The Holocaust
The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

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
Poland 3,300,000 2,350,000 2,900,000 88
USSR 2,100,000 700,000 1,000,000 48
Romania 500,000 200,000 420,000 49
Czechoslovakia 360,000 233,000 300,000 83
Germany 240,000 160,000 200,000 83
Hungary 403,000 180,000 200,000 50
Lithuania 155,000 135,000 87
France 300,000 60,000 130,000 43
Holland 150,000 104,000 120,000 80
Latvia 95,000 85,000 89
Yugoslavia 75,000 55,000 65,000 87
Greece 75,000 57,000 60,000 80
Austria 60,000 40,000 67
Belgium 100,000 25,000 40,000 48
Italy 75,000 8,500 15,000 26
Bulgaria 50,000 7,000 14
Denmark (less than 100)
Luxembourg 3,000
Norway 1,000
Total [8,388,000] 4,194,200 5,721,000 68
(Source: Tim Kirk, The Longman Companion to Nazi History, 1995, p.172)

Activity 1

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.


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