The Holocaust: What Makes the Holocaust Unique?
The eminent Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, offers a concise outline of the distinguishing characteristics of the Holocaust in his book, To Mend the World:
- The "Final Solution" was designed to exterminate every single Jewish man, woman and child. The only Jews who would have conceivably survived had Hitler been victorious were those who somehow escaped discovery by the Nazis.
- Jewish birth (actually mere evidence of "Jewish blood") was sufficient to warrant the punishment of death. Fackenheim notes that this feature distinguished Jews from Poles and Russians who were killed because there were too many of them, and from "Aryans" who were not singled out unless they chose to single themselves out. With the possible exception of Gypsies, he adds, Jews were the only people killed for the "crime" of existing.
- The extermination of the Jews had no political or economic justification. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself. The killing of Jews was not considered just a part of the war effort, but equal to it; thus, resources that could have been used in the war were diverted instead to the program of extermination.
- The people who carried out the "Final Solution" were primarily average citizens. Fackenheim calls them "ordinary job holders with an extraordinary job." They were not perverts or sadists. "The tone-setters," he says, "were ordinary idealists, except that their ideals were torture and murder." Someone else once wrote that Germany was the model of civilized society. What was perverse, then, was that the Germans could work all day in the concentration camps and then go home and read Schiller and Goethe while listening to Beethoven.
Other examples of mass murder exist in human history, such as the atrocities committed by Pol Pot in Cambodia and the Turkish annihilation of the Armenians. But none of those other catastrophes, Fackenheim argues, contain more than one of the characteristics described above.
Jews do not need to compete in a morbid contest as to who has suffered the most in history. It is important, however, to explain why the Holocaust is a unique part of human history.
Sources: Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World, (IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).