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Human Rights

Philosophical Reflections on Genocide and the Claim About the Uniqueness of the Holocaust

Alan S. Rosenbaum
Cleveland State University

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Abstract: It has been argued, and not without emotional detachment, that the Holocaust is unlike other events in world and Jewish history (and I hope to explain that the sheer numbers who perished alone are not crucial to the distinction). Those who offer such arguments also claim that comparisons between events of ethnic cleansing, mass murder and other sorts of criminal behavior are not meant to purvey a kind of moral one-upmanship. The suffering and harm in one instance is as morally repugnant as those in any other instance, whether it is a Jewish child gassed and cremated by the Nazis, a black child lynched in the southern United States, an Armenian child deliberately poisoned in a Turkish hospital, a Ukrainian child starved to death in a Stalinist blockade, a Native American child shot to death by Conquistadors, a Rwandan child hacked to death, or a Bosnian child blown to pieces by a land mine or sniper.

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It has been argued, and not without emotional detachment, that the Holocaust is unlike other events in world and Jewish history (and as I hope to explain, the sheer numbers who perished alone are not crucial to the distinction). Those who offer such arguments also claim that comparisons between events of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and other sorts of criminal behavior are not meant to purvey a kind of moral one-upmanship because the suffering and harm in one instance is as morally repugnant as those in any other instance, whether it is a Jewish child gassed and cremated by the Nazis; a black child raped and lynched in the southern United States; an Armenian child deliberately poisoned in a Turkish hospital or drowned in the Black Sea; a Ukrainian child starved to death in a Stalinist blockade; a Native American child shot to death by Conquistadors; a Rwandan child hacked to death; or a Bosnian child blown to pieces by a land mine or by a sniper.

My purpose in personalizing the comparisons in this manner at the outset is to remind us of the only way to effectively counter the saying of Adolph Eichmann (the Nazi war criminal caught, convicted, and executed by the Israelis in the early 1960's): "One hundred dead is a calamity; one million killed is nothing but a statistic." With respect to genocide, we shall be referring hereafter to megadeaths. That stated, nonetheless, despite these outrageous but universal aspects which bind together these tragedies, in my view the time has come to fix the place of the Nazi-engineered Holocaust against the Jews, Gypsies, and millions of others so that it may be accurately integrated into the mainstream of recorded history. For it remains disturbingly obvious that the wide variety of radically different opinions may contribute unwittingly to the nihilistic impression that any one view is as valid or invalid as any other view. This outcome would be most unfortunate and should be rejected unequivocally.

To normalize the Holocaust is to recognize both its continuities and discontinuities with the past. It is not an attempt to marginalize or dilute its horror but rather to point out that a social phenomenon which is treated as external to history and literally beyond the reach of human understanding (which it may be to those who endured and survived its ravages) will undoubtedly be seen quite differently from the perspectives of future generations. Indeed, some theorists in the scholarly world are in the throes of a struggle to articulate the abiding significance of the Holocaust. The purpose of this struggle is to influence responsible opinion about this matter in the future now that the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the "largest Jewish cemetery in the world" and the worst of the Nazi's death camps, and the defeat of the Third Reich have passed. Unfortunately, this interpretive process of history has become burdened with serious impediments. The most critical problem concerns how best to characterize the Holocaust: Should it be regarded as a unique historical phenomenon?

If it is true that the Holocaust is genuinely and significantly unique and unprecedented, as a number of prominent scholars argue, questions arise about whether that perspective assures that future generations will better understand this historical phenomenon than would otherwise be so. Accordingly, we may ask: Is this claim about uniqueness historically inconsequential because it is an understandable expression of a generation of people who were in some way personally touched by the effects of World War II? Is it inevitable that, as many people today fear, the diminishing hold it has on our generation will gradually yield to a more generalized notion that the Holocaust was only one of the significant horrors of the Second World War and only one among a number of instances of genocide in the twentieth century? Are the authentic victims of the Holocaust and the proponents of the claim of its uniqueness ultimately asserting in this unusual mode of expression a fearful plea for remembrance, almost anticipating ignorance and indifference in the future, or is "the Holocaust, in all its unspeakable horror, insufficient to shatter optimism -- it is, as it were, a blip on the screen of cosmic time," as a prominent (Jewish) scholar asserted as perspective-giving? Will the current exercise in the "politics" of uniqueness be displaced by the sheer quantity and magnitude of atrocities that have occurred as they become better known (such as in Mao's China) and, unfortunately, will likely happen in the future? And, will the received concept of the Jewish-centeredness of the Holocaust be overwhelmed by the persistent cries of other aggrieved groups and by new evidence attesting to their own serious losses in the Holocaust?

In order to advance an argument for the uniqueness of any given genocide, a reasonable consensus ought to be reached among experts about the nature, meaning, and determinate boundaries of the discourse concerning genocide. For, if interpreted too broadly, the term will lose its force and value; and, if construed too narrowly, too many cases of mass death will receive no justiciable treatment by the international community, assuming that an international criminal court is in place to indict, prosecute, and punish genocidists once an operational mechanism can apprehend them for trial. In any case, a failure to adequately clarify and justify the standards of genocide will make the criminal classification and criminal justice process unevenly selective, arbitrary, or impossible.

The term "genocide," in the words of its originator in 1943, refers to "the criminal intent to destroy or to cripple permanently a human group. The acts are directed against groups as such, and individuals are selected for destruction only because they belong to these groups."

This usage is an elaboration of its Greek etymology: "genus," meaning "race" or "kind," and "cide," meaning "killing." These meanings, coupled with the Nuremberg Charter and the establishment of the International Military Tribunal for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, were the foremost influences on the United Nations' evolving legal definition in the "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" (1948). Since the Holocaust gave the main and final impetus to the international criminalization of genocide, it is not unexpected that the Holocaust would be generally regarded as the "worst case" paradigm of genocide, at least in modern history. Nevertheless, the term has evolved an expanded meaning in international law because it refers to such disparate cases as Rwanda and Bosnia.

Granted, history is a slaughter-bench, observed Hegel, the early nineteenth-century philosopher. In order to avoid the unseemly appearance of a competitive martyrdom in attributing a certain specialness to the Holocaust, a sound defense of this ascription must be marshaled by its proponents at the very least in the context of the relevant facts of this history. In this context, the term "Holocaust" usually refers to what the Nazis called the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," namely, the deliberate cold-blooded and government-directed systematic extermination of all Jewish people (n.b.: they succeeded in murdering at least six million people, including over one and one-half million children; this figure signifies that Jewish losses amounted to two-thirds of European Jewry). The Holocaust also encompasses the relentless persecution, enslavement, and murder of many millions more: Gypsies (or Roma), Poles, Slavs, gays, the mentally ill, the handicapped, and political dissidents. Of these non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, numbering some five and one-half million people, it is clear that the fate of the Roma, or Gypsies, is generally accepted as being nearest to that of the Jews in the Nazi vision of a future "world without Jews" and Judaism. Evidence of this is displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As a more complete record becomes known, it may well be that the Gypsies can no longer be assumed to share a relatively separate experience from the Jews under the Nazi regime. Therefore, some scholars assert that "uniqueness" must also be held to encompass the Gypsy genocide. In any case, the arguments marshaled in defense of the uniqueness of the Holocaust are almost never drawn on the basis of numbers of people killed alone because both Russia under Stalin and China under Mao had considerably larger numbers of people slain than did Germany under Hitler. Thus, the focus is usually placed on the Nazis' ideologically-motivated intent to exterminate wholly the seed of the Jewish people, all men, women, and children everywhere.

Philosophically one may argue the life-affirming proposition that no determinate group's suffering ought to be consigned to perpetual misconception, insignificance, invisibility, denial, or silence. For, if it could, the collective voice of every group would seek to have its anguished cries of suffering and pain both heard and accurately enshrined in history's Book of Life as a legacy of instruction about warning signs of a possible recurrence for future generations to heed. Inasmuch as this is the only way to rescue a historical reality such as the Holocaust from oblivion, in that history does not speak for itself because it is dead and silent and, in itself, teaches us nothing, great care and attention must be given to documentable specifics.

Therefore, I noted at the outset that any presumption about the uniqueness of the Holocaust may be entirely warranted provided that, upon proper scrutiny, it does not in any manner diminish or still the certain moral authority which must be accorded to other groups whose members have also been forced to endure unspeakable atrocities in their histories. On the other hand, an acknowledgment of the persecutions and mass deaths endured by members of other groups should not be construed as vitiating or denying, in the absence of honest and rational debate, the claim about the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

Too often, however, philosophical reflection or theoretical discussion about historically significant realities such as the Holocaust is sterile because it trades in some unnecessarily vacuous abstractions. These only serve to confuse, undermine, and prevent a full and accurate grasp of the realities in question. Typical of such dialogues, which are pointless because they arrest further constructive thought, is the tendency to attribute the occurrence of the Holocaust, or for that matter any act of violence, to "Man's inhumanity to Man" or to a presumed "evil or bestial human instinct." In other words, the Achilles' heel of instinct-based behavior is no more punishable than are other involuntary actions. Two other well-known approaches which yield a similar sterile outcome concern (1) a mystification which ensues from treating the Holocaust as essentially unthinkable owing to its extra-historical and profoundly idiosyncratic evil nature; and (2) a trivialization of its unprecedented character which accrues to the notion that the Holocaust, like all other socio-historical events, is unique. Recourse to such abstract universalisms fails to account for real event-specifics, like context, scope and dimension, intention, methods, opportunity, blame, and responsibility. Such usage obscures the genocidal realities, and, in any case, there is a rational and honest disagreement about a precise, adequate definition of "uniqueness" itself.

If the Holocaust is accepted as a watershed event in history and as a paradigmatic case on the continuum of genocide, it follows that other instances of mass death which are sufficiently similar in their cores would count as a "genocide" and its perpetrators clearly prosecutable for their offenses. Of course, the closer one case of carnage approximates another in its essentials, the less plausible it is to claim a non-trivial uniqueness for the one and not for the other, the net result being paradoxical: the cancellation of a predication of significant uniqueness.

On the other hand, if a given instance of mass death is seriously lacking in the essential characteristics of the Holocaust, it would seem that the warrant for its classification as genocide is increasingly indefensible. Ironically, the ad hoc tribunal for trying, for example, Rwandan genocidists would, then, lose its justification. This is so because obvious key dissimilarities exist between the Holocaust and the Rwandan 'killing fields.' The sting of the paradox is mitigated to some degree as we broaden the scope of genocide while we retain some of the defining elements of the Holocaust. In this sense, we may affirm some variations on a central theme of genocide without sacrificing its practical value altogether (e.g., the techno-industrial process of extermination in Nazi Germany and throughout the occupied territories is not comparable to the methodologies used in Rwanda and, yet, both are regarded as instances of genocide).

In other words, the Holocaust is not the only instance of genocide, nor is every calamity in history resulting in loss of human life to be subsumed as genocide. Of course, owing to the sanctity of life, any loss of human life is tragic; and a premeditated loss of life, especially in greater numbers, is even more tragic, due in no small measure to the presence of (the perpetrators') volition and deliberateness. Also, numbers of victims alone is a factor never determinative of genocide, contrary to the polemical flourishes of some demagogues, like Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, whose fiery words simply confuse the unwary listener and undervalue the historical significance of the Holocaust and other types of genocide by stressing solely the magnitude of putative casualties relative to their chosen calamity.

However, in view of the many different kinds of tragedies in history involving loss of human lives, to argue for the uniqueness of any one type of genocide, despite persuasive arguments for its historical accuracy, has invited an unseemly display of claims and counterclaims asserting the moral primacy of one genocide over another. For instance, one egregious example of this spasm of competitive victimization is the attempt by some authorities to downgrade a given genocide by assigning it a lesser category of importance, such as a "massacre," and so denying its pertinent similarities or underscoring or exaggerating its relevant differences.

As tragic and unwelcome, and as illegal and immoral, as the persecution and the cultural and physical extermination of any discernible group or people (or, for that matter, the killing of even a single human individual) is, some defensible and enduring distinctions must be made if we are to effectively criminalize, prosecute, and punish genocidists, which is the crucial normative endpoint of attempts at classifying the successful attempts at genocide. The question concerning whether to attribute a significant uniqueness to a given case of genocide is of value, not to diminish or still the voices of other aggrieved groups, but to provide some justifiable standards by which relatively dissimilar cases may be judged as genocide, and its perpetrators apprehended and prosecuted.

One particularly insidious and nasty current in this struggle has become a cottage industry whose practitioners have dedicated themselves to distortions and contrived falsifications of history in the form of "Holocaust denials." It is a reasonable, uncynical conjecture that this industry may be transitory, despite the fear, indignation, and outrage it currently provokes, because the testamentary evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming that it has become institutionalized (e.g., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) and readily accessible to the general public. In addition, timely and persuasive refutations of specific fraudulent claims by responsible scholars further disclose the Holocaust deniers' incredulity and antisemitic motivation.

Nevertheless, when these denials are considered in tandem with another set of recent tendencies to "normalize," historicize, relativize, marginalize, and trivialize the reality of the Holocaust, the debate seriously intensifies. In this sense, efforts to deny its uniqueness converge with attempts to deny its existence altogether. Again, the core issue in this debate is whether the Holocaust has a special or unique place on history's continuum of persecution, genocide, and mass death. It appears that prima facie it does, as we consider such factors together as the magnitude of murders, ideology, prior government planning and execution, utilizing centuries-old eliminationist antisemitism and the teaching of contempt, the entire social machinery at the State's disposal, including the involvement of the legal and medical professions, the major business and industrial enterprises, academic institutions, the military and police forces and the civil service, most religious organizations, all coupled with the widespread bureaucratization and techno-industrialization of the genocide, and the in-gathering by forced relocation from all occupied territories, as well as from Germany itself, mainly all Jewish people as declared enemies of the Reich, including one and one-half million children.

However, if such normative inferences about "uniqueness," like its paradigmatic character of genocide and evil, are to be warranted and enduring given the factors noted above, the Holocaust requires a rigorous, fact-based comparison to other historical instances of mass death with sufficiently relevant similarities.

There exists some question about why some people think that it is important to attribute a "uniqueness" to the Holocaust, or to mount a rebuttal to the attribution, given that there are a number of other historical events whose occurrence is patently "unique" in a nontrivial sense. For instance, no necessity seems to prompt those scholars who readily acknowledge a definite uniqueness to the nuclear devastation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two to engage a debate about its specialness, to challenge the ascription or, for that matter, to deny its existence. Of course, some dispute has surrounded the matter of the rationale behind the supposed military necessity to use the bombs (that is, in a nostalgic, backward-looking spirit, some Japanese politicians, not unlike some crafty and less-than-sincere Germans who appeal to the Allies' saturation bombing of the German city of Dresden as a moral equalizer, seek to cast Japan either as a co-sufferer or victim with equal moral standing alongside the true victims of Japanese militarism, such as the people of Nanking in the 1930's, or else as would-be liberators of Asia from western colonial domination, as justification for its attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941). Allied with the "rationalization of genocide" view is the relativistic notion of an historical balance to be drawn between the good and the evil Hitler's regime engendered, for he unified the Germans, defeated the communists, revitalized German patriotic passion, squashed parliamentary deficiencies, etc., like Mussolini's great success in Italy: he made the trains run on time. By drawing what amounts to a moral and political equation such as this really dilutes the horror of the Holocaust and lessens its historical significance.

The debate among mostly German historians involves the question of interpreting Germany's Nazi past and the evil criminality of the Holocaust in view of certain current political purposes. One such purpose seeks to provide a special conceptual historicist framework for understanding and evaluating the Holocaust by reference to Hitler's anti-Bolshevism and the proponents of this view regarding anti-Bolshevism of Hitler, and a general violent and unavoidable response to rapid industrialization (as equally important as, if not more important than, his antisemitism). Ernst Nolte, the German theorist, articulated this stratagem for minimizing Nazi genocide by attempting to rationalize and justify it. The problem with this approach concerns, among other things, an attempted justification for Nazi wrongdoing by casting aside moral and legal principles in order to serve preferred political ends, e.g., burying the past without really confronting it or downplaying the responsibility of the German nation today in view of its antisemitic and Nazi past. It is a transparent form of rationalizing evil at the very least by revitalizing its occurrence.

Another approach which politicizes history claims that what the Third Reich did in regard to the Holocaust is basically no different than what others have done in furthering their own national interests in war or peace, viz., destroying their enemies, with whatever means they have at their disposal. This view also seeks to normalize the Holocaust. Still others argue that the future cannot be faced squarely unless and until former adversaries reconcile and agree to leave behind their past war-time antagonisms. Accordingly, the event which triggered a bitter dispute world-wide was the President Reagan/Chancellor Kohl wreath-laying visit in 1985 to Germany's Bitburg cemetery, the burial ground for some German soldiers and Nazi SS criminals. A wave of indignation swept over those who felt that this ill-conceived political effort at reconciliation was at the expense of a fair and honest appraisal of Germany's responsibility for its Nazi past. On the other hand, many others embraced the notion that the demands of future international relations and affairs required leaving the past behind by unfettering Germany from the stultifying grip of its shameful and blameworthy past, i.e., from its moral and historical responsibility for the Holocaust. The political nature of continuing attempts to rehabilitate Germany by short-circuiting well-founded charges of culpability and responsibility, in a strategy designed to blunt criticism against Germany, was mentioned earlier when I noted the deliberate re-casting of the Allies' saturation bombing of Dresden as a victimization of Germany which assigns to it, so the expositors of this notion think, a standing worthy of equal moral consideration with the victims of German aggression. Analogously, I guess we seem to be awash in a tidal wave of abuse excuses where, like with oppressors, persecutors, and genocidists, criminal wrongdoers try to seize the mantle of victimhood, and thereby seek to inhabit the same sanctified moral space reserved for innocent, real victims. The reason that many victimizers masquerade as victims is to escape accountability and blame for their wrongful actions because victimhood places truly innocent victims beyond criticism. It confers a certain moral authority (parenthetically, we are made to endure such defenses as the "Twinkie Defense," the Black Rage defense, or "the Minister Made Me Do It" defense (brainwashing by anti-abortionists)). In any case, the true victims of suffering, persecution, and/or genocide are often made to endure unacceptably not only a rewrite and falsification of history, but also an outrageous convolution of moral status (where victimizers masquerade as victims). Therefore, I recommend vigilance and a rejection of such attempts political, moral, and legal by wrongdoers, whether nations or individuals, to evade responsibility for their wrongdoings.

Among the universal lessons which the study of the Holocaust aspires to teach involve above all else the honest consideration about how we ought to respond in the future when confronted with unqualified evil. If by "evil" is meant the use of a maleficent power to deliberately destroy the physical, cultural, or spiritual being of an individual human being or a people, then, in the wake of the Holocaust, we must forthrightly acknowledge its presence and resist a modern cultural and psychological bias to blur the distinction between good and evil and to find shades of gray where there are none. In the second place, our deepest sense of moral redemption demands unequivocal resistance to the workings of evil in any feasible manner; or, at the very least, to make the doers of evil accountable for their actions. Finally, the enduring significance implicit in sustained teaching or preaching of contempt and hatred for others who differ from ourselves, or, in a word, to satanize them simply because they are and not for what they may have done, we now know will lead under a conducive mix of circumstances to a policy of relentless persecution and even extermination.

In other words, it may be that philosopher George Santayana's trite admonition about remembering the past as a way of not condemning ourselves to repeating it might also occasion among future genocidists a recollection of barbaric Nazi methods for more efficiently destroying their designated enemies. So we must be ever vigilant about the warning signs of a possible turn towards genocide. In view of these lessons, it is only in these ways that we may salvage our humanity and reaffirm the fundamental values at the heart of our civilization: respect for individual human life, dignity, and freedom; for human rights; and for a just rule of law.

Unfortunately, the Rwandan, Bosnian, and Cambodian genocides demonstrate that vigilance alone is never sufficient to prevent nor stop genocide from occurring. In addition, collective or institutional amnesia after the fact does nothing to promote reconciliation or even forgiveness, if those are even possible. Finally, we must accept the idea that, no matter how painful, every aggrieved people is entitled to have its history publicly validated as a basis of its identity.

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