Many Jews have a strong negative reaction if people bring up other genocides in a discussion about the Holocaust.
This can lead to non-Jews getting a bad impression – they may think Jews are obsessed with the Holocaust, or that Jews are unable to see other people’s suffering as comparable to theirs.
That impression is not correct. The Jewish people are not out to try and win some kind of global suffering contest, claiming no one else’s suffering is like our suffering.
YET…there are things about the Holocaust that are unique. There are two questions I want to explore here:
- Is the Holocaust unique?
- If yes, does it matter to anyone other than Jews?
The answer to the first question is “yes.” There are definitely many things about the Holocaust that make it unique among the atrocities that man has committed against his fellow man. Here’s what makes the Holocaust different:
- Motivation. Pretty much all other “genocides” of the 20th century – and genocide is uniquely a modern phenomenon – had a “logical” motive. In some cases it was political power, as in Rwanda and Darfur. In some cases there was stupidity: Stalin’s motives that led to the deaths of 20 million people seem to be a combination of political power and foolish decisions, such as ones that led to the deaths of 8 million Soviet soldiers in World War II. The Jews were slaughtered for no reason other than being Jewish. It was not a means to an end: it was an end in and of itself.
- The history of the victims. The Holocaust was the culmination of many centuries of Anti-Semitism. Jews had been the victim of pogroms, inquisitions, and senseless slaying since the Middle Ages.
- Goal. Hitler’s declared goal was kill every single Jewish man, woman, and child on the planet. If Hitler won the war, no Jew anywhere in the world would have been safe. Other mass murders were “localized.” When Turks were slaughtering Armenians in Armenia, Armenians living in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, under Turkish rule, were in no danger.
- Who did the killing. In the early 20th century, Germany was held up as the peak of Western civilization. This was not a slaughter carried out by primitive people living in huts running around with machetes. This was wholesale slaughter carried out by the people who gave the world Wagner, Goethe, and Nietzsche. AND the people who did the actual killing were “ordinary” people, carrying out their grisly task as if it was just another job.
- How the killing was done. The Nazis set up “death factories,” places designed to murder people as efficiently as possible. It wasn’t just soldiers with guns, crazy people with machetes, or starvation and mistreatment. It was industrial scale brutality, guided by “scientific” considerations of how to murder people quickly.
- Scope. Hitler did succeed in exterminating 90% of the Jews in Europe – a level not matched anywhere else by anyone else – which was 1/3 of the Jews living in the entire world at the time. 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children.
The reason it matters – and not just to Jews, but to the entire world – is NOT because the suffering of the Jewish people was unique. To a family that has lost loved ones to senseless murder, the suffering is the same regardless of the bigger picture. The reason it matters is because of who did the killing: the fact that such atrocities were conducted with industrial efficiency by a people held up as “civilized” needs to be a warning to people the world over. People the world over need to be vigilant to prevent such a horror from ever happening again.
The Jewish rallying cry after the horrors of the Holocaust is “Never Again!” The State of Israel is something of a guarantee that such a thing will never again happen to the Jewish people – we can defend ourselves now. But that’s not enough: the moral lessons of the Holocaust must permeate society worldwide. Sadly, we say “never again,” yet mass slaughter HAS happened again, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Darfur, in Bosnia, and too much of the world has been willing to sit on the sidelines and let it happen. Countries go to war to defend their financial interests: we need to also be willing to go to war to stop the mass slaughter of innocent civilians.