With all of the horrific images of public shootings, mass murders and terrorist attacks we are exposed to on an almost daily basis, why is there a need to focus on the Holocaust? Isn’t this just another example of man’s inhumanity to man? And if that is so, aren’t there better examples where more people were killed?
Out of the 15-17 million Jews alive in the world in 1939, for example, six million, or about 40 percent, were annihilated. Counting only the Jews of Europe, the percentage is about 65 percent. In Lithuania, Poland and Holland the percentages were 95-96, 92 and 80 respectively.
Historian Steven Katz noted that when we contrast this with other tragedies such as the estimated 20 million Soviet citizens who died in Stalinist Russia between 1929 and 1939, and the 34 to 62 million killed during the Chinese civil war of the 1930s and 1940s when Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-tung fought for control of China, we see that the rate of death surpasses the Holocaust by a factor of at least three.
Between 1915 and 1917, the Turkish government conducted a ruthless campaign to deport Armenians from Turkey, which resulted in the slaughter of from 550,000 to 800,000 out of a population of 1.5 to 1.7 million. This means a loss of between 32 to 53.2 percent.
Why then is the Holocaust important, and if it is, to whom? First, let us acknowledge that not all historical events are of the same magnitude. We are not engaged in a contest to determine which group suffered the most or sustained the greatest number of losses. Distinguishing between different historical events does not, and should not, minimize or demean the suffering of others.
Not every act of barbarism, every injustice in the world today has to be a Holocaust to justify our profound concern and serious response.
When we refer to the Holocaust, we mean the systematic bureaucratically administered destruction by the Nazis and their collaborators of six million Jews during the Second World War, people found “guilty” only because they were viewed inaccurately as a race. The Nazi state orchestrated the attempted mass murder of every person with at least three Jewish grandparents.
Millions of civilians and soldiers were killed as a result of war. Communists and political and religious leaders were liquidated because they were considered to be a potential threat to the Nazis. When the Nazis murdered approximately 10,000 Polish intelligentsia in 1939-1940, and the Polish Catholic priesthood in western Poland, for example, they were trying to prevent these groups from becoming a political and spiritual force that could unite the country against them. Similarly, when the Nazis murdered more than 2.5 million Soviet prisoners of war, they were executing a military force that had fought them on the field of battle.
For a number of reasons, we do not know the exact number of Jews who were killed. German historian Wolfgang Benz posits that there were 6,269,027, which is more than earlier studies by Jewish scholars. “Six million” is the most accurate term and most acceptable.
The Nazis also annihilated a minimum of 300,000 Sinti and Roma from Germany, the Baltic region, Ukraine, Croatia and Serbia, although the precise number cannot be determined. Many thousands of others were also killed: the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, communists, trade unionists and political and religious dissidents.
None of these groups, however, were the primary target of the Nazis—not the mentally disabled, who were killed in the euthanasia centers in Germany (here it is to be noted that the Nazis did not export this program to the civilian populations outside the Reich); not the homosexuals, who were regarded as social deviants but for whom the Nazis did not have a consistent policy (homosexuals were persecuted only in the Reich and in areas annexed to it but not in countries the Germans occupied); not the Gypsies, who were partly seen as “asocial” aliens and Aryans within society and therefore did not have to be annihilated completely; and not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and who declined to serve in the German army, but who were not marked for extinction; in fact, only a small number were incarcerated in the camps, and most of them were German nationals.
The Nazis also did not single out every socialist, communist, trade unionist, or dissident—just those they perceived as a threat to the Reich. The Jews alone were the primary target of the Nazis.
Why the Jews? To the Nazis, they were a satanic force that supposedly ruled the world through their control of Wall Street and the communist regime in the Soviet Union. For the common German, and later for the rest of Europe, this absurd claim served as a useful rationalization. Sadly, there are people throughout the world who still subscribe to this and like myths.
By focusing on the unique position of the Jew in the Holocaust, we learn about the nature of Western civilization and culture. European Jewry “was not a dissident minority in a remote corner of the world, but by virtue of its thinkers [Einstein, Freud, Marx, Kafka, Proust] an important component of European civilization which dominated the pre-Holocaust world,” observed historian Henry Feingold.
“What died at Auschwitz,” he said “was not merely the corpus of a people but Europe’s hope that its social system can endure .... Who can escape the bitter irony that European Jewry was destroyed by a perverse use of the very industrial process which everywhere is the hallmark of modernity?”
Ultimately, Arthur Hertzberg presciently noted the Holocaust raises the question of whether our civilization will accept the existence of the Jews and other minorities living in its midst as distinct entities with their own group consciousness. It is clear that anti-Semitism and racism are still pervasive elements in American society and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. While the Jewish people have succeeded in surviving anti-Semitism, the question that remains is whether the West can “survive its persisting nature.”
Alex Grobman, PhD
Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written a number of books on the Shoah including “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened” and “Why Do They Say It?” with Michael Shermer; “License to Murder: The Enduring Threat of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; “Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe”; and “Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust” with Rabbi Daniel Landes. He has also written fours guides for educators: “Anne Frank in Historical Perspective,” “Those Who Dared: Rescuers and Rescued,” a guide to “Schindler’s List” and a guide on the Danish rescue of the Jews. He served as director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and as the founding director of the Holocaust Center in St. Louis, Missouri.