Norman Geras is a man who has thought long and hard about the Holocaust. Recently, he tackled the controversial question of whether the Holocaust was, “in some significant moral sense, singular or unique in the long catalogue of calamities that human beings have inflicted upon one another.”
Norm has anticipated many possible objections to the discussion and responded to them convincingly. He anticipates and deals with the question of whether the Holocaust stands in some mysterious way outside the realm of such inquiry, whether the discussion of singularity is meaningless because all events are unique, whether the Holocaust must have had one absolutely unique feature to be called unique, and whether the question of uniqueness is ill-advised because it places one group of sufferers above all others.
This last question is one that especially interests me. In attempting to deal with it, Geras places the focus squarely on the acts of the perpetrators rather than on the suffering of the victims:
…the consciousness that developed in Nazi-occupied Europe and in the decades after the Second World War that what the Nazis perpetrated was something historically new and exceptional was not based on any historical computation of the suffering of the victims in relation to other groups of victims. It was a judgement about the nature of the crime. So, at any rate, I propose. It was not some particularity of Jewish suffering, or of the suffering of the other targets of Nazi barbarism – gypsies, Russian prisoners of war (of whom some 3 million died in German captivity), gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, Poles, and so on – but a particularity of the Nazi offence, an offence against humanity itself, that stood out.
Norm makes it clear that the Holocaust was not uniquely terrible because it was perpetrated primarily against Jews; it was uniquely terrible for other reasons. He uses the language of Nuremberg to describe the crime as one against humanity. The Holocaust was indeed also a crime against the Jews, but its uniqueness does not lie in its choice of victims, it relies in some qualities inherent in the offenses of the perpetrators.
Norm sees this uniqueness as having three characteristics, all of which acted together in a vile synergy to create an evil that was singular: (1) the industrialization and bureaucratization of death, using the full resources of a modern state; (2) the comprehensiveness of intent, in which the aim was to wipe out an entire people for no practical reason; and (3) spiritual murder, a devotion to destroying the humanity of the victims before killing them, a sort of blanket impulse to sadistically humiliate and dehumanize.
Geras does not suggest that we ignore the fact that the Holocaust targeted Jews, nor the long history of persecution of Jews throughout the millennia. His point is simply that the identity of the victims is not what makes the Holocaust unique.
I’ve been thinking of adding a possible fourth element to these three elements of uniqueness. The fourth is related to the second element on Norm’s list (and perhaps is only a subset of it), comprehensiveness of intent. I would call this fourth element “global scope” or “comprehensiveness of reach.” By that I am referring to the fact that, in any other genocides or mass murders that come to mind, the boundaries of the geography involved were far more limited, either because the people who were targeted lived in a single region, or because the perpetrators only controlled a certain area. The Turks, for example, did not pursue the Armenians around the globe to hunt them down in countries to which they had emigrated.
If the Nazis had rounded up and murdered only the German and Austrian Jews, for example, it would have been a terrible crime indeed, but it would not have been the Holocaust. Instead, the Nazis were geographically expansionist in their genocide, because the Jews were widely scattered throughout Europe. In each country the Germans conquered and occupied, one of their most basic goals was to get the cooperation of the local populace in rounding up its own Jews and helping the Germans to eliminate them from the face of the earth. In this activity, most of Europe was compliant and cooperative, with only a few notable exceptions, among them Denmark and Bulgaria.
So some of the unique horror of the Holocaust is therefore the wide geographic reach of the genocide as well as the international cooperation involved. The Nazis were in charge, but they had many willing and eager collaborators in a large number of countries. The Holocaust was not just a murderous impulse, a question of marching into a country and slaughtering people indiscriminately; it required an intense effort of picking, choosing, and sorting out .
The Nazis lost the war. But they accomplished one of their major goals: the virtual elimination of the Jews of Europe. Before the Holocaust, the majority of the Jews of the world resided there. Afterwards, only a tiny fraction remained. Two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered during the Holocaust, and most of the rest emigrated. This is part of the unique horror of the Holocaust, as well: that it succeeded almost completely in its audacious and seemingly impossible goal of making Europe Judenfrei.