Why does the Nazi Holocaust preoccupy us more than any other genocide?

September 12 2005


Why does the Nazi Holocaust preoccupy us more than any other genocide?

September 12 2005



The Maclean's Excerpt

Why does the Nazi Holocaust preoccupy us more than any other genocide?

I SPENT the first 10 years of my life in Nazioccupied Europe. My immediate family and I survived the war by hiding. Since I kept no diary, had the Nazis found me as they had found Anne Frank, I would have disappeared without a trace. This would undoubtedly have made the Holocaust a singular and unique event for me. I am less sure about the Holocaust having been a singular and unique event in world history. To me it seems that it was one of many horrifying holocausts, albeit of immense proportions. I also doubt that the Holocaust was the inevitable result of antiSemitism, and especially that the Holocaust was inevitably caused by a singular and unique type of anti-Semitism peculiar to Germany.

In this excerpt from Beethoven’s Mask, heavily condensed by Maclean’s, Toronto-based author and journalist George Jonas refutes the popular notions—articulated, among other places, in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners—that the Holocaust was a unique event, and that it arose from a peculiarly German kind of anti-Semitism.

Goldhagen’s thesis is that the Holocaust could never have happened without the participation of ordinary Germans, who participated because they were virulently anti-Semitic. This is true enough as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Saying that Hitler could not have killed six million Jews without the participation of many other people, and that people who participate in the wholesale slaughter of Jews are likely to be virulently anti-Semitic, is saying something singularly self-evident.

Goldhagen contends that German people and culture were antiSemitic in a unique way that he calls “eliminationist.” For proof, he documents the historic existence of German anti-Semitic ideas and policies exhaustively and convincingly. But he offers no proofofits BEETH0VEN s MASK German singularity, or Key Porter Books; that “eliminationist” $39.95

anti-Semitism can be taken as a precursor to, or at least a portent of, genocide.

Proof would be hard to come by, for history shows no inevitable link between antiSemitism—or any other type of racial, ethnic, class, or religious prejudice or hatred—and genocide. What’s more, traditional German prejudice against Jews, though widespread and intense, was less acute than traditional Polish prejudice, and not significantly more acute than French prejudice. Before Hitler’s time, Jews often emigrated to Germany to escape worse discrimination elsewhere.

Was German anti-Semitism before the Hitler era materially different from antiSemitism in other times and places? I believe it was not. Modern anti-Semitism developed side by side with nationalism, as older organizing principles of the social order weakened. Ironically, it came as a by-product of the Enlightenment. As

the dynastic and religious systems by which groups used to define themselves were losing their grip, people were gradually beginning to think of themselves as “Russians” rather than subjects of the Czars, or “Germans” rather than subjects of the Hohenzollern emperors. The one-time vassals of the Bourbons were turning into the Gallic sons and daughters of Marianne, the emblematic figure of the French Revolution. The pilgrims and warriors of Christendom or Islam were evolving into “Italians” or “Turks.”

Such definitions inevitably put a premium on ethnic identity. Suddenly Jews were no longer patches in the colourful tapestry of empires, but alien and potentially baneful cells in the bloodstream of nations. As national identities assumed greater importance, a new type of anti-Semitism was born.

But these modern, populist-nationalistracist elements existed in the anti-Semitic laws and opinion of all contemporary cultures, not only in Germany’s. The “Jewish question,” so-called, was raised by almost every nation from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Raising it was regarded as legitimate.

Why, then, did the Holocaust occur in Germany and not in some other country? There is a danger of replying to this by attributing

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some peculiar evil to Germans as a group— i.e., as a “race.” To his credit, Goldhagen takes great pains to avoid it. The problem is, unless we postulate evil, there is little in German history or culture to provide an alternative explanation. Germany’s traditions were no less rational, no less civilized, no less chivalrous, than other Western traditions during the same period. Her public laws and civic morality, the personal habits of her citizens, their ethical precepts, their customary religious beliefs, were not markedly different from those of the citizens of other European nations. German art, science, industry, and infrastructure were, if anything, more advanced. Although the governmental institutions in Germany’s recent past were more autocratic than those of France and England, not to mention the United States, they were not nearly as autocratic as many other countries’. In any event, by the time Hitler came to power, the Weimar Republic was a democracy.

Jews in Germany were well integrated— not only far better than the Jews of Poland or Russia, but on the whole better than the Jews in many Western countries, including even the United States and Canada. Most German Jews were German patriots. Though after their emancipation in the mid-18th century, their contribution to music, arts, sciences, commerce, literature, journalism and even politics far exceeded their numbers (about one per cent) in Germany’s population, Germany’s institutions were not overwhelmed by Jews (though this became a frequent explanation offered by anti-Semites for their anti-Semitism), not

even to the extent that Austria’s or Hungary’s might have been. One looks in vain for a rational—or even irrational—explanation for a supposed “unique hatred” in the history of the relationship between Jews and Germans. The search turns up nothing.

What, then, is the answer? Why did the Holocaust occur in Germany? We can certainly view traditional German anti-Semitism as one contributing cause. Hitler himself must be considered a significant factor. A charismatic leader is like an ignition source, a spark: utterly insignificant in the absence


trivializing a cataclysmic event by a facile metaphor, the Holocaust was like a society murder

of an explosive mixture, but the direct cause of a blow-up in a place filled with combustible fumes. In another country—or in Germany in another historic period—Hider might have died unnoticed in a flophouse or in a mental institution. But he was where he was, therefore he did what he did. The Holocaust would not have happened without him.

There were many reasons for Germany being unlike other countries in the 1920s. Other countries lacked the shock that follows losing a war that the Germans believed they were winning almost until the last minute. The national trauma of that unexpected blow is still insufficiently understood outside

Germany. It was inevitable for conspiracy theories to start flourishing after such a traumatic event. The soil for Nazism was prepared by German indignation. It sparked an immediate search for scapegoats. It seemed natural to include Jews in this conspiracy.

The super-inflation that started in 1922 and lasted until 1924 was devastating. The stock market crash of 1929 was undoubtedly a factor, but the Depression did not necessarily lead to the rise of totalitarian systems elsewhere. More significant was the rare, maybe even unique, vulnerability of the Weimar Republic. Conventional analysis often blames the treaty of Versailles for the rise of Nazism, but the status of Germany as an adolescent democracy was at least as important. This almost teenage-like stage in the nation’s life probably had more to do with the irrational eruptions in Germany’s soul than any other factor.

Mature democracies, such as the United States or Great Britain, with solid traditions of both individual liberty and checks and balances on the exercise of power, would have been far more resistant to the totalitarian nature of Nazism than Germany. Additionally, a class society such as Britain’s would have been far more resistant to letting a party composed of tradesmen and petty officials grab the helm of the ship of the state. Social snobbery alone would have prevented a corporal like Hitler from becoming supreme leader of England.

But there is something even more important. The seemingly insurmountable hurdle of “Why in Germany?” vanishes if we stop in-

sisting on the Holocaust as a unique and singular event.

If it were unique, we could scarcely explain it, in spite of all the points listed above, except by attributing to Germans an inherent, subhuman barbarity that comes perilously close, no matter how we try to get around it, to the inherent, subhuman malice the Nazis attributed to Jews.

A race of barbarians with inherent streaks of virulent anti-Semitism does not metamorphose into a race of liberal humanists overnight, as Goldhagen incongruously insists in his book. The influence of postwar education could not achieve such a miracle. If Germans are not genocidally anti-Semitic today—as indeed they are not— it is because Germans were never uniquely or inherently genocidal or anti-Semitic. They were just situational murderers between 1933 and 1945, as many groups have been at one period or another.

If we view the monstrous tragedy of the Holocaust as only one of many such monstrous tragedies in human history, then the accurate question becomes “Why not in Germany?” Why could Germans not do evil in the same way that so many other people have done?

“I would suggest that barbarism be considered as a permanent and universal human characteristic which becomes more or less pronounced according to the play of circumstances.” The French Catholic philosopher Simone Weil, a converted Jew, wrote

these lines in 1940. The years since have given us no better insight.

A different question: If there is nothing unique about the Nazi Holocaust (aside perhaps from its dimension), why does it preoccupy us more than other holocausts?

Match it, for instance, with our attitude to the Communist holocaust. While Nazi criminals who played a direct role in the murder of six million are still hunted down and tried, we rarely prosecute Communist criminals of similar degrees of responsibility. (Interestingly, almost all the exceptions occurred in Germany, which did prosecute some former East German officials after unification.) Elsewhere it has been more usual for ex-functionaries of KGBor Gulagtype organizations to receive government positions or pensions.

The Nazi Party was immediately outlawed in post-war Germany. The Communist Party, in contrast, is still the official opposition in the former Soviet Union. Ex-Nazi officials like Kurt Waldheim, once discovered, became international untouchables. Ex-Communist officials like Mikhail Gorbachev are still asked to join think-tanks or lecture at Western universities. It would be unthinkable for known ex-Nazis to be invited to the same diplomatic cocktail receptions in Western countries at which ex-Communists, or even current Communists, are honoured guests. And imagine a former Gestapo officer being accepted as the president of post-Nazi Germany, the way ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin has been accepted as the president of post-Soviet Russia.

Why do we react to the Nazi Holocaust and

the Communist holocaust differently? It is possible to postulate the following answers:

To begin with, the Holocaust provided people with the initial images of mass slaughter as the Nazi death camps were being liberated. Cinemas around the world showed—for the first time in history—heaps of skeletal corpses being pushed into mass graves by bulldozers, along with mounds of footwear, gold teeth, artifacts alleged to have been made of human skin, and charred remains inside the incinerators of Auschwitz. No ordinary person had ever seen anything like it. Those inaugural images literally shocked the world’s conscience.

The Communist holocausts provided no comparable photo opportunities. The islands of the Gulag deep inside the Soviet Union or China remained inaccessible to the cameras of the Western media. Their millions of victims between the 1920s and the 1980s perished unseen. By the time a few snippets appeared on television screens, such as the aftermath of the holocaust in Cambodia, audiences had become inured to death and destruction through repeated exposure. Pictures of slaughter in people’s living rooms became commonplace during the television coverage of the Vietnam War. By the end of the 1970s, photographic images had lost their power to shock.

Another contributing reason, at least until recently, was the contrasting attitude many opinion makers had to Nazism as opposed to Communism. Identical as the two intoxicants may have been, intellectuals could get drunk on the wine of one far

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more easily than the other. Nazism never “travelled,” to borrow an expression from viticulture. Communism did.

There were self-evident reasons for this. It would have been nonsensical for ideas of German superiority to become an export item for non-Germans, or ideas of Aryan superiority for non-Aryans. Marxist notions of the class struggle faced no similar obstacles. In addition, Nazism as a social theory could rely on nothing but the coldest and most selfish of human impulses to justify its call for conquest and slaughter, but Communism could also enlist warm and humane impulses of altruism to rationalize its own genocides.

Next, given that Nazism suffered an abject military defeat within a decade of its emergence, while Communism appeared to march from triumph to triumph until the mid-1980s, it is not surprising that generations of opinion makers in academia, journalism and government have been reluctant to discuss acts of Communist genocide in the same breath with Nazi acts of genocide. To this day, Communist holocausts may be respectably denied in countries whose laws treat the denial of the Nazi Holocaust as a crime.

World opinion has also been affected by the fact that the largest single group of Hitler’s victims were Jews. Murdering six million members of one group does not have exactly the same consequences as murdering six million members of another. Recent massacres of Mayans, Moluccans or Kurds have not resulted in the same echo as earlier massacres of Armenians. The opprobrium that attaches to genocide will vary not only with the slaughter’s magnitude, cruelty, irrationality, documentability and scope, but also with the ability of its victims and survivors to attract attention and sympathy.

All victims are equal in their desire for, and entitlement to, the world’s notice, but they are not always equal in their capacity to capture it. When Germans decided to exterminate the Jews, they picked the wrong group. As individuals, Jews tended to be gifted and articulate. As an aggregate, they were well placed to disseminate information, especially in the Western hemisphere. Traditional Jewish occupations, in addition to science, business and the law, included such natural forums as the literary arts, the entertainment industry and the media. What’s more, the Diaspora spread Jews all over the globe. Many rose to prominence in various

fields. Jews always amounted to a constituency in many key nations, at least in weight if not in numbers. “Jews are news,” as an eminent Western scholar on Islam quipped in a speech in 2002, quoting an old witticism.

Anti-Semites have often pounced on these characteristics, distorted them, or used them illegitimately, mixed with false ones of their own invention, to raise the spectre of a mythical “Jewish conspiracy.” That is poisonous rubbish, but it does not mean that some of these characteristics do not exist. It is hardly surprising that Jews were traumatized by Nazism and resented being murdered. As they had the necessary attributes to attract public attention, they relied on them—especially after the Holocaust—in self-defence.

Still, the foremost reason for which we view the Holocaust not only as one of many such abysses in humanity’s past, but as a unique occurrence and the epitome of evil, is probably different. Germany was Europe’s most cultured nation. It was a nation of Kant, Beethoven and Goethe. Even if only a minuscule minority of its Nazis read poetry or played Mozart on the piano, the gulf between the cultural history of Germany’s inhabitants and their barbaric behaviour during the Nazi era was incomprehensibly wide. It stunned their victims as it stunned the world.

The scope and barbarity of the Holocaust would have been stunning even if carried out by headhunters from Borneo, but it was not. It was carried out by Germans. It may be difficult for post-war generations raised in the last half century—during which Germans became equated with the Nazi salute, not only in popular entertainment but also in political and academic discourse—to understand

the sheer bewilderment people felt in the decade between the mid-1930s and the 1940s as they were gradually discovering the full extent of the vulgar brutality of Hitler’s regime. It did not seem “typically” German, as we might think of it today, but fundamentally un-German. It did not fit.

At the risk of trivializing a cataclysmic event by a facile metaphor, the Holocaust was like a society murder. Society murders become notorious because of the contrast between the criminal and the crime. Butchery in the slums hardly makes the back pages, but the same act committed in a mansion becomes headline news. The crimes of a serial killer would be noted in any event, but if Jack the Ripper turns out to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, it occupies a unique place in the annals of crime. It becomes singular. This, I suggest, is what happened in 1945 when the Allies entered Bergen-Belsen and revealed the Germans to the world as mass murderers.

It is the human race that is genocidal, not the Germans. Saying this is not to excuse the Germans, but to note a fact. In one vital sense we are all Jews and we are all Germans, potentially, depending on the conditions in which we find ourselves. Remembering this may reduce the likelihood that we will ever be Jews or Germans again as Jews or Germans were during one nightmarish period between 1933 and 1945. i?l

Reprinted with permission of Key Porter Books from Beethoven’s Mask: Notes on My Life and Times by George Jonas.