The uniqueness of the Holocaust

Published: 1996-01-01

I. Introduction

Was the Holocaust a unique event in history? The question can be trivialized. Every event is unique in the sense of being nonidentical with any other event. Yet the question, and the debate around it, are not trivial. The question is whether there is an important distinctive feature of the Holocaust that makes it unique.[1] We believe that the answer is Yes. We also believe that the distinctive feature of the Holocaust in human experience has eluded many of those who took part in the debate. This is what we shall argue.

Uniqueness has several possible meanings: among others it can mean incomparable or it may mean unprecedented. The alleged incomparability of the Holocaust assumes that the Holocaust cannot be compared either to past or to future events. This view, which makes the Holocaust into an event that will always be unique, has served as a trigger for mystifying the Holocaust, for transforming the Holocaust into the focus for a new civil religion. For a Jewish consciousness in search of a metaphysical interpretation of history, of a sense of identity that is not anchored only in empirical history, the Holocaust serves as a new ineffability. It replaces God's election of His chosen people by another unworldly presence in history.

In contrast, the notion that the Holocaust is unique because it is unprecedented has triggered a different reaction based on a comparison of brutality in different places at different times. Some Germans view the Holocaust as a statistical deviation in the graph of human cruelty, extreme, to be sure, but not unprecedented.[2] Construing the uniqueness of the Holocaust as meaning that it was unprecedented suggests that even if the Holocaust may have been unprecedented, new brutalities in the future may relegate the Holocaust to being merely the first instance of a new form of social behavior.

We take exception to both views, to a Holocaust-centered secular theology and to the normalization (Normalisierung) implicit in a comparative statistics of cruelty. In this article, we will seek to understand the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a human experience, one which escapes theological or statistical characterization. Both the interpretations of uniqueness as incomparable and as unprecedented focus on the scale of the atrocity, and not on the special quality of the experience.

What is unique about the Holocaust is its particular fusion of collective humiliation and mass destruction. In the liquidation of large groups of people, there is a tension between humiliation and death. Perpetrators will seek to inflict either the one or the other. Stalin aimed to destroy the class enemy, while Mao's cultural revolution sought its humiliation. For ideological reasons, the Nazis sought both the humiliation and the death of the race enemy. Since the Nazis had a unique racial conception of their Jewish enemies as questionably human, they devised a unique fusion of humiliation and death in order to destroy them.

II. The Reaction to the Holocaust

Intense interest in the Holocaust has grown dramatically during the last fifty years. But different groups have grown more interested in the Holocaust for different reasons. Jews have discussed the Holocaust in order to cope with their trauma, perhaps in the dubious hope that retaining the memory of the Holocaust may help prevent future atrocities. Germans have discussed the Holocaust in order to rehabilitate their relation to the past. Yet for others, the Holocaust has mainly served as a symbol of the limit-case of the human condition. These explanations for the growing interest in the Holocaust are anchored in the period after 1945. This emphasis on the Holocaust's postwar reception has been intensified by two features. First, in 1945 the Holocaust was viewed as relatively marginal in comparison to the war itself. The shift of interest from the war to the Holocaust seems to have taken place afterwards. Second, while many atrocities have taken place since World War II, none has drawn the same interest. Though it is clear that the significance of the Holocaust cannot be explained merely in terms of its reception, nonetheless many analyses have taken postwar atrocities as their starting-point for confronting the Holocaust. Because the reaction to the Holocaust has been so dramatic, some have emphasized the uniqueness of the reaction to the Holocaust as an essential component of its uniqueness.[3] In Jesus' time, many others were crucified, but the reaction to Jesus' crucifixion was definitely unique irrespective of the question of whether the crucifixion itself was unique.

Indeed, in 1945 the Holocaust appeared to many people to be a very sad but minor event. At Nuremberg, the Holocaust was only one issue among others. The prosecution devised the Nuremberg trials as a forum for condemning Germany for waging World War II; only during the trial did the enormity of the Holocaust fitfully begin to penetrate the consciousness of those gathered in the courtroom.[4] For most people at the time, the fact that the Germans started this second war was their great sin.

After World War I, even many non-Germans had adopted the German view that the allies were as guilty for the war as the Germans.[5] The politics of appeasement in the 1930s could be explained in part by the widespread acceptance among the Allies of the idea that some injustice had been rendered Germany at Versailles. For many Germans, any injustice that they inflicted in World War II was no more than a compensatory injustice for the injustice of World War I. Many Germans would later argue that the subsequent emphasis placed on the Holocaust was merely an additional stick with which to beat the Germans. Immediately after World War II, since most people still interpreted World War II in the context of World War I, they did not want to use this stick at all.[6] The Holocaust slowly turned into a central event of World War II during the 1950s and 1960s, when the specter of World War I began to fade from memory.

While this first reception of the Holocaust placed it firmly on the other side of the historical abyss of 1945, the relocation of the Holocaust in the frame of contemporary atrocities detached it from its time and inserted it into the postwar world. In our century, as throughout history, many other atrocities have taken place. In some of them, more people were killed (Stalin's forced collectivization). In others, the brutality on display has been no less (Pol Pot's Cambodia). And some even meet the criteria for genocide, the murder of a people (the Armenians). Moreover, some have been not much less successful than the German murder of the Jews (Timor).

The question of the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust has two aspects. First, why is the Holocaust viewed as the preeminent atrocity in human history? Second, is this attribution of historical uniqueness a consequence of something about the Holocaust itself? It may be that the Holocaust is not unique, but that the reaction to it is unique, and it may be that this reaction is unique because the Holocaust is unique, and it may be that both the Holocaust and the reaction to it are independently unique.

III. The Uniqueness of the Event

The uniqueness of the Holocaust as an historical event is an assumption shared by many historians. Thus the German historian Eberhard Jackel has dubbed the Holocaust "a historical singularity,"[7] by which he presumably means that in history as in gravitation theory "laws" do not hold in cases of singularity. On this account, historians cannot use their normal kinds of explanations when it comes to the Holocaust. This anomaly by itself does not exempt scholars from giving an account of the Holocaust. What it means is that such an account cannot be a normal account. It may even require higher standards of scholarship. There is a difference between claiming that uniqueness cannot be explained and requiring an explanation for uniqueness.

Another claim for the Holocaust's uniqueness is its unprecedented application of technology to death. In the Holocaust an industrialization of killing took place. There are two major reasons why this metaphor of industrial death cannot by itself explain the uniqueness. First, this metaphor diverts attention from the motives to the act. We believe on the contrary that the meaning of the Nazi industrialization of death reveals the inseparability of the method of killing from the motives. If the motives are ignored, then the industrialization of death is merely an efficient method. Second, this focus on the killing process suggests that the Holocaust is unique only in relation to what took place in history before it, and not in relation to subsequent events. When the Holocaust will be viewed from a future perspective, it may then appear to be quite normal, because this may by then have become the way of dealing with unwanted populations. There is nothing unique about industrialization, nor about the application of industrial methods to death (cattle). At best, there may be something special about the application of industrial death to humans. But then the Germans insisted that Jews are not human beings.

It has been argued that the Germans did not really believe in their ideology, that at bottom they knew that they were doing wrong, and that the ideology was no more than a fig leaf for an action that they wanted to do anyway. Certainly a cursory overview of the biographies of Germans who worked in death camps shows that many of them were not gut antisemites, and that the motives for volunteering for this kind of service were sometimes as banal as the desire to avoid service at the front.[8] Some people volunteered to be part of a murder machine in order to escape a higher risk of death.

On the other hand, this does not explain the enthusiasm with which the Einsatzgruppen carried out their tasks, nor the extreme effort made at every point to funnel deporting convoys of Jews to the killing centers, sometimes just a few hours before retreating from a given location. Why did they carry out the killing of Jews with such zest if not out of ideological conviction?[9]

IV. Exclusion from the Human Race

It may be better to begin to explore this question from the point of view of the Nazi account of what it means to be human rather than from their account of what it means to be Jewish. Our point is that even if the Nazis did not always believe in race theory wholeheartedly, they still denied the shared humanity of humankind.

Much has been made of the Nazis' necessity to exclude the Jews from the human race, but not enough. The Nazis did indeed seek to exclude the Jews from the human race, and not merely from the German people. However, the Nazis also insisted that there is no human race, i.e., that humanity is not one race. The Nazis viewed the Jews through the lenses of two different kinds of race theory.[10] One kind of racism is the racism that asserts that certain varieties (races) are inferior to other varieties of the same species. This kind of racism does not deny the idea of a common humanity, since it views all varieties as belonging to the same species, but it finds one kind of human superior to another, and so relativizes the ethical obligations that we presumably share toward fellows. The other kind of racism denies the idea that humans belong to a common species. There are different races in the same way as there are different kinds of animals. This kinds of racism asserts that Jews are not merely an inferior race, but a different animal altogether, and that therefore they should be treated in the way that one treats other animals. Nazi biologism confounded these two kinds of racism in a particularly virulent fashion, for the lesson that the Nazis imbibed from the theory of evolution was that the boundaries of genus and species are not fixed, that humans may well be on the way to becoming something else. However, this possibility of becoming something other than human can mean either becoming something better or becoming something worse. The Nazis viewed the Jews as the paradigmatic example of a degenerative evolution, one that would eventually lead to the extinction of their race.

Over time, Nazi ideology moved from the first kind of racism, the racism of inferior varieties, to the second kind of racism, the racism of exclusion from the human race. The SS discouraged the infliction of excessive cruelty on Jews because it viewed them as a species fated to die. The less the Jews were human, the less point there was in humiliating them. Yet despite this desire for clean destruction, the entire record of German behavior in the extermination process shows that the Germans could not rid themselves of the constant process of humiliating the Jews. The reasons for this impossibility are basic: You cannot kill people without killing people. Some aspect of humiliation will always inhere to the process of killing people. If there is any positive lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust, it is that the Nazi project was self-defeating. By inflicting humiliation, the perpetrators acknowledged their victims' humanity, and in a way that is the victims' ultimate bitter victory. The contradiction in Nazi doctrine between the desire to exclude the Jews from the most universal category, humanity, and the very denial of the existence of that category forced the Nazis to adopt two different "logics." When Nazism articulated its "positive" doctrine of Aryan race superiority, it used only notions of races and nations and denied any idea of a universal humanity. But when it criticized contemporary ideologies such as Marxism, it used their universal terms. One secret of Nazism's appeal was this fusion of a sham Enlightenment universalism with a racial self-affirmation.

The Nazis applied this dichotomy between the universal and the particular to the Jews in a perverse way. Namely, they claimed that the idea of one human race is a Jewish invention, part of the insidious and corrupting Jewish campaign for equality. The world could only be fooled into extending equality to the Jews by being intoxicated with the false idea of a universal humanity.

For this Jewish invention of humanity, the Jews should be punished. And they should be punished with their own logic. The Jews' Enlightenment ideology of universalism will be applied to them in an extremely negative fashion, namely by excluding them from something to which they believed they belonged.

One unique aspect of the Holocaust is then the application of universalistic categories to the extermination of a race. One may argue that negative universalism has a parallel in the Marxist-Leninist application of universalistic categories to exclude class enemies. However, there is a crucial difference: Marxist-Leninists viewed class as an historical phenomenon that will disappear, and not as a natural kind. For them, there does exist a universal class, the proletariat, whose historical role is beneficent, and others may in principle join it. In contrast, Nazi ideology emphasized the particularity of race as well as the ubiquity of races.

There are no individuals who do not belong to a race. Yet there is no universal race. Even the Germans do not constitute a universal race: each race is special. History for the Nazis is always race history; hence the Jews' role in history is antihistorical; they represent a threat to the possibility of a future race history because they advocated an illusory universal race. They corrupt the superior races by sapping their vitality with their universalistic ideological teeth.

This explanation of the uniqueness of the Holocaust emphasizes the German attitude to the Holocaust rather than the process of extermination. It goes against much German self-understanding after the war, for which the method of destruction was not normal, but the alleged German attitude of apathy was "normal." Germans claimed that they were normal people in abnormal circumstances. Yet if "normal" Germans created these abnormal circumstances, either as instigators or as enthusiastic supporters, then we must question the meaning of normality used here. German society was not an apathetic society subjected to an intimidating reign of terror.

V. Humiliation

We have discussed why the Nazi theory was particular, but we wish to argue that the way this theory functioned in practice also shows signs of this abnormality. Here we apply the concept of humiliation developed by Avishai Margalit in The Decent Society.[11] In that book, a decent society is one in which institutions do not humiliate. A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate each other and those who depend on them. Nazi society was clearly neither decent nor civilized. The sense of humiliation that is defined in this book is a very strong sense, namely rejection from the human commonwealth. Treating humans as animals, as machines, as numbers, as demons, are ways of humiliation. They are manifested to a large extent in symbolic gestures such as forcing Jews to wear yellow stars, shaving their heads, and reducing them to statistics by tattooing numbers on their arms. The symbolic gestures of humiliation are culture-dependent, but the sense of rejection from a common humanity is universal.

Both the humiliation that is inherent in killing and the humiliation that stops short of elimination share the denial of a common humanity, but the act of killing, while more extreme, obscures its inherent humiliation, whereas humiliation without killing, by keeping its victims alive, highlights the humiliation through the living paradox of members of a human community who are excluded from it.

It has become a cliche that the Germans sought to dehumanize the Jews before killing them. Indeed they often sought to get the Jews to admit that they, as inhuman beings, deserved to die-a strange analogy to the Inquisition's demand that its victims confess their sins before being burned. But the Inquisition did not torture its victims in order to humiliate them. On the contrary, the Inquisition's official ideology claimed that it desired to save the souls of the condemned before their death. The motif of enforced confession was the torturer's recognition of his victim's humanity. The purpose of the attempt to convince the Jews of their own inhumanity was rather to supply the Nazis with additional proof of the truth of their assertion of the Jews' inhumanity rather than asserting a common humanity through suffering, as in the Christian case. In this way, the Germans sought to justify themselves in their own eyes, whereas the Inquisitors sought their victims' recognition of an alleged higher justice. The Nazi and the Inquisitor both persecuted Jews, but the meaning of their persecution is very different. That you die does not vitiate the question of how you die; it does matter how you die. How you die is not just a question of the mode of dying, but also of the nexus of attitudes of killers and victims.

Humiliation requires the imposition of a collaboration between the perpetrator and the victim. The victim should recognize that his tormentor is expelling him from the human commonwealth. Thus "normal" humiliation requires the continued existence of a victim as someone who can recognize the fact that he is being humiliated. While there is a destructive element in humiliation, there is a tension between humiliation and destruction, for humiliation seeks to destroy some part of the humiliated person without destroying that person. When the victim is destroyed, there is no one left who can recognize himself as having been humiliated. Thus keeping the victim of humiliation alive leaves open the possibilities of sadistic enjoyment or of canceling the humiliation of the victim through atonement or retribution.

Destroying the humiliated victim closes these possibilities. It does cancel the victim's previous humiliation, but only by imposing a final humiliation, inherent in the imposition of unwanted death. But the motive for killing the victim is not the need to erase an earlier humiliation. Indeed, the Nazis sought to preserve the humiliation of the Jews beyond their destruction through creating institutions that would preserve a memory of the Jews. Yet the contradiction between the humiliation of degradation and the humiliation of death is insurmountable; death may be implicit in humiliation, but humiliation cannot persist without a victim. This contradiction surfaces even when the ultimate consequence is not death, when death remains only a possibility implicit in the act of humiliation.[12] Seen this way, the dialectic of humiliation and destruction is akin to the dialectic of master and slave. The master wants total control over the slave, but he also wants recognition from the slave that he is the master. But total control destroys the slave as a possible recognizing agent and makes him a mere tool.

Our point is that many people have been exterminated throughout history, and many people have been humiliated throughout history, but it is exceedingly rare and maybe unique that a group of people has been both systematically humiliated and systematically killed. The combination of humiliation and destruction helps explain the perverse fascination with the Holocaust, which partly resembles the fascination with the combination of rape and murder.

The Germans wanted the Jews to scrape German streets before they killed them. In this way, they sought to emphasize the difference of their eventual collective death over the common identity that death imposes on us all. The idea that we are individuated by our expectation of death is Heidegger's. When this kind of attitude is applied to the interpretation of collective existence, it creates a different collective death for different groups, e.g. sacrifice in war versus collective gassing. In this way, the establishment of a racial difference is a deprivation of individuality. Yet the demarcation of racial difference also involves singling out a given population. Collective deindividuation thus contains an internal tension. Any population that is singled out acquires, by virtue of being singled out, a greater individuality both in its own eyes and in the eyes of its tormentors. The purpose of condemning such a population to a different collective death, then, is the destruction of the individuality that has first been acquired through humiliation. The tormentor seeks to overcome this tension, between the victim's loss of identity through humiliation on the one hand, and his or her gaining an identity as a victim by virtue of that very act of humiliation on the other. The tormentor destroys the victim only to discover that by this murder a link is forged between the victim's new identity as a victim and his or her previous identity as a nonhumiliated individual.

Traditional cultures often viewed death as inherently possessing dignity; victims could negate their humiliation through death. The Nazis sought to kill their victims in such a way that this dignity of death would be denied them. However, their victims, both in their own eyes and in those of the postwar world, reacquired their dignity through their death. If the victims cannot be further humiliated through imposing a humiliating death on them, then that very quest for demeaning the victim has instead the potential of contaminating the killer. Getting the victims to admit their own inhumanity was also an attempt to prevent self-contamination through the killing act, yet needing that admission from the victims was an admission of their humanity.

It is very important to note that the Nazis were very aware of the possibility of contamination by their murderous acts. The stain of humiliating the victim might spread to the perpetrator. Like some rapist who may seek to eliminate his victim so as not to be tainted by his rape, the Nazis sought the elimination of the Jews in order to exorcise their own self-humiliation. Humiliation was not merely an instrumental act intended to secure the acquiescence of traditionally anti-Semitic masses to the Nazi death-machine; it was an essential component in the construction of Nazi identity.[13]

In a Christian society self-abasement or self-humiliation is often conceived as a positive virtue. There is a vast difference between the humiliation of others and self-humiliation. The humiliation of others is intended to establish a gap between oneself and others, whereas selfhumiliation is intended to establish a common humanity with others. The Nazi solution to their problem of self-humiliation was an ultimate rejection of the Christian practice of humility.

VI. Transporting the Victims

Such a fear of self-humiliation may also help explain why unique procedures were adopted for killing the Jews. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault described how punishment was open and public until the eighteenth century, and enclosed and isolated thereafter.[14] The Germans rarely killed in the streets, but rather transported the Jews before killing them. In this way, they were following a "normal modern practice" and were not unique at all. But their practice of deportation was so extreme that the act of deportation is one of our basic synecdoches (part for whole) for imagining the Holocaust. Wars had always been accompanied by atrocities committed on site; besieged cities knew well the fate awaiting them should the invaders succeed. However, it had always been rare in war to take people elsewhere to be killed. For over three years, the Nazis transported Jews across Europe for the single purpose of murdering them. Both Raul Hilberg and Claude Lanzmann have fastened on the motif of trains carrying victims.[15] The underlying point is the notion that the killing process would be dissociated both from the living spaces of the perpetrators and also from the living spaces of the victims.

Perhaps the underlying cause is the one already mentioned: the fear of self-humiliation. Not that concentration camp guards had any such fears; they would perform any action including that of bodily functions in the presence of Jews, since Jews no longer counted. But the idea of deportation was meant precisely to sever the normal nexus between death and place, between perpetrator and victim, and it is this dissociation between the killer and the victim which is so striking. It is striking because it would at first appear that this idea of dissociation, evidenced in the relatively few Germans working in extermination camps, contradicts the notion of humiliating the victims. How can one both remove perpetrators from their victims and at the same time humiliate the victims? These procedures are meant to exorcise and insulate the perpetrators from the danger of self-humiliation: the victims are first humiliated, only then are the perpetrators protected from "contamination" by their victims. Once the perpetrators have been cleansed, care must be taken that they not be reinfected. Assigning Jews as concentration camp "Kapos" and selecting killing-squads from those intended for destruction are all meant to sterilize the Germans from the pollution of their own actions.

The language we are using itself shows the uniqueness of discussion about the Holocaust. This rhetorical uniqueness has two components. First, it is a consequence of the Nazis' biologism, a mode of thought that has been common since Social Darwinism, but has never been applied with such rigor as the basis for extermination except in the Holocaust. However, this biologism appears so fantastic because of its application to other humans rather than to other species of animals. Consequently, the Nazis had to transform the Jews from human into another species, i.e. to dehumanize them. It was not that easy to dehumanize the Jews because the Jews were less different in appearance from Germans than, say, Africans or Orientals. The Jews thus posed the possibility of causing Germans to see themselves. That possibility could only be effectively canceled through humiliating the Jews. Humiliating the Jews took the form of changing their appearance through measures such as shaving their heads and starving them so that they would look emaciated, and then very unlike Germans or "normal" human beings.

Humiliating others has traditionally involved the perpetrator in a primary relation with his victim. The Nazis sought to humiliate the Jews while remaining detached. This need for detachment stemmed from both their fear of contamination and also their fear of self-humiliation. Himmler, when he addressed a gathering of officers involved in the extermination of Jews, told them that their great triumph was that they had remained "anstandig" or decent.[16] He presumably meant that they had successfully remained remarkably detached from what they were doing, and consequently had remained free of contamination and self-humiliation. In this way, the Nazis created a new way of humiliating people.

VII. The Nazi Notion of Death

The idea of detached humiliation is related to the Nazis' attitude toward death. After all, the Nazis believed that heroic death is the only death that is meaningful. A humiliated death was meant as its contrast. Heroic death implies a strong relation of cause and effect between the heroic act and the death of the actor. The Nazi concept of humiliated death was designed to sever the relation between act and death: Unlike victims in traditional wars, the Nazis' victims were not even perceived as the victims of retribution. Even at Lidice, which was a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis were concerned to cut the tie between cause and effect by selecting a village for liquidation that was utterly unrelated to Heydrich's assassination. The Germans behaved as if they arrogated to themselves a kind of arbitrary cosmic power, and made their actions appear as a kind of inscrutable cosmic dispensation. The Nazis could truly not be predicted in their brutality, and this made them even more terrible. Again we face a contradiction, for on the one hand, we are maintaining that there was a great element of unpredictability in Nazi behavior, and on the other hand their behavior toward Jews, once activated, was predictable; killing the Jews was a logical consequence of Nazi ideology. Because of the tension between humiliation and destruction, Jews in Europe regularly misunderstood the scope of Nazi intentions. Jews constantly (mis)interpreted Nazi actions as extreme forms of humiliation including some degree of mass killing but not total destruction. The Nazis encouraged this misunderstanding. The usual account of this Nazi camouflage of their intention is that it made their job easier. That is certainly true, but there were other motives. The Nazis sought inscrutability for its own, cosmically omnipotent sense. Playing evil gods, they were seeking to create a different civilization embedded in a different cosmic order. The Jews were not the Nazis' only victims. The Nazis had plans for other peoples, and began to apply their program to the Poles by liquidating the Polish elites. Gypsies and homosexuals also figured high on their list. And the whole process was given a trial run in the partial extermination of the mentally retarded. Nonetheless, it has been the extermination of the Jews that has caught the postwar collective imagination, and not these other exterminations. The Nazis, as evidenced in their ideology, reserved a special place for the Jews. What all these groups had in common was that they were judged by the Nazis to be unfit to live. However, the mentally retarded who were murdered through Operation Euthanasia were not humiliated. Nor were the Gypsies, who were also the victims of planned extermination, humiliated in an elaborate structure of humiliation like the one the Nazis created for the Jews.[17] Homosexuals were humiliated, and they were placed in camps, but they were not systematically exterminated.[18] In other words, while the Nazis viewed all these groups as biologically defective, and therefore unfit to live, the Jews were more than just unfit to live. The Nazis' self-image was not threatened by the Gypsies or the mentally retarded. It was, however, by the homosexuals. They knew all too well that there were homosexual SS officers. From the Nazi point of view, the homosexuals were closer to being self and further away from being other than the Jews. The mentally unfit were still further away. In the graph of unfitness, the Jews occupied the precise place at which humiliation and extermination intersected. As the war drew to a close, the Nazis both pursued their genocide with ever-greater zeal and sought to hide their murders from posterity. But from their point of view the murder of the Jews should have been received as an heroic act of epic proportions. They did not believe, however, that their heroism would be appreciated by future generations: they would have to conceal their heroic crime, heroic because it successfully humiliated and destroyed the Jews while leaving the Germans undefiled.

VIII. Negative Myth

Not only was the Holocaust unique, so was its reception. The Nazis could not foresee the emergence of the Holocaust as a negative myth of origin for the postwar world. A myth of origin is a story that people tell about where they came from and how the situation in which they live was created; it serves as a general framework for the interpretation of the world. Such a story may be true (the Founding Fathers), but we call it a myth because it serves a mythic function in society. A myth of origin is usually positive: like the story of Adam and Eve, it can even reveal the common humanity of all peoples. It should be emphasized that this mythic function is not a fictional one. When we call the Holocaust a myth, we do not mean that it did not take place or that the actual event was somehow different from the one we know. Calling the function of the Holocaust in the postwar world a myth of origin means that we view the Holocaust as both a caesura that separates us from the pre-Holocaust past and as the point in time and place at which the world of our values has originated. It requires little acuity to ascertain that the Holocaust has become a universal symbol in our culture, that many other events are constantly being compared to it.[19]

A negative myth of origin, in contrast to a positive one, means a myth that takes the moment of creation as a moment of chaos and destruction, and contrasts our order or disorder to that originary moment of chaos and destruction rather than to any well-ordered process of creation or stabilizing harmony. The Holocaust has become such a foundational moment. The current infatuation with the idea of historical discontinuity draws much of its emotional appeal from the perception of the Holocaust as a radical break. World War II as a whole is less effective than the Holocaust in securing conviction in the primacy of historical discontinuity over continuity.

A negative myth of origin such as the Holocaust infuses the entire culture with a degree of nihilism, for it contains an intuition as to how fragile and tentative our culture is. Other cultures have sensed their own evanescence, but they contrasted their fragility in time to some idea of permanent being. In the modern period, the lack of a sense of eternal being has been compensated for by assigning a sense of permanence to historical progress. Progress is viewed as opening the way to the future. But our culture, unsure about historical progress, yet incapable of providing itself with a new foundation, views its temporary achievements in contrast to the alternative that there could be nothing at all. It has a basic nihilistic intuition of permanent nothingness, of a world without human beings. After World War II, a strong case could have been made for a triumphalist liberalism. The awareness of what happened in the Holocaust has undermined the notion of historical progress inherent in liberalism. The Nazis have posed before all of us the possibility that the idea of a universal humanity is not an unquestioned and fundamental given. Remembering the Holocaust thus confronts us with the tension between our obligation to affirm our common humanity and our unsureness about it. Certainly those who wish to emphasize the uniqueness of the Holocaust because it happened to the Jews have a hard time using the Holocaust to affirm our common humanity. Here we have taken a different tack: the Holocaust is not unique because it happened to the Jews, but because it was the expression of a unique world-view, that of the Nazis. Many Germans understand this very well. The effect of the Holocaust has been to render German history into a unique pariah history for the foreseeable future, while the Holocaust's discernible effect on the postwar status of the Jews has been to make their membership in a common humanity an unquestionable axiom.

IX. The Uniqueness of Memory and Negation

The Holocaust has become the focal point for the current discussion about memory; how the past should be remembered, how the past should be commemorated, and what should be the relations between memory and history. We should like to single out the relation the Holocaust has created between memory and negation, between memory and its absence. The Holocaust defines this relation between memory and absence for our culture.

In 1937 The Nazis mounted an exhibition of so-called degenerate art (Entartete Kunst), in which they brought together premier examples of modern art. The point of the exhibition was to show this art's fundamental degeneracy. At one stage, they even considered placing museum directors and artists next to the works so that the public could spit at them.[20] The Nazis understood that the museum is a central forum of public display, and they sought to use it for public humiliation.

The Nazis collected Jewish memorabilia. They planned to create a museum of an extinct race, as they called it, so that posterity could view what the Jews had been.[21] They also collected Jewish skulls and preserved Jewish bodies, so that the evidence of Jewish racial inferiority would survive the destruction of the Jews.[22] The humiliation of the Jews would survive their destruction. Here again we see the uniqueness of the Jews in the Nazi world-view: The other extinctions were not coupled with a plan for "preserving" the humiliation of the victims in museums and anthropological collections. One would be permitted to remember the Jews and their humiliation in their extinct form. James Young, in The Texture of Memory, describes a postwar German monument to the Holocaust that was periodically lowered into the ground until it vanished, in this way commemorating vanished victims of the Nazis.[23] If we compare these two ideas, the Nazi museum and the postwar German monument, we see that the postwar German monument has reversed the relations between remembering and forgetting that were the preconditions for the planned museum. The postwar disappearing monument memorializes the vanished victims by a denial of the possibility of encasing them in a monument or museum that presumes the notion of preservation, because the Nazis perversely linked preservation to extinction. Since the Holocaust, the focus of memory has been the process of the extermination of the Jews rather than the content of the life that was destroyed. This focus on the process of how people are made to vanish has become a distinctive feature of postwar conceptions of what memory is.

X. Conclusion

The argument concerning the uniqueness of the Holocaust could be framed in three different ways: one could argue that the Germans are unique, that the Jews are unique, or that the process was unique. In this paper, we have argued that the Jews were much less unique than the Germans, and that the uniqueness of the process of extermination derived from the uniqueness of the German attitude both to the Jews and to the way in which they would get rid of them. The Germans were unique enough because, more radically than anyone else in the last several millennia, they denied the idea of a common humanity both theoretically and practically. They embodied this denial of humanity in the way in which they fused humiliation and extermination in their ridding the world of the Jews. These unique aspects of the Holocaust have proved central for postwar culture in two ways. First, the Holocaust has become a constitutive story, a point of historical beginning. Second, after the Holocaust history is viewed as radically discontinuous. Memory has the distinct and new role of preserving the sense of this discontinuity.


Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (New American Library: New York, 1987), pp. 18-25. Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, vol. 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 27-63.
For the notorious Historikerstreitsee: Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit. Ein polemischer Essay zum "Historikerstreit" (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1988). Also: Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).
The abundant literature on the special problems of the transmission of the Holocaust into a future collective memory all point in this direction. Notable collections of essays: Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution," ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992); Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, ed. Peter Hayes (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991); Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 199l).
Bradley E Smith, Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg (New York: New American Library, 1977), pp. 88-89.
Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War I (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967).
At Nuremberg, the standards by which German actions were evaluated stemmed from the Hague Rules (1907), the Covenant of the League of Nations (19), and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928). The primary criminal act was waging war. Bradley E Smith, Reaching Judgment, p. 17.
One of the authors (Gabriel Motzkin) heard him discuss this term at a conference in Jerusalem in i986. See also: Eberhard Jackel, Hitlers Herrschaft (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1986) p. 132. Also: Wehler, Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit, p. 100
Complex and different attitudes are shown in the documents collected in: "The Good Old Days": The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, ed. Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Riess, trans. Deborah Burnstone (New York: The Free Press, 1991). Original German edition: "Schone Zeiten" (Hamburg: S. Fischer Verlag, 1988).
It could also be argued that the Nazis viewed the extermination of the lews as a desirable goal, without necessarily believing in the ideology. Certainly this position, which is based on the Edna Ullmann-Margalit and Avishai Margalit's distinction between holding true and holding as true, between acting as if something were true, and really believing in it, would help explain the sudden collapse of the ideology after the war (Edna UllmannMargalit and Avishai Margalit, "Holding True and Holding as True," Synthese, 1992). Very few Nazis actually defended the extermination of the Jews after the war. However, this illuminating distinction does not vitiate the difference drawn in the text between acting out of either obedience to orders or opportunism and acting from conviction. It rather explains why some convictions disappear together with their historical context, and others do not.
Nazi race theory was never very clear. See: K. Saller, Die Rassenlehre des Nationalsozialismus in Wissenschaft und Propaganda (Darmstadt: Progress-Verlag, 1961), p. 33: "Es ist einigermagen schwierig, Ober die Kardinalbegriffe von Volk und Rasse aus dem nationalsozialistischen Schriftum ganz klare Vorstellungen zu gewinnen." See also: Peter Weingart, Jdrgen Kroll, and Kurt Bayerz, Geschichte der Eugenik und Rassenhygiene in Deutschland (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988).
Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 6).
"Poor settler: here is his contradiction naked, shorn of its trappings. He ought to kill those he plunders, as they say djinns do. Now, this is not possible, because he must exploit them as well. Because he can't carry massacre on to genocide, and slavery to animal-like degradation." Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), trans. Constance Farrington, p. 16.
While we generally agree with Berel Lang, Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, iggo), we do not believe that the inherent tension between humiliation and death can be resolved through an instrumental interpretation of humiliation as dehumanization (p. 21). Humiliation was a central motif of the Nazi view of humanity in general.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, ), trans. Allan Sheridan. Original French edition: Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)
Raul Hilberg, Sonderzage nach Auschwitz (Mainz: Dumjahn, 1981), trans. Gisela Schleicher from unpubl. English manuscript entitled: "The Role of the German Railroads in the Destruction of the Jews." Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust (New York: Pantheon, 1985).
Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (London: Collins, 1986), p. 615.
The Gypsies were also subjected to unimaginable medical experiments. Benno Muller-Hill, Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others, Germany, 1933-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), trans. George R. Fraser, pp. 58-62, esp. p. 71. Orig. German edition: Tödliche Wissenschaft (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1984).
Homosexuals were also subjected to medical experiments. Homosexualitat in der NS-Zeit. Dokumente einer Diskriminierung und Verfolgung, hrsg. Gunter Grau (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1993), pp. 345-58.
Such a use of the Holocaust as a universal symbol, however, eventually undermines its uniqueness. Comparing everything to the Holocaust makes the Holocaust look like everything else
Peter Adam, The Arts of the Third Reich (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992), p. 124.
The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections, ed. David Altschuler (New York: Summit Books, 1983), pp. 24-37.
Leon Poliakov and Joseph Wulf, Das Dritte Reich und die Juden. Dokumente und Aufsatze. 2d Edition (Berlin-Grunewald: Arani Verlags-GmbH, 1955), pp. 378-80. On the preservation of Jewish bodies: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: New Viewpoints, 1973), p. 6o9.
James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 30-37. See also: Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen "The Monument Vanishes. A Conversation with Esther and Jochen Gerz," in: The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History (Munich and New York: Prestel and The Jewish Museum, New York, 1994), ed. James E. Young, pp. 69-75.

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Title: The uniqueness of the Holocaust
Summary: Marglit and Motzkin discuss the uniqueness of the Holocaust. They argue that what is unique about the Holocaust is its particular fusion of collective humiliation and mass destruction.
Source: Philosophy and Public Affairs
Date: Winter 1996
Regular Price: $1.00
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Document Size: Long (8 to 25 pages)
Document ID: ZZ19971224100175785
Subject(s): Philosophy; Nazi era; Concentration camps; Atrocities
Citation Information: ISSN: 0048-3915; Vol. 25 No. 1; p. 65
Author(s): Avishai; Motzkin Margalit, Gabriel
Document Type: Article

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Author(s): Motzkin Avishai , Gabriel Margalit
Title: The uniqueness of the Holocaust
Sources: Philosophy and Public Affairs, Winter 1996, Vol. 25 No. 1; p. 65
Published: 1996-01-01
First posted on CODOH: Jan. 30, 1996, 6 p.m.
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