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.

All the same, you don’t have to be rabidly anti-Semitic to notice that Katz’s project involves the exclusion of all the non-Jews who claim to be victims of genocide; or to see the parallels between Zionism and the attempt to establish a purely Jewish territory in the land of the dead. Katz is genuinely sympathetic to the multitudes of ancient POWs, medieval heretics, homosexuals, witches and even Jews that he shepherds across the border in the course of this book, and he will doubtless be equally understanding to the African slaves, native Americans, kulaks and Armenians who are to be evicted in its sequel, not to mention the Gypsies and Slavs who await deportation in the third volume. He is adamant, however, that whatever their hardships such people belong elsewhere; they deserve recognition, but the recognition appropriate to the particular type of persecution they suffered. There is no strictly logical reason why these resettled victims should be any worse off as a result; as Katz points out, ‘Knowing that X is not Y does not entail that those who know phenomenological U about X cannot empathise and be practically concerned with the victims of Y, even if Y lacks U.’ But this is beside the point. Both empathy and concern are finite human resources; by being labelled victims of genocide, some vulnerable groups have gained a degree of protection that might otherwise be denied them; without the label, they may again find themselves in no man’s land, excluded from the world’s sympathies not by force of logic, but by the economics of scarcity.

Although Katz would probably respond indignantly to any suggestion that his work was part of an ongoing competition for public attention between Jews and other groups, there can be little doubt that his definition of genocide – which differs from that used in the UN Convention on Genocide in its insistence that genocide must involve the actualised intention of bringing about the physical destruction of an entire social group – has been formulated with a view to excluding all previous victims of persecution as well as non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Katz is probably right to dismiss the concept of ‘cultural genocide’ – which equates sweeping social change with death, and so makes modernisation and reform, along with racism and repression, into purely destructive activities – and to insist that the intention be actualised (genocidal wishes are too commonplace: ‘I want to see the last king strangled with the guts of the last priest,’ ‘one settler, one bullet,’ ‘Nuke lran/q’ etc). However, his requirement that genocide refer only to the killing of entire ‘national, ethnic, racial, religious, political, social, gender or economic groups’ rather than definable sub-groups seems arbitrarily designed to exclude episodes like the Athenians’ slaughter of all the adult males of Melos or Tamerlane’s penchant for murdering the entire populations of cities.

The stipulation that the truly genocidal must intend to kill all the members of the specified group is still more problematic. We customarily use words ending in ‘cide’ to include both murder and manslaughter, and (except in the case of suicide) define them in terms of consequences rather than intentions. There is cetainly a distinction to be made between someone who kills the last surviving members of an ethnic group because of their ethnicity, and someone who kills them in a random shooting, or in a traffic accident, but it seems merely casuistic to argue that it cannot be called ‘genocide’ unless the original intention was to kill every single man, woman and child in the group. For the historian and the sociologist, if not the perpetrator’s confessor or defence counsel, there may appear to be little difference between planning to kill only those members of a group who resist death by starvation or disease (a standard colonial pattern), and setting out to kill the entire group through the same combination of methods.

Katz’s definition of genocide is so qualified it is uncertain whether even the Holocaust meets all the requirements. Until 1939, German Jews were actively encouraged to emigrate; during the first two years of the war, various plans for Jewish resettlement in Eastern Europe or Madagascar were seriously discussed; from early in 1944, Himmler was open to the idea of using the Jews as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Allies. Even during the two and a half years in which no alternatives were pursued, extermination was not the only objective, for Jews also served as valuable forced labour in the ghettoes and camps; of the millions who died, not all were murdered by Nazi personnel, or simply because of their race: some were killed because they resisted, others because they were judged unfit to work, and, in appallingly unnatural conditions, many died of natural causes. Despite all this, some survived. For Katz, it is not enough to be able to show that the Nazis killed all those Jews who could not be expelled or exploited. But proving that the Nazi state had the consistent and single-minded intention of killing the entire Jewish people, or even all the Jews within the Axis sphere of dominance, is, as many historians have found, quite difficult. There are no written orders to this effect, and even if there were, it would still be necessary to explain why the Final Solution was not implemented more rapidly and relentlessly.

If it were to be shown that the Holocaust was not a genocide in Katz’s restricted sense, I doubt that he would continue to use the definition he has formulated with such care, for what he seeks is not a definition but a definite description. (He passes over the one episode that would appear to fit his definition perfectly – namely, the divinely decreed destructions of Amalek in 1 Samuel, of which he notes obscurely that ‘their historicity, even if actual, belongs to a different realm of events and, given their distinct and distinctive theological valence, requires a different form of analysis.’) For Katz, the definition of ‘genocide’ is only a means to an end. The essential claim is that the Holocaust is unique.

Outside of Holocaust studies, uniqueness is a concept prized chiefly by aestheticians. Insofar as philosophers of history are concerned with it, they are not trying to sort out the unique occurrences from the mass of repeated events, but to establish whether, given the uniqueness of all historical events, there is scope for generalisation and comparison. The problem with uniqueness is its potential ubiquity. Thus, although the Guinness Book of Records contains a list of ‘unique’ events, the criteria for inclusion are arbitrary, and the list could be expanded indefinitely – not just the fastest time in which a man has run 1500 metres, but also 1499 metres, and 1500 metres on a wet Wednesday afternoon with a shopping bag in each hand. Nobody would want a book like that, nor a similar compilation of unique deaths. If it could be shown that the man shot by a snake was the only individual ever to have been killed in this manner, it would add nothing significant to our understanding of the event, for it goes without saying that each category of the dead dies in its own way. That someone should wish to relegate the Holocaust to this banal level of distinction is astonishing, yet this is precisely what Katz has set out to achieve.

His stated aim is to bridge the gap between those who claim that the Holocaust is morally, metaphysically or theologically unique, and those who believe that it must be placed in historical, and thus comparative, perspective, by arguing that it has a ‘phenomenological uniqueness’ as a historical instance of genocide. But because he wishes to avoid claiming for the Holocaust the kind of ‘transcending uniqueness’ that would place it beyond the scope of historical investigation, Katz fails to distinguish his ‘phenomenological uniqueness’ from what might be termed ‘ordinary uniqueness’. On his definition, being unique amounts to nothing more than being uniquely x, where x is a property not shared by any other event. Katz acknowledges that actions like flipping on a light switch or drinking a cup of coffee could be said to meet these criteria, but notes, without further explanation, that ‘obviously, when speaking of the Nazi war against the Jews as unique, we mean something more than is involved in these examples.’ And clearly Katz means more than he manages to say. What I suspect he wants to argue is not that the Holocaust is uniquely genocidal but that it is a uniquely cruel and horrifying event in human history. This claim would at least be commensurate with the monumental scale of his project, and it would help to explain why he devotes so much detailed comparative analysis to cruelties which are, given his definition of genocide, irrelevant to the argument.

It is tempting to conclude that the obsessive concern with uniqueness – of which Katz’s work is just the most weighty example – has been a divisive and unproductive development in discussion of the Holocaust. There are important issues at stake, however. It could be argued that if the Holocaust is unique, then its victims and perpetrators also are unique – which is more or less how Germany and Israel have been treated since 1945. However, there seems little reason why that special status should continue, and the intensification of the debate about uniqueness can be read as part of the attempt to redefine national identities.

There is, however, something more fundamental at issue. In literary and philosophical discussions of the Holocaust it is often assumed that (as George Steiner put it) ‘each of us has been diminished by the enactment of a potential subhumanity latent in all of us.’ This belief inevitably leads to the question: if this is man, what does it mean to be human? If the Holocaust is unique, that question need be asked only once, of a single event, now buried beneath fifty years of history. But if the Holocaust was just business as usual as far as the human species is concerned, the question becomes more pressing, and the possible answer to it rather less attractive. We can get a sense of what this might mean if we look at the Holocaust through Nazi eyes.

In Hitler’s opinion, as recorded in his table talk, the destruction of the Jews was far from unique. It was merely another example of the ‘law of nature which demands that all living things should mutually devour one another’. Just as ‘the fly is snapped up by a dragon fly, which itself is swallowed by a bird, which itself falls victim to a larger bird,’ so the Jews, who feed off other nations, will be destroyed by the Nazi Party, ‘the most voracious animal in world history’. Hitler expressed no desire to exempt humanity from this vicious natural cycle; his concern was to re-establish the proper hierarchy of murder. A case in which a poacher received a longer sentence for killing a hare than had a man whose dog had killed a child seems to have troubled him greatly. It showed how the world was turned upside down: it was as beneath the dignity of men to shoot hares as it was beyond the legitimate scope of dogs to kill children, but since men were higher up the evolutionary ladder than dogs, dogs (or their owners) needed stiffer sentences, while poachers needed more suitable quarry. Restoring justice meant sorting out who had the right to kill what.

The war against the Jews fitted easily into this world view because it could be interpreted as another form of inter-species conflict. For centuries, Jews had been likened to animals: John Chrysostom had placed them at ‘the level of the lusty goat and the pig’; in the influential 19th-century anti-Semitic novel Biarritz, they were described as having ‘the tenacity of a snake, the cunning of a fox, the look of a falcon, the memory of a dog, the diligence of an ant, and the sociability of a beaver’; Hitler compared them to wolves and horses on account of their ‘primitive herd instinct’. The Jews did not accept their animality, however. On the contrary, as Sergey Nilus (the editor of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) complained, they actually believed that ‘they are the only race which deserves to be called human’ and treated ‘all Gentiles as though they were beasts’. The Nazis sought to rectify the problem. In Hitler’s words: ‘I set the Aryan and the Jew over against each other: and if I call one of them a human being, I must call the other something else. The two are widely separated as man and beast.’

The Holocaust transformed this rhetoric into reality. Poachers were singled out for release from prison and formed into a commando unit so that they could use their skills to track down Jews and Bolsheviks on the Eastern Front. The Jews transported to the camps frequently travelled in cattle trucks. If selected for death, they were generally gassed with Zyklon-B, customarily used to kill rodents and insects. When subjected to medical experiments, inmates of the camps often took the place of the animals the Nazi scientists had used previously. In Auschwitz, where animal flesh was in shorter supply than human, people were shot purely to obtain muscle tor culture media. As one inmate later commented, the doctors in the camps looked on the prisoners as ‘so many rabbits’.

For those involved in the Holocaust, whether perpetrators, victims or just critical observers, there seems to have been little difficulty in describing what it was like, or to what it might appropriately be compared. Almost all concerned noted that the victims of the Nazis were being treated in the way animals were usually treated. Neither the kind of thing the Nazis did nor the methods they used were novel. All that happened was that humans replaced the animals. The extension of agricultural and veterinary philosophies to the social and medical sciences had begun with the euthanasia programme, in which thousands of the ill and disabled were murdered. ‘It is said of these patients,’ remarked euthanasia’s leading critic, Count von Galen, Bishop of Münster, that ‘they are like ... an old horse which is hopelessly paralysed, like a cow which no longer gives milk.’ Nazi racial theory suggested that even healthy Jews were like diseased or verminous animals, and Hitler could later argue that the fate of the Jews was not cruel ‘considering that even innocent natural creatures like rabbits and deer have to be decimated to prevent spoliation’.

Because the Holocaust would have been inconceivable without the technologies and patterns of thought developed for dealing with animals, it may well be right to view it in the context of inter-species relations. The Nazi persecution of the Jews can thus be seen as a kind of inversion of the Great Ape Project (which currently aims to extend human rights to primates). The interpretation should not be dismissed just because it was favoured by Hitler himself. It does have unpleasant consequences, however. It suggests that the parallels to the Holocaust are very close to home. Who would do such things? Some would do them to animals: Kenneth Baker (with his legislation against dangerous dogs), all those cheerful researchers in the biomedical sciences and the people from the council’s pest control department. But who would do such things to human beings? Any of the above who made a category mistake. Is it easy to make mistakes about who is fully human and who is not? Both sides in the abortion debate are convinced that it is. On this interpretation, the Holocaust is not an aberration or reversal; it does not represent the double-sidedness of modernity, the psyche or anything else; it was just a case of everyday actions finding a different object.

If the Holocaust was the result of confusion about where to draw the line on this question of human identity, the matter of its uniqueness takes another form. Suppose we accept the idea that the Jews (and some other races) were treated in the way that animals are normally treated; is such behaviour more characteristic of the human treatment of animals or of the behaviour of animals toward one another? If what happened during the Holocaust was, as many people believe, in some sense bestially subhuman, we are pushed towards Hitler’s theory that it was really a form of inter-species conflict. If, on the other hand, the Holocaust was characteristic of human but not animal behaviour, we may have to conclude that, although not unique as human actions go, it was at least uniquely human. Both alternatives undermine cherished ideas about what is specifically human. The Holocaust suggests either that humans are not different from other animals, or that they are distinguished by their savagery.

To avoid these conclusions, one has to remove the Holocaust from an inter-species context. It then becomes an exceptional event in human history uncharacteristic of the way the species normally behaves. Perhaps this is why so many people seem willing to accept the argument for uniqueness. Making the Holocaust unique helps to keep the species intact; it separates the men from the snakes in the garden of the dead.