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February 05, 2004

This is antisemitism?

There's been a debate for the past couple of days over at the Volokh Conspiracy and Clayton Cramer's blog about the "moral uniqueness" of the Holocaust. From what I can tell, both are being implicitly accused of antisemitism by Meryl Yourish and others because they do not think that the mass murder of Jews is more reprehensible than other mass murders by the Nazis or other totalitarian regimes.

Although I haven't followed the debate from the beginning, I can take exception to some of Meryl's statements:

"Its uniqueness was due to the fact that a nation set out to exterminate all the people in a certain ethnic group, all over the world."


"Another aspect of the uniqueness of the Holocaust is that many of the nations which Hitler conquered were willingly complicit, helping to round up Jews and ship them off to the camps."

Yes, Hitler and the Nazis targeted all Jews for extermination. And indeed, sympathetic Europeans eagerly helped them. But Hitler and the Nazis didn't hate only Jews, and Jews weren't the only ethnic group that they targeted for extinction.

After all, Nazi ideology held that only pure "Teutonic" Europeans were the "Master Race"; all other races and ethnicities were Untermenschen (subhuman). While the Jews were doubtless considered by the Nazis to be the "lowest" of these, that did not stop the Nazis and their allies from rounding up and slaughtering other members of the "inferior" groups.

Like, for example, the Gypsies.

Let me recount a story that I heard at a family reunion in 1997. My mother-in-law's cousin served in the Army in WWII with the 3rd Ranger Battalion. Military historians will recognize this unit as one of the ill-fated Ranger Battalions that were virtually destroyed in January 1944 during the Anzio landings in Italy. The units were surrounded by a German counterattack, and most members were either captured or killed. Very few escaped.

He was one of those captured. At that reunion, he told several family members (including myself) the story of his capture, his journey (mostly on foot) to Germany, and his time in the prison camp. As he told the story, he seemed cheerful, even poking gentle fun at his misadventures. But his demeanor changed radically when he told of his liberation.

The day before allied troops arrived, the Germans evacuated the camp. The camp where he was being held was not only full of POWs, but also contained about 1,000 gypsies. They gathered all the POWs in the main plaza. Then, in front of them, they loaded the gypsies into a dozen or so boxcars -- 1,000 men, women, and children -- and then lit all the cars on fire. When they were done burning, the guards packed up and left.

All of us who were listening were stunned. You could hear a pin drop in the room. His eyes were full of tears, and he didn't say another thing the rest of the time he was there. I talked to a couple of other family members, and they said this was the first time they had ever heard this portion of the story. The first chance I get, I am going to contact my mother-in-law and find out if her cousin is still alive. This episode needs to be documented.

You see, the Holocaust wasn't just about the Jews. The fact that millions of Jews were systematically eliminated because they were Jews doesn't change the fact that millions of other races and ethnicities were enslaved, tortured, and eliminated because they weren't German. To claim that the mass murder of Jews is somehow "morally unique" is to imply that the mass murder of other races and ethnicities is somehow "less" morally reprehensible. It's almost a subtle form of racism.

Mass murder is mass murder is mass murder. If I remember correctly, it was the Nazis who said that some races are better than others. Let us not parrot that logic by saying that the genocide of one ethnic group is less acceptable than the genocide of another. Rather, let us learn from the past, and do our best to prevent any genocide in the future.

Posted by Captain Holly at February 5, 2004 11:25 AM | TrackBack
At the Dachau concentration camp, the exhibits shows how meticulous the Nazis were in exterminating the Jews. They kept track of the numbers of exactly how many Jews and from which nationalities they were. However, they really don't have any idea of how many Russian POWs they killed on their rifle range since for the Nazis, the Russkies were worth less than the Jews. Hitler didn't give out medals for the amount of Russian POWs killed, only for the Jews. Their argument could be based on the fact that up to World War II, the Jews had been killed off and on thru pogroms, the Inquisition, etc., over the centuries, and finally, Hitler figured out a better way to exterminate them, which he did his best to accomplish. Fortunately for the Jews, they learned that if you want to be safe in the world, you need to have your own country and an in-bred paranoia that the whole world is after you. At least in that way, you can live in peace. Posted by: El-arhrairah at February 6, 2004 12:15 AM
A lot of this controversy is caused by righteous anger over the aplogists of the left who say that Stalin's and Mao's crimes were not as bad as Hitler's because communism had a noble ideal (equality) while nazism was based on an evil ideal (racial purity). See, e.g., the letters column in this month's Atlantic Monthly. However, I don't think it makes me an apologist for the evils of communism to say that genocide is a different crime than mass murder. Posted by: DBL at February 6, 2004 03:04 PM
I think, in all fairness, that Ms. Yourish would be willing to accept that attempting to kill All The Gypsies is, in fact, just as evil as attempting to kill All The Jews. I imagine her comparison was meant to be with various non-global ethnic-or-other slaughters. But, of course, I can read her mind. Posted by: Sigivald at February 6, 2004 04:24 PM
Ahem. I mean, I can't read her mind. Posted by: Sigivald at February 6, 2004 04:25 PM
It wasn't "just" about the Jews, but it was in fact primarily about them. Nazi propoganda appealed to the idea that there were lots of Jews, that they were in positions of power, that they were hard to detect, that even a thoroughly assimilated Jew was intrinsically an enemy of German society. On an international level, the propaganda simultaneously alleged that Jews were behind international finance and that they were also behind communism. These contradictory ideas could be swalowed because the alleged perpetrators were the wily and malicious Jews; the Satanic forces who could plausibly be said to be behind any evil. If you look at Nazi writings they bang on and on about Jews, Jews, Jews. Gypsies, Slavs, Asians and other groups are mentioned passingly or in connection with Jews. For instance, Hitler alleged that Jews conspired to bring "Negroes" into Europe in order to destroy European racial purity. Jews themselves were described as having Asian and "Negro" racial characteristics. If Germany were to have won, the Nazis would certainly have continued with their murderous campaign and wiped out all Gypsies (and other non-Aryans)in Europe as well as all the Jews. But without the anti-Jewish propaganda the campaign could never have started. Nazi ideology was anti-Semitic in the strict sense: it conceived of something called "Semitism" and stood in opposition to it. There was no comparable construct of, say, "Romanism" which would have served as a rallying point for Nazi converts. Nazi ideology was fundamentally based on hatred of Jews, and included other groups by implication. But without the Jews as a focus there would have been no Nazism and hence no Holocaust. This is why Holocaust deniers typically say things like "Well, lots of other people were killed by the Nazis." Yes, they were - but when we discuss the Holocaust as an example of absolute evil we need to do more than merely count the numbers of people killed; we need to understand the philosophy which motivated half of Europe. Holocaust deniers start by begging the question: if it all comes down to counting heads then the Holocaust was not unique. But in fact it was more than the numbers killed; it was the motivation and philosophy. That philosophy was based on the idea that Jews were the eternal and subtle enemy of ("Aryan") civilisation. Other groups were included only on their supposed similarity to the Jews. The Nazi ideology was Aryan vs. Jew, which meant that "Jewish qualities" were the enemy of "Aryan" ones, and hence the enemy of civilisation. What do you do with enemies? You attack them, neutralise them, kill them. For instance, Jews were allegedly genetically inferior, which justified the extermination of other non-Aryan groups. Jews were allegedly behind communism, which justified attacking communists. Jews were allegedly the source of sexual immorality, which justified imprisoning and killing homosexuals. And so forth. It seems to me that this reason makes the Holocaust unique. Other murderous movements have been based on territory ("We must attack them so we have room to grow!") or religion ("We must attack the heretics so God will love us!") or economics ("We must kill the capitalists so that the working man can live!"). None of these movements divided everything into two groups with a line which could not be transcended by emigration or conversion, and coldly set out to exterminate everyone and everything which was not clearly on their own side of the line. That line divided "Semitism" from "Aryanism", and treating it as if it were a nationalistic or religious divide is to miss the whole point of Nazism. jds Posted by: Joe in Australia at February 7, 2004 08:40 PM
Yes, but at the same time, calling the methodical extermination of Jews "unique" is in my view setting it apart as "special", thereby implying that all other genocides are just "average". There's no such thing as an "average" genocide or mass murder. And, as DBL also noted, I think many leftists emphasize the Nazis and the Holocaust in order to draw attention away from the massive bloodbaths perpetrated by the Communists in the name of the "common good". Posted by: Captain Holly at February 8, 2004 01:55 PM
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