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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Is the Holocaust unique?

On balance, I think I have to answer no, but with a little consideration for what I mean.

First, what is the Holocaust? An attempt to wipe out all undesirables (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the retarded, et al - of which Jews were the largest group). Is the desire behind that - the bigotry - unique? Sadly no, we humans are particularly apt at trying to wipe out people who believe things we disagree with and/or find deeply suspicious. Sometimes these are based on religion (the great Christian persuections under Decius, Valerius, and Galerius spring immediately to mind) and sometimes these are based on matters of race (for example, Rwanda). The Roman Empire used genocide as a tool of public policy - if everyone was dead/enslaved then they wouldn't be bothering you anymore - a sort of death penalty applied at the 'national' level.

This hatred is very common throughout human history. The great difference I think as perceived between the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the genocide that we call the Holocaust is one of organisation. The former two were very much ad hoc affairs. There was a degree of organisation, and maybe even direction, but there was also a large element of simply fanatic fervour that drove everything forward. In contrast the genocide of the Holocaust with its ghettos and then its camps seems incredibly drab and controlled.

Part of this, perhaps the whole of this, is simply down to ability. The Third Reich was really quite good at organising things. It is a stereotype that Germans are sticklers for efficiency as well, and such stereotypes often have a kernel of truth. So perhaps in addition to ability was a latent inclination to organistion that helped propel the Holocaust down its bureaucratic root. That organisation is the key to the Holocaust's macabre success in nearly wiping out German-Occupied Jewry. Does that make the holocaust unique? Does the quantity that resulted alter the 'quality' of the crime?

On one level of course it does, but it does not for me catapult the Holocaust into that territory of the unique, and here is why.

If the event is unique, a one-off, it can never happen again. That is what unique means, after all. It lets us off the hook, means we can let down our guard. The Holocaust is not unique, to me, because the motives behind it are all to common in human history and in the human present. Rwanda should have taught us that something of a similar scale is still very possible in today's world. The Balkans should have shown us that the tensions and suspicions that give rise to these genocidal impulses can lie dormant for a generation or two before a Vesuvian eruption. Rwanda and the Balkans, and indeed the Holocaust itself, should remind us that Jews are not the sole victims of such crimes (an impression all too easy to pick up, unfortunately, by the poor quality of modern history). We are all at risk of becoming victims. We are all at risk, more importantly, of becoming perpetrators.

For the moment the Holocaust remains unmatched in human imagination. For the moment.

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