans but were still regarded on a higher level than the Jews. Members of the Polish intelligentsia and the Polish Catholic priests in western Poland were selected for eradication because, as leaders, they posed a potential threat to German political domination. The rest of the Slavic community was to be subjugated and kept as a permanent underclass as slaves. Their cultural, religious, and educational institutions were to be destroyed; even so, they would be kept alive to help build the new Reich. Since the western nations were viewed as Aryans, only those of mixed blood were considered for extermination.27
The Jews, during World War II, were the first victims of an all-out attempt at the physical annihilation of a people, but there is no guarantee that such an effort will not be repeated against some other group.
In a very real sense,
Our continued interest and fascination with the Nazi period should keep us vigilant.
The question remains, Has
I am indebted to Dr. Steven Katz for his invaluable insights in reviewing this essay.