Should other genocides be equated with Holocaust

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Could anyone but crazed madmen have conceived of and carried out the Holocaust? Is mass murder the result of specific circumstances or are we all capable of playing a part in mass murder with only a thin veneer of civilization separating us from death camp guards?

It is these questions that have haunted historians and students of the Holocaust for the last half century. It is within the answers to them that we seek the lessons of this awful chapter of history. They arise again this year as a recent book has re-started the debate about the universality of the Holocaust.

The book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, argues that the murder of 6 million Jews was not carried out by a crazed Nazi elite. Rather, Goldhagen sets out to prove that large numbers of "ordinary" Germans played an enthusiastic part in the killing.

Moreover, he believes the killing was made possible by an "eliminationist" mentality that was widely shared by Germans, but for the most part, not by other nationalities.

The idea of blaming the Holocaust on Germans may not strike you as such a controversial idea or worthy of the large amount of press coverage the book has received. After all, the Germans were the ones who did it, weren't they?

But in 1996, to actually say that there was something specifically evil in the German culture and people of that time is to be politically incorrect on a monumental scale.

Goldhagen has contradicted the conventional wisdom being handed down to us by many in the Holocaust education business these days. Namely, that all messages of hate about anyone, anywhere and under virtually any circumstances can lead to a holocaust. They have made the Holocaust not a chapter of history, but a metaphor for any horrible event.

Last year, Janice Darsa, a spokesperson for "Facing History," a nationwide curriculum that is the epitome of politically correct Holocaust education, spoke at the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration at the Connecticut Capitol in Hartford. Darsa expressed the belief that all forms of insensitive or hateful behavior can lead to future atrocities. She presented a diverse list of "hate-speech" purveyors including radio performer Howard Stern, Nation of Islam spokesman Khalil Muhammad, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and U.S. House Majority Leader Richard Armey.

Viewed through the prism of Darsa's universalizing of the Holocaust, there is no real difference between off-color and tasteless ethnic humor and Joseph Goebbels. Bad thoughts can lead to very bad things, she seems to be telling us.

Going even further, Darsa spoke of President Harry Truman's decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima in the same context as Auschwitz. Universalizing the Holocaust now leads some to be unable to draw moral distinctions between those who fought against the Nazis and those allied with them.

Teaching people to avoid hate speech is laudable. Prejudice is a corrosive, corrupting force in society that can lead to violence. But there is a real difference between telling stupid jokes in a pluralistic, democratic society where individual rights are protected by law and what happened in Germany. These far-fetched and utterly inappropriate analogies have a way of diluting the impact of Holocaust education and even trivializing it. If the Holocaust is about everything, then it is likely that our listeners will conclude that it is about nothing in particular. We achieve nothing with that kind of teaching.

The Holocaust was unique, but it was far from being the only instance of mass murder in this century. Other examples abound: the suffering of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks during World War I; Stalin's "terror-famine," which cost the lives of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s and his purges, which sent even more millions to their deaths a few years later; the Khmer Rouge's mad ideological killing of millions of fellow Cambodians in 1975. Just two years ago, Hutus slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda.

Are they all the same as the Holocaust? Yes and no. Yes, in that ultimately they were all about the act of murder on a large scale. In Rwanda and Armenia, the same type of "eliminationist" psychology that Goldhagen writes of existing among Germans was part of the Turkish and Hutu mentality. But no, in that very specific historical and cultural trends led to them.

Six years ago, the late great Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz wrote in Commentary magazine that the problem with Holocaust education curricula like "Facing History" lay in their "failure to impart any moral lesson about the specific crime of murder." She felt that by dragging politically fashionable concerns such as the threat of nuclear war or gay rights into the question of a policy of exterminating an entire group was misleading and unproductive.

Her answer to the question of how to educate youngsters to the dangers of hatred was simpler.

"We turn to the Sixth Commandment, which prescribes, `Thou shalt not murder,'" wrote Dawidowicz. "This in my view, is the primary lesson of the Holocaust."

What separates us from the Nazis is not a "veneer of civilization" but an adherence to a morality. Societies in which murder is legitimized and rationalized rather than proscribed by the laws of heaven are the source of Holocausts.

Many of us have a deeply felt need to try and make the lessons of the Holocaust as universal as possible while preserving its uniqueness. That's a difficult combination. And in the inevitable confusion that stems from trying to tell these two different, if not entirely contradictory lessons, something gets lost. Namely that the historical lesson that we need to remember was that the Holocaust was primarily the result of two things: anti-Semitism and Jewish powerlessness.

In bringing the history of the Holocaust to the rest of the world, many Jews seem shy about making specific points about anti-Semitism. It is far easier to water down the message and to talk only about hatred in the abstract. Hatred is terrible. But not all hatred leads to Auschwitz. And that is why Goldhagen's book is important. It took a particular set of circumstances to bring us to that moment in history. Only by looking squarely at those circumstances without flinching can we hope to avoid its repetition.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.