The dangers of calling the Holocaust unique

Published: 1996-08-02

Last year at about this time, while much of the world was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, a young man named Bela Ewald Althans was sentenced by a Berlin court to three and a half years in jail for telling tourists at Auschwitz that the Holocaust was "a giant farce." To many Americans who read about the case, the verdict must have seemed shocking. After all, as recently as 1992, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that placing a burning cross on a black family's front lawn, while perhaps violating local ordinances against arson or criminal damage to property, could not be prosecuted as a hate crime: It was an act of constitutionally protected free expression.

The German court's ruling, however, was not an isolated act. In recent years France, Austria, and Canada also have sent people to prison for publicly asserting that the Holocaust did not happen. All of those countries have passed laws that penalize the propagation of such views, not only because such denial defames the dead, as Elie Wiesel has put it, but also because genocide concealed is genocide likely to recur.

Typically, those who claim that the Holocaust never happened do not deny that Jews died in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. What they maintain is that far fewer Jews died under Nazi rule than commonly believed, and that these Jews were not true victims of genocide-the purposeful annihilation of a group.

It needs to be said, and said plainly, that the factual basis for such claims is less than zero. Holocaust denial rests on a foundation of willful distortion and outright fabrication that is sunk deeply in the mire of anti-Semitism.

But what also needs to be saidand said just as plainly-is that the Holocaust is not the only genocide that has ever been carried out. And Holocaust deniers are not the only deniers of genocide among us. Those issues are at the heart of a controversy that erupted in May with the publication of a collection of essays (including one by me) titled Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives in Comparative Genocide (Westview Press).

In recent years, a number of people inside and outside of academe have begun using the same techniques employed by Holocaust deniers to assert their own claim that the agony endured by Jews under the Nazis was-and remains-historically unique. That is, they have attempted to make their case for the incomparability of Jewish torment by denying or trying to minimize the suffering of all other victims of genocide.

The most prominent such project is the multivolume The Holocaust in Historical Context (the first volume was published by Oxford University Press in 1994). Written by the Jewish-studies scholar Steven T. Katz (who also is a contributor to IS the Holocaust Unique?), its sole purpose is to show that all other mass killings in history pale by comparison with the annihilation of Europe's Jews during the Holocaust.

In fact, this claim is a demonstrably false and dangerous myth. Of course, in one way or another, all large-scale historical events are unique. But in terms of the major taxonomies used to analyze genocide, Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is far from unparalleled.

Compared with Jews in the Holocaust, for example, some groups have suffered greater numerical loss of life from genocide. The victims of the Spanish slaughter of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica in the 16th century numbered in the tens of millions. Stalin's deliberate "terror famine" of 1932-33 killed at least seven million Ukrainians. According to the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg's definitive accounting, the Nazis were responsible for killing 5.1 million Jews-a monstrous amount, but lower than the number destroyed in some other genocides.

Other groups also have suffered greater proportional loss of life from genocide than did the Jews under Hitler. The Nazis killed 60 to 65 per cent of Europe's Jews, compared with the destruction by the Spanish, British, and Americans of 95 per cent or more of numerous ethnically and culturally distinct peoples in North and South America from the 16th through the 19th centuries. To put this proportional difference in perspective, it is worth remembering that a 65-per-cent mortality rate means that one out of every three people survives; a 95per-cent death rate means that only one out of 20 remains alive.

Then there is the question of the speed of killing. Some who argue that the Jewish experience remains unique contend that more Jews were killed by the Nazis "per unit of time" than any other victims of deliberate mass violence. Not only is this criterion questionable-why, after all, should rapid mass killing be any worse than slow but sure destruction?-but it is also factually wrong. Stalin's slaughter of the Ukrainians was much faster than the Nazis' killing of the Jews. And in 1994, the Hutus in Rwanda killed as many as 850,000 Tutsi people in less than three months. This rate of mass murder was far more rapid than the killing during the Holocaust as a whole.

Finally, there is the question of intent. Whatever the claims of the Holocaust deniers, the famous Wannsee Protocol of January 1942, approved by top Nazi leaders, clearly demonstrates their desire to eliminate the Jews of Europe. But the Nazis similarly targeted the Gypsy people of Europe: Indeed, among people of mixed ancestry, Gypsies were far less likely than Jews to be able to escape death.

Among other instances of clear genocidal intent, the first Governor of the State of California openly urged his legislature in 1851 to wage war against the Indians of the region "until the Indian race becomes extinct." Before the decade was over, state troops and mercenaries had destroyed, with $1.5-million of assistance from the U. S. government, more than 60 per cent of California's remaining native people (the Spanish had already killed off 75 per cent of the original population).

Anti-Semitic deniers of the Holocaust also contend that most Jews died from disease or other "indirect" causes, such as starvation, falsely claiming that these deaths should not be listed as genocide. Sadly, writers seeking to establish the uniqueness of the Jewish experience by minimizing the horrors undergone by other victims of genocide now do the same thing. In The Holocaust in Historical Context, for example, Steven Katz describes the destruction of the Western Hemisphere's native peoples as "an unintended tragedy," because many of the deaths resulted from disease.

Of course, in all genocides-including the Holocaust-an enormous proportion of deaths invariably derives from causes other than straightforward killing. For example, according to Raul Hilberg, between June and November of 1942 more than half of the prisoners taken to all German concentration camps died of disease or starvation. Of the two million Jews who died outside the camps during the Holocaust, nearly half succumbed to what Mr. Hilberg describes as "ghettoization and general privation," a category that includes high levels of death from disease.

urely no one other than a rabid Holocaust denier would claim that those "indirect" killings were not a part of the Holocaust. In the same way, the massive number of deaths from disease, starvation, exposure, and exhaustion that characteristically are suffered by other victims of genocidal assault cannot morally be separated from the rest.

None of these challenges to the "uniqueness" argument minimizes or denies in any way the horrendous suffering of Jews in the Holocaust. But they do suggest why those who insist on the uniqueness of the Holocaust, when faced with the growing body of information that refutes their claim, increasingly have had to turn to the manipulation, fabrication, and misstatement of fact to advance their argument.

Under scrutiny, a revealing pattern emerges in much of the recent literature that denies the comparability of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide: The advocates of Holocaust uniqueness resort to many of the same assertions used by those who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. Over and over again, dubious massaging of the data leads one author after another to minimize drastically the death toll in other genocides; to claim that the deaths that did occur during those other "tragedies" were routine wartime casualties or the result of "natural causes" such as disease; to deny evidence of official intent to commit genocide.

But whereas Holocaust deniers are rightly seen as anti-Semitic crackpots, those who say the Holocaust was unique are regarded by many people as the bearers of truth. There are obvious political reasons why.

Contemporary scholarship on the case of Armenian genocide provides a glimpse of these reasons. From 1915 through 1923, between one-half and three-quarters of the Armenians in the collapsing Ottoman Empire-roughly one million to 1.5 million innocent people-were slaughtered by a government that had been taken over by xenophobic nationalists who considered the Armenians a dangerous religious minority.

Although debate continues as to the precise number of Armenians killed, no serious historian today questions the existence of the Armenian genocide. But the Republic of Turkey, which came into being in 1923 as the successor to the Ottoman Empire, officially denies that any such mass killing ever took place.

While it is not unusual for countries to deny the truth about their violent pasts, it might seem odd that Israel enthusiastically supports the Turkish government's position. Just last year, for example, the government of Israel banned from Israeli television a documentary on the Armenian genocide and quashed an effort by the Israeli Education Ministry to introduce the slaughter of the Armenians into highschool curricula. Moreover, on at least two occasions recently, Israeli government officials and Jewish lobbyists in the United States have joined forces with Turkey in blocking U. S. proposals to commemorate the Armenian genocide.

Why would the descendants of those who died in one of the most monstrous genocides in human history be motivated to join in a genocide-denying propaganda effort on behalf of a country that is demonstrably guilty of genocide?

The answer is what the essayist Phillip Lopate calls "extermination pride . . a sort of privileged nation status in the moral honor roll." The Holocaust historian Zygmunt Bauman has noted that Israel uses the Holocaust "as the certificate of its political legitimacy, a safe-conduct pass for its past and future policies, and, above all, as the advance payment for the injustices it might itself commit." Doing so creates the need to play down other genocides. As one proponent of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, Edward Alexander, has put it, to describe as genocidal the ghastly agonies suffered by others-the Armenians, for instance-is "to plunder the moral capital" of the Jewish people. It is to "steal the Holocaust. "

In a classic case of quid pro quo, the Turkish government has demonstrated its gratitude for Israel's support in denying the Armenian genocide by declaring its agreement with Israel's claim of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. And in the middle of this cynical and dehumanizing reciprocation stand the pro-uniqueness writers, who have provided Turkey and Israel with their contrived intellectual support.

To be sure, those who maintain that the Holocaust was unique do not by any means represent the entirety of Jewish scholarship on the subject. On the contrary, dogmatic proponents of uniqueness are something of a cult within the world of genuine scholarship. Israel W. Charny, executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, describes them as self-appointed "high priests." He strongly objects to what he calls their "fetishistic" efforts to "establish the exclusive 'superiority' or unique form of any one genocide."

Yet in the public realm, Jewish suffering has attained what the religion scholar Richard L. Rubenstein calls "religio-mythic" status. Consider what the international outcry would be today, if reports surfaced of a massive deportation of thousands of Jews from Germany to Romania, where they were met with a nationwide campaign of terrorism, violence, and murder. But that is precisely what did happen recently-except the victims were Gypsies. No one has ever bestowed religio-mythic status upon their torment, and they have no political chips to play in the games of international power politics. Thus, no outcry has been heard over the brutality and persecution they continue to face throughout Europe.

Proponents of the uniqueness of the Holocaust not only do damage to historical truth, but in their determination to belittle all genocides other than the Holocaust, they are, in fact, accomplices in the efforts of numerous governments to conceal and deny their own pasts or to obscure current campaigns of mass violence, such as those in Guatemala (where more than 100,000 people have been slaughtered by the government in recent years) and in East Timor (where one-third of the indigenous population has been wiped out). What is true for the Jews is true for others, as well: Genocide concealed is genocide likely to recur.

This is not an academic game. Real people's lives are at stake. Horrendous as Jewish suffering in the Holocaust was, it is essential that false claims for its uniqueness not be permitted to denigrate the memory of other genocides-or to impede the desperately needed expansion of human-rights protections to other threatened peoples throughout the world today.

David E. Stannard is a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is the author of American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1992).

Copyright Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug 2, 1996

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Title: The dangers of calling the Holocaust unique
Summary: Those who say that Adolf Hitler's killing of the Jews was a unique event make future genocide more likely to occur. Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is far from being unparalleled.
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: Aug 2, 1996
Regular Price: $1.00
Subscriber's Price: Free (for the first 50 documents each month)
Document Size: Medium (3 to 7 pages)
Document ID: ZZ19980114020141438
Subject(s): Nazi era; Jews; Human rights; Genocide; Atrocities
Citation Information: ISSN: 0009-5982; Vol. 42 No. 47; p. B1
Author(s): David E Stannard
Document Type: Article

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Author(s): David E Stannard
Title: The dangers of calling the Holocaust unique
Sources: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 42 No. 47; p. B1
Published: 1996-08-02
First posted on CODOH: July 31, 1996, 7 p.m.
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