HCH 12 / September 2016
The Question of Uniqueness, by Jared Sorhaindo
(The gatehouse at Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken from outside of the camp. Photo by Jared Sorhaindo, Auschwitz, October 4, 2014)
The Holocaust is, in the West, the best known of genocides and mass slaughters. We all know the images: Hitler ranting before a crowd of adoring worshipers; Nazi soldiers goose-stepping in perfect sync before their Führer; the destruction of Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues on Kristallnacht; the cutting of pious Jews’ beards and payot in front of laughing Germans; Jews forced to walk a bridge over the “Aryan” Chłodna Street in the Warsaw Ghetto; the mass shootings by the Einsatzgruppen in the East; the loading of trains; the frightened boy of the Warsaw Ghetto raising his hands with a Nazi pointing a gun at him; the Auschwitz-Birkenau gatehouse (pictured above); Hungarian Jews waiting to be gassed in the little wood of Birkenau; and the mountains of corpses in Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. Anne Frank is perhaps the most famous diarist of the 20thcentury. We think of Hermann Göring alternately giggling and looking exasperated at the Nuremberg trials and Adolf Eichmann smirking in his glass booth in Jerusalem.
In other words, the Holocaust is incredibly well known: perhaps not in all of its details, and certainly not in the complexities of Nazi policies that brought it about, but definitely in a general sense as a nightmarish historical event that is well-nigh impossible to look at for too long. The footage of Belsen’s liberation is practically unwatchable, and images of the piled up hair at Auschwitz is disgusting beyond all reason. The Holocaust came to American living rooms in the late 1970s with the miniseries Holocaust and again in the early 1990s with the Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List. Holocaust films continue to be churned out: The Pianist, The Grey Zone, Son of Saul, and so on. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is considered a must-see, and is swamped by visitors from every corner of the globe. The museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau is a destination for many travelers in Europe.
So, yes, most people know about the Holocaust in a general sense, and perhaps even more than that. But what is it about the Holocaust that grips us? Yes, it was horrible, but so were the Gulag camps under Stalinism, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the pits of Srebrenica; the deportation trains that took Armenians to the desert where they starved to death; the hacking of limbs with machetes in Rwanda. There is something about the Holocaust, though, that seems to particularly frighten us. Hitler’s name is thrown about willy-nilly, and in some sense he has almost become a comical figure: an absurdity whose name is a punchline to Internet jokes, a raving lunatic in a bunker who loses his mind when he discovers that Taylor Swift left Calvin Harris (I’m making this up, but you get the idea). And yet, there is a reason why it is his name that is thrown around, and not that of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. He menaces us with his frightful gaze and his ferocious hatred that drove millions into a bloodthirsty frenzy. His single-minded determination to wage war on Europe, and the world, and to destroy every single Jew is haunting in a way that the policies of Stalin and Mao are not. Stalin and Mao were vicious, brutal murderers who left tens of millions dead, but neither embarked upon a mission to extinguish an entire people. Adolf Hitler did, and he did so while being the legitimately popular leader of his country. And I posit that it has been through laughter and mockery that many of us have tried to come to grips with the horror.
There is something singularly and uniquely disturbing about Hitler. The same is true of the Nazis. I think that many people recognize this singularity on some level, even if on a subconscious one. This short essay will explain why the Holocaust was indeed unique and delineate the reasons why. By “Holocaust” in this context, I am referring to the state-sponsored systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe by the National Socialists under the rule of Adolf Hitler from the years 1941-45. I am leaving out the Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups that were also persecuted and murdered by the Nazis because the Nazis, at the end of the day, only desired to kill theJews down to the last man, woman, and child. Gypsy policy, though extremely murderous, was wildly inconsistent; the Poles experienced an attempt at cultural genocide but were able to live their lives so long as they did not resist the Nazis; homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other groups, were persecuted in frightful ways but were ultimately not subject to systematic and total extermination. Only the Jews were. This is a fact.
It has been popular in recent years to conflate the fate of the Jews with the others, and to condemn the focus on the fate of the Jews as being somehow supremacist: the Jews are butting to the head of the victims’ queue and disregarding others who were brutalized by the Nazis. This has also become a trend in countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, where Nazi savagery against native populations is equated with that against the Jews. As horrifically as the Poles were treated (nearly three million non-Jewish Poles were killed), there was no policy to eradicate every Polish individual. Polish language, yes; Polish heritage and history, yes; the Polish intelligentsia and elite, yes; but not every Pole.
I would argue that what happened to the Poles was genocide. Indeed, what the Nazis planned for the Slavs to their east in general was genocidal on a mind-boggling scale. Some 31 million were to be deported, starved to death, or murdered; the balance, about 14 million “Germanizable” people, were to be used as helots for German settler-farmers. These slaves would not be taught the language or the heritage of their forefathers, but rather pidgin German so that they would be able to communicate with their German masters but know their place in society. Eventually, if the Nazis had succeeded, these nations and cultures, and the languages they spoke, would have been only a memory. Thankfully, this did not happen. The annihilation of the Jews, however, did. The only line the Jews were at the head of was the National Socialist chopping block. It was a priority of the Nazis’ war to destroy the Jews, and while their destruction was originally to occur after the war, Hitler ultimately decided that he could not wait. The other peoples of the eastern lands could. It is incomprehensible to imagine the Nazis making the Jews their slaves They did not want the Jews to serve them and recognize them as masters; they wanted them out of Germany, out of Europe, and, finally, extinguished from the face of the earth. Jews could not even exist in this capacity in a Nazi-dominated Europe. And, of course, there was no such thing as a “Germanizable” Jew, so there was no escape from the noose whatsoever. What happened to the Jews, therefore, was unique, not only in the context of the Second World War, but also compared to other genocides we have seen before or since.
Take, for instance, the National Socialist conception of the Jew. The Jews were not inferior beings who should serve as slaves or be thrown down to the bottom of some caste system. Yes, the Jews experienced a sort of apartheid in the period before their mass annihilation (1933-41) in the Reich, but that is not the time period in question which, as mentioned above, is 1941-45, the years of extermination. Jews were, rather, seen as theWeltfeind (world enemy): responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War; responsible for the alleged immoral liberalism and democracy of the Weimar Republic; responsible for the socialists who were seen as the standard bearers of Weimar; responsible for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, and the subsequent mass murder experienced under Soviet control; the puppeteers of the capitalists in London and Washington; the controllers of the global media and the international banking system; and a race obsessed with the destruction of the “Aryans” by any means whatsoever, whether it be capitalism or communism. Hitler’s obsessive hatred with the Jews consumed him until the day he died: his desire to murder them was a burning thirst that drove him insane with bloodlust until the very end. This was simply not the case with other groups, which were mostly viewed through the lens of dismissive contempt, not a pathological, all-encompassing hatred.
It is not an exaggeration to contend, as I do, that the Second World War was, for Hitler, a war against the Jews. His invasion of the Low Countries and France in 1940 was meant only to protect his rear before lashing out at the Soviet Union. Hitler’s war against the British was lackadaisical at best, and he was not particularly motivated to destroy the British or their Empire, which he admired. For him, the real war was in the East, against the Bolsheviks, because to his mind, Bolsheviks were Jews and Jews Bolsheviks, and they were spinning a web from their lair in Moscow to ensnare Germany and other countries of “good race” in Europe. They had to be destroyed. This, plus the desire for living space (Lebensraum), was Hitler’s motivation for launching his war in the East.
Upon the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler unleashed his Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads that shot some two million Jews into pits. Further west, Jews were ghettoized and, beginning in spring 1942, sent to their deaths in gas chambers. The Weltfeind, this pernicious race that fed off the blood of the “Aryans” and sought to undermine the nations of “pure racial stock” in Europe, was finally being destroyed. To make sure that this “world enemy” knew the score, they were often ritually humiliated before they were murdered: the aforementioned beard-cutting, forced to sing the praises of Lenin, forced to rip their beloved Torah to pieces and spit on it, forced to dance in front of their tormentors, forced to urinate and defecate in each other’s mouths. Men, women, and children were pursued in so-called “Jew hunts” in remote villages, in hidden bunkers, in attics, in farmsteads, and in forests: no one could escape. In Poland, helping a Jew meant death, for yourself and perhaps for your entire family. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, flew to Finland to implore that country’s leader to send his 200 Jews to their deaths. To Finland. What possible dispute could Jews in such a far-flung place have with Germany?
This totality of the Holocaust, in which every single Jew was to be eradicated from the face of the earth (if perhaps after a short delay due to the need for his or her slave labor), is one of the factors that separates it from other genocides. While Srebrenica was reminiscent of the Einsatzgruppen murders in the Soviet Union and while the Armenians were drowned and left to die in the desert, there was no attempt to murder every last one of them. They were to be struck at in a ferocious way to “learn a lesson” or to “get out of the way,” or to be driven relentlessly away from border areas because they were seen as potential saboteurs and traitors (this was especially the case with the Armenians, who the Turks believed were in cahoots with the Russians during the First World War). But it was never in Slobodan Milosevic’s purview, for example, to murder all Bosniaks. On the other hand, the Nazis swept Europe from east to west, and north to south, combing urban environments and rural ones, forcing innocent children like Anne Frank to cower in hidden annexes like fugitive criminals on the lam. This was a continent-wide genocide, unlimited in time or space, against an “enemy” that had, literally, done nothing to Germany or the German people, except to serve it proudly during the First World War and to sing its praises before, during, and after it, and to enrich its culture with beautiful literature and music and earth-shattering scientific discoveries. It did not matter. Nothing could save them. Not baptism, not patriotism, not economic benefit, not the most fervent of Heil Hitlers: they were sentenced to die for the crime of having been born. And the children too, because what was a Jewish child but a Jew in inchoate form? They, too, had to be shot into the pits and shoved into the gas chambers. Many were thrown into the ovens alive: this was one of Josef Mengele’s favorite pastimes.
The industrial nature of the Holocaust also separates it from other genocides. The assembly line of deportation, gassing, and cremation, and the economic exploitation of the dead: their money and valuables stolen, their hair shorn for upholstery, their clothes sent to citizens of Germany, their golden crowns ripped out of their mouths and melted down and deposited into special bank accounts, their ashes spread to fertilize flower gardens and crop fields; this is also unique. The Nazis used the train system, which was so essential in cultural and economic progression in European and other contexts, to ship millions to their deaths. They sent Jews from nearly every country of Europe to abattoirs that were awaiting them in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Treblinka, Sobibór, Majdanek, and Chełmno, places that were specifically designed to murder them. Indeed, the death camp itself is a unique facet of the Holocaust: a site whose purpose was to kill the most amount of people in the most efficient way possible. As murderous as the Soviet Gulag was, they were not intended solely or primarily to kill their prisoners, but to exploit their labor and/or to “re-educate” them.
Jews were not simply the victims of on-the-spur, localized brutalities such as looting or pogroms or even mass murders, although that happened too. On the other hand, in many instances they were shipped from remote places like Salonika, Greece; Oslo, Norway; and even the Channel Islands, only to be gassed in Nazi-occupied Poland. The measured and calculated way this was done, the logistics involved, is testament to the Nazi determination at total extermination of the Jews. The crematoria complexes in Auschwitz-Birkenau were in some (negative) sense an architectural marvel: gas chambers and crematoria all conveniently housed in one building. The efficiency and dehumanized manner of it all is chilling and borderline incomprehensible.
The Jews and Germans were not enemies, except in the Nazi imagination. They had no border disputes or historical enmity. These were not tribal groupings fighting over an oasis, a river, or a mountain fastness. While obviously not explaining away the genocides of any ethnic group anywhere, in instances such as the Armenian and Bosnian genocides, the mass murders had their roots in either ethnic strife or border disputes. The Rwandan genocide occurred in the context of a civil war between a government led by Hutu and a rebel group largely composed of Tutsi. In the case of the Holocaust, the Nazis came down on the Jews like a bat out of hell for no fathomable reason whatsoever, outside of Hitlerian conspiracism and obsession. The Jews did not have a running dispute with the Germans; they had not fought any wars with them; and most of the Nazis’ victims were not even German or German-speaking Jews. The Jews were just going about their lives, in whatever they did, whether it be peddling wares in a shtetl in Eastern Poland, or mending boots in Kraków, or running a department store in Prague, when all of a sudden they were overwhelmed by the deluge.
The Nazis descended upon foreign Jewish villages and towns, and cities with high Jewish populations, and wantonly slaughtered them. There couldn’t even be the pretext of their having been disloyal citizens. Hitler was essentially making the Jews of the world pay for what he deemed the major crime of the Jews of Germany: the German defeat in the First World War. This, of course, was absurd and existed only in the feverish imaginations of radical anti-Semites. Regardless, the Jews of not just Germany, but of all of Europe, were to pay for this imaginary crime. And when the Germans came, it was like a tsunami. There was no historical precedent for the Nazi onslaught in Eastern Europe, not even during the darkest days of the tsars. Jews had always been able to appease their oppressors through the gifting of money or other concessions; this was not the case this time. There were instances where the Jews acted in such a traditional fashion, presenting gold to Nazi soldiers in the hopes and expectations that this would be their deliverance; instead, the Germans took the gold and shot them in the streets anyway. In the pithy words of Holocaust historian Raul HIlberg, “The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: ‘You may not live among us as Jews.’ The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages then decided: ‘You may not live among us,’ and the Nazis finally decreed: ‘You may not live.’”
The reason why more Jews were not murdered during the Holocaust and that “only” two-thirds of European Jews lost their lives was because the Nazis lost the war. If Hitler had won the war in Europe, and therefore had had the leisure to deal with the Jews as he pleased, it is hard to imagine that that percentage would not have shot up to virtually 100%. If Erwin Rommel had succeeded in North Africa and the German army was able to push into Palestine and beyond, the Jews of the Middle East would have likewise been extinguished. Hitler’s war against the Jews was infinite in both scope and conception because he believed that the German race, and indeed the human race, could not thrive so long as the Jews existed. There is simply no parallel to this level of ambition in any other genocide or campaign of mass murder. This “redemptive anti-Semitism,” as coined by historian Saul Friedländer, was the alpha and omega of Adolf Hitler’s worldview, until he put a gun to his temple under the streets of Berlin in April 1945. It was redemptive in that he felt the messianic need to eradicate the Jews so that the “Aryan” race could reach its potential. The communists in the East were seen as identical to the Jews. This, combined with sneering contempt for the Slavs, is why the German war in the Soviet Union was so remorselessly brutal. In Hitler’s last will and testament, he railed against the “world destroyer”: the Jew.
In sum: it was the totality, the continent-wide nature of the genocide, the obsessive determination to kill all Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, the conception of the Jew not just as the “Other” or inferior but rather as literally the world enemy who prevented other peoples from thriving, the industrial nature of the genocide, and the complete lack of any dispute whatsoever between the murderers and the murdered that makes the Holocaust an event unique in history.
Jared Sorhaindo, Washington, D.C., August 4, 2016
Originally published on Al-Zilzal on August 4, 2016