My friend Patrick, who blogs at The Paragraph Farmer, tackles a very difficult question in today’s American Spectator: Why, in a world that daily reminds us of man’s inhumanity to man, does the Holocaust still stands as the ne plus ultra of the human ability to kill? It’s a thoughtful article, and one I urge you to read. In addition to the points Patrick made, I want to add a few things that make the Holocaust unique amongst the atrocities man has always been capable of visiting against his fellow man. In no particular order:
1. Culture. One of the things that made the Holocaust particularly horrible was the culture from which it sprang. In the annals of Western Civilization, Germany had ascended to the highest peak: it’s art, literature, music and science were the envy of the world. That this culture, this culture of all cultures, could do what it did spells out something particularly horrible about the human capacity for evil. We expect “less civilized” cultures to commit atrocities because we can then distance ourselves from those acts. When a culture to which we compare ourselves or to which we aspire commits those same atrocities, it reminds us that none of us are safe from the evil that lurks within us.
2. Science and method. Consistent with it’s sophisticated culture, the Germans engaged in murder with a single minded scientific fervor that’s never been equaled. Other cultures engage in mass slaughter in a blunt, almost animalistic way, crudely starving or executing those under their aegis (I’m thinking Communists here, both Soviet and Asian, or the machetes of the Hutus). The Germans, however, engaged in mass death scientifically, working their way through a variety of methods until they found the most efficient way to kill the most people — and then carefully, scientifically recorded their work with detailed records, including the names of most of their victims. They also enshrined their “scientific” progress with boastful photographs. Those same photos reveal another side of the Holocaust, which is that the Germans reveled in killing. While the Communists as part of their grand socialization plans managed to starve millions and millions of people in Russia, China and Cambodia, they didn’t have people gleefully skinning their victims to make lamp shades, or subjecting them to gruesome scientific experiences as part of the “fun of it all.”
3. Geography. Patrick makes a point about localization, namely that the German nation was one killer, and it’s easy to identify and blame one killer, while Communism, an ideology, kills all over. This is a good point, but I think there’s a different localization point to be made, and that is the fact that Germans went beyond their locality, not in pursuit of a political ideology, a la the Communists, put in pursuit of their genocidal killing strategy. All other mass murders have been aimed at people within the killing culture. Hutus killed their resident Tutsis, Turks their resident Armenians, Serbs their resident Bosnians, Light skinned Muslim Sudanese their resident Christians and dark skinned Muslims, Communists of whatever nation killed “state enemies” within their own borders, and so on and so on. Only the Nazis went on an actual hunt for their victims, trolling through country after country to gather and destroy them. This too makes the Nazis different from any other mass murderers in world history.
4. Deniability or the lack thereof. Most other mass murderers engage in the “deny, deny, deny” approach to mass murder. As I noted above, the Germans were incredibly proud of what they were doing, and carefully documented everything. The insanity of the Holocaust deniers aside, there is too much evidence for there ever to be plausible deniability.
5. The nature of the victims. The Jews are the people of the Book. They are verbal people. In other, non-literate or less literate cultures, the stories of the horrors visited on them quickly devolve into little more than an oral myth, that has no traction. Jews, by talking, by writing books, etc., keep the story alive.
6. There were witnesses. As Patrick pointed out, the hardened Patton was vomiting with the horror of what he saw. Americans walked into those camps and came out telling the stories. Communist victims just vanished within the maw of communist countries. Today, in Africa, while reporters and NGOs may venture in, there is no big war, that ends with a big discovery. Those poor dead just dribble way, vanishing into the soil beneath them.
7. Israel. Unlike other survivors of mass slaughter who eventually merge into other cultures, taking their memories with them, the Jews have Israel. Israel, of course, was a community long before the war, but it came into being as a nation in part because of the world’s response to the Holocaust. I have long thought that Europe’s burgeoning anti-Israeli sentiment has its roots in the fact that Israel is a living reproach to Europe, and the Europeans feel better about themselves if they can denigrate Israel: “See, the Jews are no better than we are.” With this psychological need to make themselves feel better, it doesn’t matter to them that the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, a very complex situation indeed, is entirely different from that of Jews on the receiving end of the Nazis single-minded focus on mass race slaughter.
8. Guilt. Past genocides mostly took place at times when, sadly, the world hadn’t yet developed the moral capacity to care. For example, the killing and marginalization of the Native Americans occurred during a time when the whole Western World didn’t have much of a problem with taking land from indigenous people or “killing them before they kill us.” Likewise, slavery, that other famous form of Western, and especially American, oppression, had been a fixture in the world since time immemorial. Indeed, there is still slavery all over the Muslim world. Also, Americans engaged in that mass act of self-sacrifice known as the Civil War in part to purge themselves of slavery. In this they differed from the Nazis who did not use War to purify themselves of a moral evil but, instead, used war to embrace that evil. And the sad fact is that the morally developed Western World knew what was going on: It knew in 1933 when Hitler started enacting the race laws. It knew in 1938 with Kristallnacht. It knew when panicked Jews began banging on Western doors begging for escape. It knew when reports started circulating (only to be quashed by the Times), that in all countries the Nazis entered, Jews were being slaughtered in situ, or being rounded up and transported to death camps. The world knew and it closed its eyes and plugged its ears. There are still people living who knew what was going on or who should have known, and who did nothing. They are a reminder to us of the power of passivity, not for good but for evil.
9. Jews a perpetual victims. This is a point Patrick made in his article, but I think it deserves repeating here. The Holocaust hits us in the face because, at the time, it seemed to be the culmination of centuries of persecution. Even as Western Christians finally seemed to be shaking off the yoke of anti-Semitism, the Russians began engaging in it wholeheartedly, not so much as a religious imperative but more as a cultural imperative. That too seemed to be dying away (thanks, in significant part, to the safety valve of America), only to have the Holocaust come along, bringing anti-Semitism to a ferocious height no one in the past could have imagined. That should have been the end of it all, but it isn’t. The Arab world, which enthusiastically supported Hitler, is making the same noises again that Hitler did then, is killing people because they are Jews, and is talking about annihilation, just as Hitler talked and then attempted. The Holocaust won’t go away because very evil people keep making sure it sticks around.
Those are my nine ideas about the Holocaust’s preeminence, despite the fact that both the 20th and (so far) the 21st Century have seen other, and even bigger, acts of mass slaughter. If you have anything to add, please do so. I know that you, my readers, will keep any comments on this sensitive subject polite and thoughtful.