Was the Holocaust Unique?
In an era of growing anti-Semitism, it’s worth our asking, was the Holocaust — Germany’s systematic slaughter of up to six million Jews during the period of Nazi rule — unique? Is it only one of many great human tragedies of the past 120 years? Was it truly exceptional?
Let’s begin by admitting a gruesome truth: It is painful to discuss much of the history of the 20th century. So much death, so much war, so many crushed hopes. The destroyed promise of countless lives, not only on battlefields or naval warfare but in all places. Homes, small villages, major cities. Slaughter was widespread, deliberate, and indiscriminate.
Consider the genocidal rampage of the Turks against the Armenian people in 1915-16 that led to as many as 1.2 million dead. Or Josef Stalin’s deliberate policy of starvation and oppression in the Ukraine that led to the death of nearly four million in the early 1930s.
The accounts of organized horror go on and on. As historian David Satter has written, “the deaths caused by communist regimes” — the Soviet Union (and the nations under its control in Eastern Europe), China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia — reach close to 100 million. “That makes communism the greatest catastrophe in human history.”
So, does the Holocaust stand in a different category? Yes.
First, there was the national legalization of the initiative to eliminate European Jewry. The collection and destruction of Europe’s Jews was not a matter of anarchic violence. It was explicit state policy. Upon coming to power in 1933, Hitler and his agents “used antisemitic legislation and restrictions alongside vicious propaganda to create a culture of segregation and hostility.”
These actions gave a legal basis for oppressing and later brutalizing the Jewish people. The Nazis did none of these things behind the scenes; in the 1930s, they were increasingly clear about their goal of “de-Judaizing” German-speaking regions of Europe. Although the mass killings did not start until the beginning of World War II, the laws targeting the Jewish people were clear and rigidly enforced. The Nazis “removed Jews from government jobs and prevented them from engaging in social activities. Jewish businesses were boycotted, and members of the professions, like doctors and lawyers, were prohibited from practicing.”
The Nazis went on to revoke “the citizenship of Germany’s Jewish population,” denying Jews the right to work or marry “Aryans.” Laws “barred Jews from marrying non-Jews; … Nazis placed restrictions on the time of day Jews could use public shops and enforced a curfew.” And then, “in 1938, all Jewish men were required to add the name Israel to their passports; Jewish women had to add the name Sarah. Jewish property was confiscated, and rations were reduced.”
This led to the second unique feature of the Holocaust: Its industrialization.
The Nazis developed both concentration and forced-labor camps as well as “killing centers,” the latter of which “were designed for efficient mass murder.” This industrialization involved a complex network of railroads, communication, rations for prison guards and prisoners, and the integration of major German companies. The Holocaust Encyclopedia notes, “Leaders of banks, insurance companies, and other commercial and industrial businesses participated in the persecution of Jews. Many of them played a role in the ‘Aryanization’ of the German economy, the expropriation of Jewish assets, and the use of forced labor during the war.” A comprehensive list of the companies involved in the execution of Hitler’s plan for Jewish genocide can be found here.
On July 31, 1942, leading Nazis — more than half of whom held doctorates from German universities — met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to agree to a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” Their decision: Force Jews into work camps, gradually starving them to death. Those who survived would be “evacuated to the East,” meaning the death camps of Eastern Europe. The death camps employed the use of a pesticide (Zyclon B) and carbon monoxide to kill large number of Jews in either “shower centers” or in mobile vans. This was slaughter enabled by precision engineering.
Finally, there is the Holocaust’s transnationality. Most mass killings have been “between two entities, and mostly relating to domination over certain territories; thus, they [have been] more restricted and their basis more concrete,” write historians Robert Rozett and Dan Michman. “In contrast, the conflict with ‘the Jews’ was imagined, and not restricted to a given territory but global in its essence. Consequently, Nazi … planners envisioned its implementation far beyond Europe.” In other words, the Holocaust was the launch of an international and, it was hoped, worldwide termination of the Jewish race.
The national legalization of racially-focused oppression and then elimination, implemented through the meticulously planned industrialization of this policy and its transnational and aimed-for globalized spread, make the Holocaust unlike any other event in history. To say this is not to minimize the evil done by the Hutus against the Tutsis (Rwanda) or Pol Pot against his own people (Cambodia) or any other grim reminder of man’s depravity. Rather, it is to affirm that a Holocaust Remembrance Day should be just that.
With respect to the Jewish people, the Psalmist commands, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (122:6) and the apostle Paul makes the clarion statement, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). May followers of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, never forget these eternal truths.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.