On February 8, 2013, The Christian Century carried an article by Lauren Markoe entitled “Did gun control prevent Jews from stopping the Holocaust?” It reported on what must be one of the most bizarre misuses of the Holocaust. As the debate over gun control has moved to the forefront of policy debates in the wake of the Newtown school massacre, a number of gun control opponents have made the argument that, if only Jews had possessed guns at the time, the Holocaust would not have happened, or at least the number of its victims would have been greatly reduced. The analogy is made between a Nazi law that prohibited Jews from owning weapons and the current move to strengthen gun controls in the United States. For instance, Andrew Napolitano wrote on FoxNews.com: “If the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had had the firepower and the ammunition that the Nazis did, some of Poland might have stayed free and more persons would have survived the Holocaust.”
The view of the historical situation during World War II is obviously absurd, as a number of commentators have pointed out. The notion that Jews in 1940s Europe could have had sufficient weapons to stop or even significantly hamper the powerful Nazi death machinery is an ignorant fantasy. A small number of Jews did acquire weapons and the heroic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto did kill a few Germans. But it was quickly suppressed, and almost all the people who had survived in the ghetto were massacred in place or deported to the death camps. Napolitano’s notion that Jewish resistance might have allowed “some of Poland” to remain free is in the realm of science fiction.
It should be pointed out that this particular rhetorical misuse of the Holocaust has not been widespread. Critics of gun control and defenders of the Second Amendment, whether one agrees with them or not, have made serious arguments. However, there are deeper reasons than a concern for historical accuracy motivating the outrage caused by the analogy of the Third Reich and the Obama administration. The analogy is profoundly offensive. Michael Moynihan, columnist for the online magazine Tablet, summed up the outrage very neatly: “America isn’t Nazi Germany, and it cheapens the experience of Holocaust victims to suggest otherwise.” One may add that it also betrays a surreally distortive view of America. Deborah Lauter, of the Anti-Defamation League, correctly characterized the analogy as “incredibly insensitive”.
Unfortunately similar misuses of the Holocaust have occurred before, both on the Right and on the Left. The rhetoric of the pro-life movement has again and again compared abortion since Roe v. Wade with the Holocaust. For example, godvoter.org, an Evangelical guide for voters issued prior to the 2012 election, compared America’s abortions and the Nazi Holocaust in two parallel columns—giving a yearly “kill rate” of 1.3 million for the former and 1 million for the latter (adding up to the 6 million during World War II). In the same diagram “unwanted babies” are listed against “unwanted Jews”, and both sets of victims are entered as “not fully human” and “disposed as trash”. Again, in fairness, it should be noted that this analogy is not made in most anti-abortion advocacy. [I cannot resist the temptation to mention, though this is not relevant to the topic of this post, that the same guide also gave grades to the major presidential candidates. Obama, not surprisingly, got a D-. Nobody made it above a C+. But even Rick Santorum only got a C, mainly because he is a Catholic. Mitt Romney, got an F for being a “high priest” of a “satanic cult”.] The offensive rhetoric exists on both sides of the aisle, with some progressives associating conservatives with the Holocaust in particular and with Nazism in general. One Democratic politician in my part of the country compared opponents of same-sex marriage with Holocaust deniers. Even without reference to the Holocaust as such, laws that define marriage as a union of one man and one woman are put in the same category as laws in Southern states that prohibited interracial marriage and Nazi laws against Jews marrying “Aryans”.
The terminology in all this is somewhat unfortunate. The English term “Holocaust” derives from the Greek holokauston, which means a fully burnt sacrifice. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, uses it in Genesis 22. That is the story in which God commanded Abraham, to test his faith, to kill his son Isaac as a “burnt offering” (of course then stopping Abraham before he could perform the sacrifice). It has been pointed out that the use of the term for the Nazi horror is inappropriate, since Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac as an act of faith in God, which certainly does not describe the motivation of the Nazis. Still, the term, even in its decidedly English form has become standard for referring to the event during World War II, also in languages other than English (such as in German). I am not sure how this came about; it may be because of its use in American films produced in the 1970s. Some people, especially in Europe, have preferred the term Shoah, which is the Hebrew word for a catastrophe. [Ironically, the precise Arabic synonym, naqba/”catastrophe”, is used by Palestinians to refer to their experience in 1948 when the State of Israel was established. Given the fact that many Palestinians understand Hebrew, it seems unlikely that the Arabic word is used innocently, without an intended allusion to the Shoah. In that case, it would be another misuse of the Holocaust: While Palestinians have well-grounded grievances against the Jewish state, equating what Israelis have done to them with what the Nazis did to the Jews is, again, wildly disproportionate.] Be this as it may, the term “Holocaust” has now been firmly established, and this is unlikely to change.
Beyond the clear misuses of the term, there is another, much-debated question: Is the Holocaust of European Jewry during World War II an absolutely unique event? Or may it properly be used to refer to other events of mass massacres?
There is another much-used term that further complicates the issue:the term “genocide”. The word this time derives from the Latin, literally meaning “the murder of a people”. I gather that it was occasionally used before World War II, specifically to refer to the massacres of Armenians during World War I. It became an official term of international law in 1948, with the United Nations Convention against the Crime of Genocide, a development very much in the shadow of the Holocaust. There have been trials of individuals over atrocities committed in Cambodia and Rwanda, and in the wars following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. There has been much controversy about these judicial innovations. Probably the most intense debate has been over the fate of Armenians at the hands of the Turkish government. The Armenian state and Armenian organizations have campaigned for the designation of genocide to describe the massacres that began in Anatolia in 1915, and for a formal acknowledgment and apology by the Turkish government—which has fiercely refused. As far as I know, few historians (other than some who are Turkish nationalists) disagree on the basic facts: There was a brutal policy of murderous persecution of Armenians at least in that part of the Ottoman Empire, leading to the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. The debate has been about whether these events fall under the definition of genocide in the Convention—the deliberate destruction of an entire people. I am not competent to enter this debate. However, it sharply raises the question of the uniqueness of the Shoah.
Was the Holocaust unique? I think the answer cannot be an apodictic no or yes. No: The murder of six million Jews by the Nazis clearly falls under the definition of genocide by the 1948 Convention, and in fact was a principal reason why this crime was defined in international law—the Nazis deliberately planned the physical destruction of an entire people, and in the parts of Europe they controlled almost succeeded in this project. But, in all the other cases mentioned here, a good case can be made for the designation of genocide. Whether the Young Turk government in power in Istanbul wanted to kill all Armenians throughout their empire, they certainly went a long way in doing so in its eastern region. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia performed what could be called a policy of auto-genocide: they killed a substantial portion of their own people. The Hutus certainly tried to kill all the Tutsis in Rwanda, and nearly succeeded. And the Serbian campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and Kosovo had a similar aim in more cirscumscribed territories. Thus one can reasonably refer to the Holocaust as an especially heinous case of genocide.
However, I think one must also say, yes, the Holocaust is unique: Because of its geographical scope, the systematic efficiency of its execution and its extraordinary cruelty—and, last not least, its being committed by a nation having long been considered as a paragon of European civilization. One honors and remembers the victims by not subsuming them under an abstract juridical concept. As Elie Wiesel has insisted, precisely by facing the unique character of this atrocity, one becomes alert to all the other atrocities of which human beings are capable.