The Holocaust and history

In my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, I argued that Germany’s 1968 generation had a tendency to relativise the Holocaust. For the Achtundsechziger – the children of what they themselves called “the Auschwitz generation” – Nazism was a kind of negative moral reference point. As a result, they saw the possibility of a recurrence of the Holocaust in a whole range of other events and threats around the world, from the Vietnam war in the sixties to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the nineties. But in making such comparisons, they consciously or unconsciously relativised Auschwitz, which became a free-floating signifier rather than a specific historical event that happened in one place at one time. The story of Germany’s 1968 thus raises a historiographical (or perhaps even philosophical?) question: was the Holocaust unique? Or can it be compared to other historical events? If so, to what exactly, and how, can it be compared?

This question – which was central to the Historikerstreit among German intellectuals in the mid-eighties and the subsequent exchange of letters between Martin Broszat and Saul Friedländer about whether National Socialism could be “historicized” – is a complex one that I can’t possibly answer comprehensively in a blog post. But a few conversations I’ve had recently – including one with Paul Berman in New York, which I mentioned in a recent post, another via email with Peter E. Gordon, who reviewed my book for The New Republic, and another with a friend after I attended Will Self’s lecture on W.G. Sebald in London – have prompted to me to begin to think about it in a more systematic way than I did when I wrote the book. So here are a few preliminary thoughts.

I start from the premise that the Holocaust does not somehow stand outside of history but must be part of it. It seems to me that it is important to be able to compare the Holocaust with other events and threats both in order to try to understand it (even if, at some level, it still defies understanding) and in order to prevent a recurrence of it (or, perhaps more likely, the occurrence of an event that is in some signifcant way like it). “The incomparable is also the irrelevant,” as Peter Gordon neatly put it in his review. But, crucially, comparison does not automatically mean relativization.  One can compare some other event with the Holocaust in order to establish that it is, in fact, different, or that it is in some ways similar and in other ways different. After all, as Jose Brunner said to me when we talked about this subject last year in Tel Aviv, “You can compare men and women”.

The crucial thing, it seems to me, is to start from a precise understanding of what the Holocaust was and what it was not. In particular, I would point to three features of the Holocaust that, taken together, make it unique. First of all, of course, there is the scale of the killing that took place: six million Jews were killed as part of the so-called Final Solution. Secondly, it was genocide, or race murder: the Jews were exterminated because they were Jews. Thirdly, it was industrialised killing: death factories were quite unprecedented in history. Indeed, part of what makes the Holocaust so shocking is that it happened in an advanced society (i.e. one that was both economically developed and civilized, hence the idea that Auschwitz represents a Zivilisationsbruch, or civilisational break).

I do not know of any event anywhere in the world at any time in history that possesses this combination of scale, motivation and method – in other words, an industrialised genocide on the scale of the Holocaust. In that sense, the Holocaust is unique. Nevertheless, it seems to me legitimate to compare other genocides to the Holocaust – as Joschka Fischer did implicitly during the Kosovo war – as long as one remains aware of differences in scale and method. What I think is illegitimate, however, is the comparison of other events and threats that may be terrible (and may even exceed the Holocaust in terms of the number of deaths they involved or could involve) but are simply not genocide. The Vietnam war, for example, which the Achtundsechziger compared to the Holocaust, was not genocide at all but simply a war, regardless of whether you think it was just or unjust.

Equally important is exactly how one compares. Put simply, it is one thing to compare (vergleichen), another to equate (gleichmachen). In other words, the detail of exactly what one says, and what one doesn’t say, can make all the difference between what is simply an attempt to understand historical events and what is relativisation of the Holocaust. Finally, motivation matters. Perhaps the best example of this is the way that some of the Achtundsechziger compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians after the Six-Day War to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. The comparison was misleading – whatever one’s view of Israeli policy, it is simply inaccurate to compare the situation in the Occupied Territories to the death camps (a more difficult question is whether it can be compared to a colonial situation) – but it is also hard to avoid the conclusion that, in making it, the Achtundsechziger were  motivated by a conscious or unconscious desire to exonerate their parents’ generation.


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