1.1 The Holocaust: a unique event?
The Holocaust, as the destruction of European Jewry is commonly known, and the broader mass killing pose many questions both for this course and for our understanding of the development of European civilisation during the twentieth century. I cannot hope to answer these questions here, in so few words.
The table below estimates the number of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust.
Table 1 The genocide of Jews by the Nazis (minimum and maximum estimates)
|Country||Jewish population||Estimates of number of Jews killed|
|Lowest||Highest||% of Jewish population|
|Denmark||(less than 100)|
From your own general knowledge, do you consider the Holocaust to have been a unique event?
You may be aware of the Turkish massacres of Armenians during the First World War. There were also massacres of Greeks and Turks by opposing sides during the Turkish–Greek War of 1921–22; Serbs were reported to be imposing their dominance in the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes by killing ethnic and religious rivals. You may also have heard of the Ustashi massacres of Serbs, the Serb massacres of Croats and the Soviet massacres of Poles. However, what we might term the ‘industrial plants’ of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka were designed to manufacture death. They used modern technology to mass-produce killing, unlike the grisly, primitive barbarism of the Ustashi death camp at Jasenovac. And I think it is justifiable to say that they constituted a qualitative and quantitative jump in massacre and genocide.
The question I posed here takes us to the heart of issues surrounding the Holocaust. Is it unique? If so, what makes it unique? And, of course, why did it happen as and when it did? In 1981 Tim Mason suggested a major division between historians of the Holocaust: the ‘intentionalists’, who stress Hitler's ideology and leadership, and point to a programme of policies which the Nazis sought to implement from the beginning; and the ‘functionalists’, who put less emphasis on individuals and their ideas, and more on the institutional and social structures of Nazi Germany (Mason, ‘Intention and explanation: a current controversy about the interpretation of National Socialism’, 1981). There are also arguments over the extent to which the German people as a whole were to blame; were they, as Daniel J. Goldhagen has argued, ‘Hitler's willing executioners' (1996)? And to what extent should the Holocaust be seen either, in essence, as a ‘war’ against the Jews, or as one element of a much broader denial of human value to a whole clutch of individuals and social groups – Gypsies, homosexuals and others, as well as, most significantly in terms of numbers, Jews. Although in the mass killings of the Holocaust this denial reached its most horrifying manifestation, the science on which it was based was not unique to Nazi Germany.