One and Only

Malcolm Bull

  • The Holocaust in Historical Context. Vol. I: The Holocaust and Mass Death before the Modern Age by Steven Katz
    Oxford, 702 pp, £40.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 19 507220 0

Each person who dies has attributes that are shared with others, and almost every death can be ascribed to a cause that gives rise to multiple mortalities. Some deaths, like that of the Turkish hunter who was recently shot by a snake coiled around his gun, are freak accidents unlikely to be repeated; most are easily categorised by the identity of the deceased and the cause of death. In this way, the numberless dead can be corralled into conceptual villages – female victims of domestic violence, executives with heart attacks, starving refugees and so on. Although epidemiologists and insurance companies use these categories to map the landscape of the dead, their boundaries are rarely sealed. There are diseases endemic to particular populations and certain logical limitations on the possible combinations of personal attributes and causes of death; but the dead, like the quick, usually have multiple identities, and their departure is often over-determined. The spectral geography of the underworld is remarkably fluid; it is a place of shifting populations, constantly moving to fit the categories that the living impose on it.

Steven Katz has set out to secure the boundaries of one contested area by proving that the Jews killed by the Nazis are the sole rightful inhabitants of the territory defined by the concept ‘victims of genocide’: ‘The Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualised policy, to annihilate every man, woman and child belonging to a specific people.’ In the first of the projected three volumes this thesis is defined with ponderous rigour, and then defended in a historical survey of the pre-modern world that clings tenaciously but precariously to the mountainous footnotes beneath it. Subsequent volumes will cover the modern period, and the Nazi era itself. The object is to examine every putative instance of genocide before the Holocaust and demonstrate that it fails to fit the definition.

As an academic project, Katz’s trilogy is unusual: historians rarely review the history of the world in order to show that a recent event is without exact precedent. It is true that ‘genocide’ was a neologism created to describe the Nazi persecution of the Jews and other national groups, but it would seem distinctly odd for someone to write a multi-volume work designed to show, say, that the only people who could properly be termed ‘victims of terror’ were those executed during the phase of the French Revolution to which the term was first applied. However, Katz’s motivation is clear enough. The Jewish victims of the Holocaust have been outstandingly successful in having their sufferings acknowledged and (insofar as it is possible) redressed. Many other victims of persecution would like similar treatment, and it has become routine for cases of organised killing or discrimination to be referred to as ‘genocide’. For example, I recently heard a Ukrainian doctor describe the delay in evacuating the area around Chernobyl as an ‘act of genocide’. She chose the word carefully, but although it functioned as a token of the seriousness of the suffering involved, as an appeal for sympathy and as an indictment of those responsible, it was not an accurate description of the event. For those who have grasped, let alone experienced, the enormity of the Nazi genocide, such elasticity in the word’s range of reference can appear to trivialise the tragedy it originally designated. There may even be grounds for suspecting that the multiplication of parallels to the Judcocide is itself a form of covert anti-semitism. In these circumstances, trying to define the Holocaust in terms appropriate to it seems more than defensible.

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