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I thought of including a discussion of whether the extermination of the European Jews should be considered unique, if so why and to what extent, and which other atrocities it can reasonably be compared to. But this is a controversial question which gives rise to heated emotions and I did not want to distract from the point of my diary, that is explaining which debates about the Holocaust are legitimate, which clearly aren't, and why the latter are tied to racism. (The note on survivor's stories was a bit of a digression but it somehow wrote itself so I decided to put it on at the end as a sort of extended footnote.)  Just to make things clear, this is my personal take on the question, not an expression of a strong consensus. Some specific details are, others far from it.

An incomplete list of atrocities that are arguably comparable to the Holocaust includes the fate of Native Americans in the US, Belgium's actions in the Congo, the Germans in Southwest Africa (present day Namibia), the extermination of the Roma during WWII, and the Rwandan genocide.  Those which aren't include what happened to the Poles during WWII, to the Ukrainians in the thirties, the Chinese at the hands of the Japanese or Mao, the Palestinians under the Israelis, the Bosnian Muslims under the Serbs, the Algerians during the Algerian War.

For American readers an analogy might be helpful. Occasionally one hears people complaining that one speaks too much about the discrimination against blacks in the Jim Crow South, and that one forgets that, say, the Jews and the Irish also suffered from pervasive discrimination. Of course they did, but to see it as being of a comparable level and nature to that of African Americans is ludicrous. On the other hand saying so about the Japanese and Chinese is arguable. However, arguable and comparable does not mean the same, and one could say that the differences were so large that it doesn't make sense to see the two as equivalent.

What characterizes the comparable genocides is systematic slaughter that either clearly aimed at total extermination (with at least a semi-credible effort to do so) or even if that aim wasn't clear it killed off at least a bare majority of the targeted group.  Thus regardless of whether or not Americans aimed to exterminate all Native Americans or simply aimed at ethnic cleansing, the result was that most Native Americans died. On the other hand, whatever the Nazis long term aims were, there was no policy of total extermination of Poles during WWII, but instead one of reducing them to a nation of slaves and the total death toll was on the order of ten percent.

In my opinion the best argument for the uniqueness of the extermination of the European Jews is its motivation, the methodology argument somehow strikes me as of minor importance. It was done on behalf of an ideology that didn't merely see them as subhuman, nor did it have practical aims such as getting territory. Rather it was carried out as the result of a metaphysical belief that a particular race was the mortal enemy of all mankind and that its extermination was necessary if humanity was to be saved. The best argument against its uniqueness is that regardless of motive, history has seen various examples of atrocities either aiming at or reaching close to total extermination and as a practical matter the details of the ideology that lies behind  such acts are secondary to what actually happened.  

by MarekNYC on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 02:58:03 PM EST
In my view, there is a uniqueness of the Holocaust, but not as a global quality, instead as one in 'Western' culture, in the self-image of 'Western' culture.

It was the height of barbarity in the middle of civilisation, using all the industrial efficiency of civilisation. Whereas colonial massacres (whether with industrial efficiency or not) were safely far away for 'Western' public consciousness to stay ignorant, and other massacres in the 'West' could be categorised as throwbacks to barbarity.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 03:20:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhabs a good comparison is with aerial bombing. In the European consciousness, Guernica is the archetype of the horror of 'fighting' against a civilian population from high above. However, in Guernica, the Nazis only applied a colonial method for thr firt time in Europe. It was pioneered in the North African colonies by the Spanish, Italian and French colonialists (and their ocassional US hired guns) before WWI, and  brought to its full bloom by the British Empire (under none other than WWII 'hero' "Bomber" Harris).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 03:26:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Then why does the firebombing of Dresden not occupy the same place in Western consciousness as the carpet bombing of Gernika?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:10:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why would it? Dresden was not a 'first'.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:17:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually I'm not sure it doesn't. In America the Dresden bombing is better known than Guernica, perhaps in part due to Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.  Dresden is far more part of the German consciousness than Guernica is, or for that matter the German destruction of various cities during WWII. In Poland Dresden is also better known than Guernica.  On the other hand it makes sense for Guernica to be a larger part of Spanish collective memory than Dresden - it was the Spanish who were its victims (or Basques I guess if one wishes to quibble)
by MarekNYC on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:19:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Regarding Gernika, it pissed me off to no end when a Basque nationalist leader whose father fought alongside Franco said something like "for us the bombs and for Madrid the paintings" in reference to the Gernika painting being in a Madrid museum, conveniently forgetting that Madrid endured almost 3 years of Franco's siege and aerial bombings.

The history of a people is too often just a list of grievances.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:27:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]

(Second from left)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:42:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, we all thought we were civilized 200 years ago too...

I think you hit it on the head: what seems to frighten us the most about the Holocaust was that it happened in 20th Century Europe, righ under our modern noses.  

Says more about how much we overestimate our supposed civility than the uniqueness of the Holocaust, I think.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:31:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, we all thought we were civilized 200 years ago too...

Do you mean the Napoleonic Wars? Methinks those were less terrible even compared to WWI. Same for the Seven Years' War. You'd have to go back to the Thirty Years' War. And that indeed is a good comparison: it brought a lot of changes.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:41:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Poemless, on second thought, I possibly misunderstood what you meant.

However, the Thirty Years' War comparison might still be worth to expound on. That war faced up Christian Europe with the ugliness of romanticised feudal wars and heroised religious wars. In this case, the source of ignorance was not so much the distance of colonies, but (a) the small circle of effect of previous wars and (b) the effectiveness of victors' writing of history. But the Thirty Years' War laid waste to a very large area, included even more countries among the warring parties, and ended in a stalemate. The results included the appearance of rules of war, the rise of diplomacy, the final break of the unity of the Church, thus the spread of secularism, and the rise of the Enlightement.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:53:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Was referring to The United States.  The Trail of Tears was in the early 1800's.  But to be fair, the killing off of Native Americas began as soon as Europeans set foot on the continent, 300 years earlier.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:53:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, that's what you meant. However, that was on the periphery of 'Western' civilisation, one of the many colonial crimes I referred to, which it was easy to ignore for the masses at the center.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:00:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What's the difference.

Between over 100,000 dead Iraqis and six million dead Jews?

Time? Body Count?

Where do you draw the border? Millions of dead Jews are more legitimate than millions of dead Native Americans? Because of time?

Why do MY people and MY history have to be buried?

Because of... time?

The Normans killed the Saxons and the who killed the Picts in return for killing the Celts.

Atlantic Free Press

by ghandi (expatforums@gmail.com) on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:52:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Are you responding to DoDo?  I'm in agreement with you.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:55:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No one spoke of this or that being more legitimate.

In fact, we were speaking about the very same hypocrisy you protest against. Please read it back.

The Normans killed the Saxons and the who killed the Picts in return for killing the Celts.

Well, neither of those were genocides (nowhere near what was done to Native Americans), as today's English people's DNA shows. But even if true, the modern Western sense of 'civilisation' is of something after the Dark Ages, thus yes time is a factor.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:57:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What's the difference.

Between over 100,000 dead Iraqis and six million dead Jews?

Where do you draw the line?  Does the sentence "What's the difference between three thousand dead New Yorkers and millions of dead Native Americans" strike you as a reasonable statement? If not then again I ask, where should the line be drawn?

You might also notice that I explicitly included the extermination of Native Americans as one of those cases where one can sensibly argue that they are comparable to the Shoah. At the same time the two events played out in a very different manner so one can compare and contrast away. For example, the Native Americans were subject to a centuries long persecution that was much more intense than that suffered by the European Jews prior to the Nazis. Another example - there was no concerted, all encompassing period of extermination of Native Americans comparable to what happened to the Jews in 1941-5.

(A couple commenters seem to have a problem with my use of the term 'Holocaust' in its common colloquial sense of the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis, perhaps a substitution of the term 'Shoah' will placate them)

by MarekNYC on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:10:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think anyone is suggesting the circumstances in any genocide are identical, that they are not all unique in their own way.  Or that some occurred in far away places or a long long time ago.

That's hardly the point.

The point is that they are all legitimate, all horrid, and no one group of victims can, or should want to, claim some title of "worst genocide ever."  Although I imagine that many FEEL that their situation was worst.  And feeling that is ok; it is expected.  But asking others to feel that way too is NOT ok.

This shouldn't some kind of contest where the winner of the most exceptional genocide award gets the most exceptional treatment.  How offensive.  

It's history, it's life, it's about gaining understanding and receiving acknowledgement and allowing everyone's story to be told (er, not here on ET, of course.  Not enough room.  But you get the picture).


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:22:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by MarekNYC: "Rather it (the holocaust) was carried out as the result of a metaphysical belief that a particular race was the mortal enemy of all mankind and that its extermination was necessary if humanity was to be saved."

I think that this was the official version for the populace, but not the reason why the nazis wanted to totally exterminate the Jewish people.

My theory goes like this:

The nazis believed that in 1933 their Führer had established an empire of the German people that would last at least 1000 years ('Tausendjähriges Reich'). But this would have proved nothing, because the longevity of this Aryan empire of the German people would have been dwarfed in the year 2933 when compared to the plurimillenial existence of the Jewish people. Thus it would not have been a demonstration of German superiority. So the Jews had to be killed.

"The USA appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of liberty." Simon Bolivar, Caracas, 1819

by Ritter on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 03:58:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think that this was the official version for the populace, but not the reason why the nazis wanted to totally exterminate the Jewish people.

I'm inclined to agree.  I really can't think of any instance of racism rooted absolutely in ideology.  It inevitably has something to do with the subjected minority perceived as being in the way, or a threat to the ruling class's pursuit of wealth, land, power, and their general "way of life", etc.  

Which is not to say that people don't also hold that metaphysical belief.  A lot of people truly believed also that Native Americans and Africans were a disgusting class of subhumans.  Not to mention accounts of Nazis taking Jewish women as secret lovers.  Anyway, ideology is usually what you feed the masses when you're trying to rally support for your plan to acquire as much personal power as possible.  It is a means to an end, not the end itself.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:24:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem with your analysis is that the Nazi leadership believed in their extreme antisemitic ideology  back when they were part of 'the masses'. The same was true of a substantial minority in many parts of Europe (France, Poland, Hungary etc.). It is true that ideologies are related to socioeconomic circumstances - in this case the break down of traditional social structures as a result of industrialization and the other aspects of what is commonly known as 'modernity'. Radical antisemitism offered an all encompassing explanation of the disruption. In that sense it is analogous to Marxism, though unlike Marxism it was not a rational and cogent analysis of what was going on. But it is no accident that socialist leaders referred to antisemitism as the 'socialism of idiots'.

The Nazi leadership and much of its rank and file sincerely believed the hodge-podge of quack ideas that constituted their ideology. Ideology was a means to power, but power was simultaneously a means to put that ideology into practice.

by MarekNYC on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 04:51:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of creating an empire that would be considered at the par with those of the Romans and Egyptians. He even spoke with Speer about the aesthetics of nazi buildings as ruins in 1000 years from now and how to build them and what materials to use to ensure that they would look more grandios to posteriority than the Colosseo Romano and Limes.

Relict of the nazi Limes on the French coast:


 

"The USA appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of liberty." Simon Bolivar, Caracas, 1819

by Ritter on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:20:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't have references handy, but IIRC it was more compex for at least some Nazi leaders - I recall some quote (Goebbels?) half-acknowledging that the 'Jewish problem' is their creation and 'solving' it is a means to forge national coherence rather than a goal into itself.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jan 19th, 2006 at 05:25:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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