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Is the Holocaust Unique?

Choeung Ek, near Phnom Phen, Cambodia, is the best-known site of the Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime killed thousands of civilians from 1975 to 1979. Transformed from a mass gravesite into a public memorial, Choeung Ek houses hundreds of human skulls and is still littered with bone fragments. It also features an English-language sign declaring, among other things, that the Cambodian genocide “was more cruel than the genocidal act committed by the Hitler Fascists [sic].” When she visited Choeung Ek in 2006, my friend was offended by the sign’s minimization of the Holocaust. Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, she said, while two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge. It was no contest.

Avraham Burg would have none of my friend’s thinking. A former speaker of the Knesset and leader of the World Zionist Organization, Burg argues against the uniqueness of the Shoah in The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes. The book was controversial when released in Israel in 2007 as Defeating Hitler–Burg was called a hero by some and an anti-Semite by others. Newly translated and released in the U.S., The Holocaust is Over makes many contentious arguments. But perhaps none is as emotionally charged and confrontational as Burg’s thoughts on the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is ours, and all other killings in the world are common evils, not holocausts,” he writes. “For us, the Shoah is unique in the history of the world. It is the logical climatic outcome of anti-Semitism. We have never sought to view our Shoah as an event in the historical continuum of others…For the non-Jew, the Shoah is a chapter among chapters, a trauma among the other European traumas. It resides in history alongside Napoleon, Versailles, Lenin, Spain, World War I and the divided Germany after World War II…Life in the shadow of trauma does not allow room for a bigger picture to emerge—that of the universal context of hatred and its origins, of dictatorship and tyranny, of the history of genocide, not just the Jewish genocide.”

Burg’s argument is not quite novel. In 1986, several German historians asserted that the Holocaust was unexceptional; Hitler had merely replicated Stalin’s massacre of 14.5 million kulaks (class enemies). Their arguments scandalized the Germany intelligentsia, who concluded after years of debate that the dangers of forgetting the Holocaust far outweighed those of remembering it as unique.

But Burg’s contentions are noteworthy because of his prominent standing in Israel. Never before has such a high-ranking politician and thinker made these arguments. Burg’s remarks are a sign, or perhaps a harbinger, that the Holocaust’s hallowed place in Jewish life is being questioned.

Part of me instinctively recoils from Berg’s argument, and finds it not just untrue but deeply offensive. The Holocaust is unique, I think. It is not just another of the massacres that have demolished peoples throughout history. To label the Shoah as similar to other genocides seems to deprive it of its power and horror. It seems even to blaspheme the victims, whose tragedy has been documented and lamented in unprecedented numbers of films, books and museums. If the Holocaust is in fact not unique, its distinctive place in Western memory becomes not only superfluous, but downright unwarranted and even unjust. The problem with denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust, I am afraid, is that rationalizes or normalizes the Shoah.

Certainly a good case can be made for the Holocaust’s singularity. For one thing, there was the staggering number of Jews killed. Scholars are unsure about the exact number, but it’s somewhere between five and six million. Six million has been the popular estimate for years—Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel in 1962 opened with the Attorney General of Jerusalem dramatically declaring that he was not the sole prosecutor because “with me are six million accusers.” But scholars are actually divided about the sum. The historian Raul Hilberg estimates the number at 5.1 million. Hilberg’s assessment is thought to be on the conservative side, however, with British historian Martin Gilbert going with 5.75 million, and Jacob Leschinsky arguing for 5.95 million. Yad Veshem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, is probably most accurate when it concedes that “there is no precise figure.” In any case, the number is staggering, and between 5-6 million Jews.

Compare the Holocaust’s amount to the genocide in Rwanda, where the number of massacred is estimated at between 750,000 and one million. Or Cambodia, where 1.7 million were slaughtered. 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Turks from 1915 to 1923, and thousands of Muslims were killed in the Yugoslav Wars. The Holocaust dwarfs all of those.

The problem with this numbers game is that it limits comparisons to only modern genocides. And while “the word is new, the concept is old,” as the philosopher Leo Kuper memorably put it. Genocide dates back at least to the Third Punic War (149-46 BCE), when Romans killed an estimated 150,000 Carthaginians, more than one-third of the population. Since then, dozens of genocides—maybe even hundreds—have taken place. If all of them are included, the Holocaust loses its exceptionalism.

In terms of numbers, the largest number of killed people might be in the indigenous populations in the Americas. Historian David Stannard argues that 100 million died in the “Euro-American genocidal war.” Recent books like 1491 and Respect for the Ancestors affirm that thriving pre-Colombian cultures were wiped out by the arrival of the Europeans.

Stannard’s ideas are widely disputed, however. Genocide, according to the United Nations Convention that bears its name, must include the intent to destroy a people. Most scholars of the subject believe the intentions of Europeans and Americans to be more complicated, with many desiring subjugation, not extermination, of the indigenous populations. Moreover, since few records were kept and many natives perished from diseases, it is impossible to identify the exact number of slaughtered indigenous Americans. If Stannard’s numbers are even partially correct, however, the slaughter of the indigenous Americans would dwarf the Holocaust.

But maybe the Holocaust’s recency is exactly what makes it unique. The Holocaust took place in an era when much of the world thought exterminating entire peoples was barbaric. Unlike the Europeans’ massacres in the Americas, Nazi treatment of Jews aroused fierce condemnation from around the world (though not, of course, intervention), because it was believed to be below the standard of civilized behavior. Germany itself had been a central player in the development of civilization, as leaders in the arts, technology, intellectual developments, and political and social spheres. “[H]istorians have generally been overwhelmed by the spectacle of a nation once thought to be among the most “civilized” destroying one of the most “civilized” of peoples,” as historian Istvan Deak writes.

Other reasons have been provided for the Holocaust’s uniqueness. The modern character of it has been evoked repeatedly since 1945. It was the event when industrialization was first married to barbaric ends, the genocidal equivalent of World War One. Others mention the illogical, fantastical nature of Nazi hatred of the Jews, or the totality of The Final Solution. “This was not a byproduct of war, not casualties as a result of skirmishes or partisan activities, but the end-result of an ideology,” CUNY professor John A. Drobnicki argues. One of the foremost defenders of the uniqueness mantle, Cornell University professor Steven Katz, wrote that “never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people…Only in the case of Jewry under the Third Reich was such all-inclusive, noncompromising [sic], unmitigated murder intended.”

And yet, I can’t help but think these explanations somewhat arbitrary. Why should victim-number and killing methods be the sole criteria for uniqueness? After all, other genocides also have distinctive characteristics. In the Rwandan genocide, for example, Hutus killed thousands of Tutsis with the full knowledge of the international community at the time. The West had a clear, relatively painless opportunity to prevent thousands of deaths—UNAMIR General Romeo Dallaire said 5500 troops would do the job—and chose not to. Never before had genocide been so brazenly and openly perpetrated. Moreover, the instruments of death in Rwanda were machetes and rifles—even though the murders occurred in the post-industrial era of mass technology. In direct contrast to the Holocaust, the killing methods in Rwanda are unique precisely because of their primitivism. Should Rwanda not be a candidate for uniqueness on this basis?

The problem may lie with the vagueness of the concept of uniqueness. Each genocide is in some ways unique and in other ways not. The question then becomes, as one scholar put it, is the Holocaust uniquely unique? Is it more different than other atrocities? Is it exceptional, the same question journalist Ron Rosenbaum has asked about Hitler’s evil?

Ultimately, I think, deciding on that is impossible. It requires measuring immeasurables. What counts for more: numbers of killed, or method of killing? Do the horrors of the death camps outweigh the efficiency of 100 days in Rwanda? Does Zyklon B offset machetes? Answer these questions is not just distasteful, it is hopeless. Acts of cruelty cannot be quantified and appraised like baseball statistics. An accurate ranking of atrocities is unachievable. And the persistent attempts to claim the uniqueness mantle become a sort of atrocity competition. Some genocides are minimized to accentuate others; some crimes are downplayed while others are emphasized. If the Holocaust is uniquely unique, is it worse than other genocides? I find something more than a little disconcerting about that idea.

Memory is not motionless. In the first decades after World War II, Jews rarely mentioned the Holocaust. Desperate not to appear weak, determined to overcome their helplessness in history’s greatest war, there was a silent pact among Jews to avoid delving into the recent past. But the Eichmann Trial and the 1967 War, especially, changed all that. The Holocaust is now the most memorialized atrocity in history. Surely this is better than forgetting or ignoring it, and that will always be a danger. But fixating on the Shoah’s uniqueness brings dangers of its own for Jews. It can separate us from the rest of humanity, for whom the Holocaust is in a string of genocides that stain the 20th century. It can blind us to the suffering we cause others, in the Holy Land but also elsewhere. And, perhaps worst of all, declaring the Holocaust unique just might not be true. 

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