Does the Nazi Holocaust stand alone?

In another thread I was criticized for placing the Shoah in a comparison with other inhumane and destructive human events. These included slavery, Rwanda, medieval pogroms, genocide of the Armenians, Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, etc. etc…

I teach on the imagery of devaluation and place the Shoah within a human context, pointing out that we are all capable of taking part in such events- to deny it is to make it less human and more easily excusable- ‘It could never happen here.’ One of the points that I make is that the Shoah stands out because it occurred in a modern country peopled by ‘people like us’, and additionally, modern technology was brought to the ancient problems of hatred and genocide.

It was suggested in the criticism of the above that such comparisons detracted from the singularity of the Shoah.

I feel strongly that the Shoah was not an aberration, but a natural response understandable within the long history of human misery and shame. I am now told that this is not an acceptable position to hold.

The question is: Is it appropriate to attempt to understand the Shoah as a natural part of our shared history of inhumanity, or must it be understood as an event totally unique in place and time?

Sadly, it’s far from being unique.

I’m not sure I can say much more on the issue without attracting flames from people that don’t see one conflict or the other as comparable. Suffice to say, it’s happened before and since because the cause was the human condition.

— G. Raven

It is perhaps unique in method, but the act of genocide (or attempted genocide) is far from unique:

Hitler and the Holocaust: ~6 million Jews killed, with plans to kill up to 11 million (this not even counting the numbers of casualties brought about by the war Hitler started)

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge: upwards of 1 million people, possibly twice that, tortured and killed.

Josef Stalin: “millions” killed through famine, forced labor camps, or executions (sources vary as to the actual magnitude, varying from as “few” as 2 million to upwards of 50 million - Stalin also had plans to begin a purge of the Jews, but he died before being able to implement it)

Just to name a few of the more infamous examples. It seems to me that in terms of the sheer number of people killed, the Holocaust may not be unique (which is, in itself, a frightening concept). However, I think it was perhaps unique in that it is the only instance I am aware of where the killing of humans became an industrial process - certainly a new low in human depravity and…inhumanity, for lack of a better word. And, unfortunately, I think it was bound to happen, sooner or later.

I’d venture that it goes beyond frightening into sheer Goddamned primal terror exponentialised. In CD quality hi-fi digital stereo and Sensurround subwoofer system, no less.

Here’s a simple word, much overused and misinterpreted, but one which, in my mind, wraps it up (as much as one can possibly wrap such things up) in a neat lexiconical package:


I’m always troubled by topic headings like this. On one hand, I KNOW the answer is “No. The Holocaust was not unique, unfortunately.”

But the problem is, people who bring up comparable horrors (Pol Pot’s atrocities in Cambodia,the Turkish oppression of Armenians, the Stalinist oppression of the Kulaks, the ghastly bloodshed of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, etc.) are usually doing so in order to lessen the importance of the Holocaust.

When someone brings up a comparable tragedy, I can’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop- I expect the next line to be, “So, what are the Jews griping about? Lots of people have suffered as much as them!” And my fears are usually confirmed. As a rule, people who bring up other horrors aren’t interested in justice for the victims of Stalin, Pol Pot or Chairman Mao. Rather, they’re just looking for a way to tell the Jews, “Shut up about the damn Holocaust, already. Other people have suffered too, so quit whining about anti-semitism.”

Certainly not intended by myself. I teach about the Shoah as an epochal event, but that it does not stand alone. My teaching is about the way that the ‘other’ can be devalued and maltreated as a basic psychological response to perceived threat.

I made comparisons in the other thread to the issues of slavery and treatment of Native Americans. This I did because the other person was trying to flippantly say that because the Germans were responsible for the Holocaust, he did not need to listen to the current German Government about the DP being meted out to one of thir nationals by Arizona. My point was that bothe Germany and pre 1950 USA were essentially racial states, and that there was at least an argument that the treatment of native Americans was at least approaching genocide. In neither case did I say that the events were equivalent, but I did imply that similar psychological causes were present in both societies (as in all other societies). At no point did I minimize the effect that the Holocaust had on the Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Mentally Ill, Mentally Retarded etc… Someone then posted in an officious manner basically stating that comparing the Shoah to any other event was minimizing the suffering of the Jews.

My point is that we need to place the Shoah in an historical context if we are to understand it. Claiming that it stands alone and cannot be compared with any other historical event, IMHO, allows each of us to distance ourselves and our culture from shared responsibility for actual or potential horrors in the past or future. If we ring-fence the Shoah, then we do not get to see how easy it is for such an event to happen again.

The level of emotion that I perceived in the original criticism of my post led me to believe that I would be overwhelmed with angry people saying that the Holocaust was a singular event and should never be analyzed with other historical events. However, the responses so far have been gratifyingly thoughtful and reasoned.

Pjen, can you post a link to the thread that spawned this one? I haven’t read it - or at least it doesn’t ring any bells - and I always like to look over the sources.

Of course the Shoah does not stand alone. If it was a unique event - and guaranteed to remain so for all time - then there would be much less reason to focus on it, remember it, analyze it, study it. The true terror of the Shoah is not that millions died. Or that those millions died in ghastly ways. The true terror is that ordinary people supported it and participated in it - and saw nothing wrong.

If we put the Shoah on a pedestal, we’re not mourning or honoring the dead - we’re distancing ourselves. And that’s exactly what memorials try to prevent. The point is that it is not a singularity. It can happen again. It may.

near the bottom of page one.

Bear in mind that the masterminds of the Rwandan genocides used history books on Nazi Germany as textbooks, and were trying to replicate it, in detail, in Africa. Given time, they may well have created death factories.


I would also like to mirror Pjen’s sentiment in that I, too, am making no attempt to lessen the importance of the Holocaust; the suffering of one group in no way diminshes the suffering of another.

I think that if it were entirely unique in recorded history, we could do NOTHING WHATSOEVER to prevent it from happening again, as we would lack parallels from which to make generalizations. After all, it doesn’t do much good to say “We must be alert never again to allow Adolf Hitler to come into power in Germany shortly after the 20th Century’s World War I on a political platform that specifcically includes anti-Semitism.”

Instead, we are able to say “Be wary of nationalistic politicians who want to Protect the Right People by casting blame on some category of Wrong People who are responsible for All Our Problems, and use this as an excuse for imposing a police state and making dissent illegal” because we’ve seen this pattern enough times to predict large-scale killing of the scapegoated Wrong People as its result.

We are able to say “Be wary any time a political identity is directly merged with an ethnic or religious one and embraces intolerance for other ethnic or religious groups as a positive value” for the same reasons.

We are able to say “Keep an eye out for militaristic and nationalistic leaders emerging in populations that have recently gotten their asses kicked and humiliated in military conflict, or who have lost substantial power and presence economically to their neighbors and competitors” because we’ve learned that such populations are more inclined to listen to and follow rabble-rousing jingoistic ethnocentric Hitler wannabes.

We are able to say “Be alert for sexual/religiou fundamentalism joined with political and ethnic identity” because obligatory religious-based loyalty to polarized gender roles has tended to be a part of the pattern from which genocidal political behaviors have arisen.

And so on. And because of these generalizations, perhaps we are less likely than we would otherwise be to sit back clueless and unaware while it starts to happen again in our own time and place.

Bravo AHunter3.

people can do the worst things to each other.

this is not a subject for compare and contrast.

is the death of 2 million greater than the death of 5 million in any other way than statistically?

is it better for 100 to have swift death or for 40 000 to be dispossessed?

is it worse if it’s spontaneous or carefully planned?

would you rather have been a polish jew in 1943 or a native american in 1800?

stupid questions like this serve no purpose.

it’s all horrible, NONE of it should happen. full stop.
it’s disrespectful to all victims of murder, torture and violence to suggest that their suffering is trivial compared to the suffering of other groups. this one-up-manship lessens the impact of all atrocities the human race has perpetrated on it’s members.

From the OP:

Couldn’t agree more. The evildoers were people very similar to us. Educated, cultured, modern - they had the vote, read the papers, listened to the radio - and still they did unthinkable crimes. I have a very hard time imagining myself in Russia under Stalin or, for that matter, in Rwanda - but I can only too easily imagine myself as a teenager in Nazi Germany. And I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have fallen for the propaganda, when everyone around me seemed to be marching to the same tune - I believe very few people can. Now, that thought scares the living hell out of me.

So for me, that’s easily terrifying enough to make the Holocaust stand out. There’s no easily applied scale of evildoing, so I believe comparisons with Stalin or Pol Pot are meaningless as to figuring out what was the “most evil” event. But IMHO, there’s no doubt as to which was the most horrifying one.

S. Norman

Yeah, that’s the thing. You look at Germany in the 30’s and you think to yourself “There but for the grace of God go I.” To say otherwise would be to be conceited about yourself. Because you really don’t know how you would have reacted to that kind of massive peer pressure.
That’s what makes it stand out: Germany was a modern, thoroughly industrialized state that had even gone through a long period of liberalizing its laws on discrimination against Jews. And then one man comes along and undoes the whole thing. Makes you think.

Two factors make the German genocide (maybe inspired by Hitler, maybe lead by Hitler, but still German) unique. First, its magnitude. Second, that it was the national policy of a modern western state with a tradition of progressive social legislation.

Thanks for all the replies. I had expected a lot of flames- the post was started after someone suggested that to compare the shoah to other atrocities was devaluing its victims.

I am now reassured that it is possible here to draw valid comparisons between the Shoah and other events without problems.

I think the only difference between the Holocaust and the many other mass slaughters of mankind is that … there is no difference!! The Jews, though, have been verbal about it, organized and deliberate enough to not only go after the surviving war criminals, but to cause legal problems for nations who accepted the Nazi’s stolen goods, including gold from the teeth of the dead. They also have been making sure that people never forget what happened.

In most of the other mass slaughters since the holocaust, few criminals have been brought to trial, and few initiating leaders have answered for their orders to kill millions. Plus, no other slaughter deliberately built extermination camps designed only to do one thing; eliminate everyone in them. It also seems to me that while the mass exterminations in other nations have been savage and cruel, the Holocaust seemed to be the deliberate dragging out of punishment, torture, murder and all things inhumane against the Jews out of some sadistic pleasure.

No other mass murder has been as well organized nor as well detailed and prolonged as the Holocaust.

Most, after the usual sadistic torturing through intimidation, rape, mauling and beatings, are comparatively quick. The people are gathered up and killed then buried in a hole. The Jews were put in slave camps as free labor, their torture was prolonged and hideous, every sadist and freak in the German Army seemed to be there to increase their suffering from killing them at random, to killing them for sport, to killing them in experiments, to killing them slowly and painfully to ‘savor’ their agony.

We have things made out of human skin captured from the Nazi’s. We have pictures of the mounds of human gold teeth ripped from the skulls, mounds of personal jewelry, clothing, and dead stacked up like cord wood.

See, in all of the mass murders since then, for all of their horror, none has come close to what was done to the Jews. The Holocaust committed upon the Jews was not done because of ignorant, brutal, ill trained soldiers being brainwashed by propaganda, cleverly woven around old traditional hatreds, conditioned to do what they were told, like the Vietcong, the Chinese or the Russians but because of a sadistic plan created and run not by Hitler, but by the sociopathic generals he gave the order to.

From these fanatics came more sociopaths and psychopaths which spawned the demented ways to kill the Jews. The Jews were not killed in just a heated rush of animal behavior by nearly psychotic soldiers, but their fate was more hideous by being deliberately orchestrated to become one of the longest periods of carefully guided inhumane treatment for maximum sadistic delight ever known to mankind.

Even the Japanese, well known for their inhumane treatment of prisoners, operated under a code where to become a prisoner was to become something like a cowardly animal, so prisoners were not respected and often were considered a burden. They also were indoctrinated into believing that they were superior to all, that mercy was a weakness and they were to fight to the last one to protect the homeland. Their crimes against humanity, believe it or not, were actually understandable and their leaders quickly killed after the war for indoctrinating their troops to be almost mindless killers.

That is why the Japanese were not punished like the Germans. It appeared to many that the Germans liked slaughtering Jews.

No, the Holocaust is definitely something much different from the subsequent mass murders which have since followed WW2. The Holocaust was deliberately orchestrated and seemed deliberately prolonged, with cruelties beyond those seen in the horrors in some national mass murders today.

Uh, ignore the first sentence of my post, please. It makes no sense in the context of the rest.

I go in with Brite. What makes the Jewish killing in Germany so famous is the way it was carried out in such a methodical, make-sure-to-get-that-signed-in-triplicat-and-filed kind of way.

The stories from the Bible or other wars aren’t as famous for their cruelty, I think because the motives are more clearly understandable: “The Philistines keep raiding my flocks. Let’s just kill them all and finally be safe.”

I’m most of the way through “Berlin Diary”, and the author (aarrghh, what’s his name? Ahhh, William Shirer. Thanks Amazon) is of the opinion that there is something in the German culture that makes the people predisposed to not considering the rights and feelings of other people groups.

I was very surprised to find that an otherwise normal-sounding Christian German I met didn’t like the Turks moving in, not because they were darker, or spoke another language, or went on the dole, or smelled funny, or anything like that. They weren’t German in culture, and that was the entire argument. End of story.

I’d be veeerrry interested if anyone here has insight to whether there was or is a characteristic of German thinking that gives rise to extreme nationalism and bullying.

On the other hand, at least they’ve pretty much faced their past evils and called them evil. The Japanese government is still honoring the dead convicted war criminals.

characterisitc of german thinking etc.

yes. it’s called an inferiority complex. remember, Germany is only 150 years old.

the same could be said of the USA, Ireland, lots of other countries which emerged after the decline of the british empire…

having to be bigger, better, more free, more profitable, etc etc than the next guy. leads to problems.