A journalist once summed up the uniqueness of theHolocaust into one sentence: “Other genocides have targeted groups or races formass murder; but they were not designedto remove them in their entirety”1. Howeverit wasn’t only the drive of Nazi Germany to make the Jewish people extinct thatmake the Holocaust unique. The practises used to humiliate and dehumanise Jewsalso play a large factor in making the Holocaust stand out against othergenocides, the killing methods used and also the public response to this majorevent all piece together one of the world’s most tragic events. In this essay Iwill discuss the aspects of the Holocaust that differ and relate to other majorhistorical genocides that have occurred and in turn come to a conclusion as tohow far we can say the Holocaust was unique in regards to other tragedies ofthe sort.The Holocaust was not unique in the fact that itwas an attack directed towards a certain demographic, as history shows thatmany different ethnic groups have been subject to genocides in their own right.The Holocaust was a genocide of the Jewish people, which can be compared to theArmenian Genocide or the Porajmos, two other genocides directed towardsArmenians and Romani Gypsies respectfully. However, what does make the holocaustunique is that the Germans chose to remove the Jews from society through a seriesof well-planned stages in the years before the organisedmass murders. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party or the Nazi Party(which I will be using to refer to the political party from this point forward),started implementing anti-Jewish policies in 1933, kicking off the first stageof Jewish persecution.
The attacks on Jews that began in March of 19332 wereonly the by-products of the actions that the Nazi party was taking to exclude Jews from society, as in themonths of March and April the Nazis took over employer’s associations and uniongroups in attempts to drive Jewish professionals out of their occupations. Thesecond stage of Jewish persecution began in January of 1935 and lasted up untilthe late summer of 19353.The ban on “miscegenation” or inter-breedingbetween races was implemented as well as separate citizenship laws andregulations for Jews working in finance and economics. The third stagefollowing closely behind the second stage, starting at the end of the 1935summer saw the exclusion of Jews from German welfare handouts, German HealthSystem and certain aspects of the German school system. The fourth and finalstage of the Jewish racial persecution was done through state endorsedactivities between the years of 1937 and 1939. Forceful property and businessseizures from Jewish owners were widespread and the Nazi organised riot programs such as “Kristallnacht”(Night of Broken Glass) were incredibly successful at turning the German peopleagainst their Jewish neighbours. It couldbe argued that other minority groups were subject to similar persecution inNazi Germany, such as Romani Gypsies, political opponents, homosexuals and thephysically or mentally handicapped.
However,a counter argument for this is that theNazi party treated these types of minority groups very differently to theJewish population, opting to euthanize/sterilize them than to put them throughthe different stages of maltreatment. It is important to understand thatalthough the treatment of minority groups throughout Nazi Germany was abhorrentand inherently evil, there is a distinction between cold-blooded killing andpsychologically conditioning an entire ethnic group to believe they aresubhuman… and then to systematically attempt to render them extinct.The methods used by the Ottoman Turks toexterminate an estimated 1.5 million Armenians can only be described asbarbarous and uncivilised. Mass burnings,poison and drug overdoses, drowning and death marches were all practises employed by the Ottomans on theirtirade through Armenia.
The Hutus chose to hunt down up to one million Tutsisand execute them with machetes during the proceedings of the Rwandan genocide4.The Cambodian Genocide is famous for its killing fields, militia murderedparents with sharpened bamboo sticks or poison to save on ammunition and then”smashed their children’s skulls to stop them taking revenge”5.These genocides, like many others, are notoriously known for their savagekilling methods, processes of extermination that would be perceived to becommonplace hundreds of years ago and not in the 20th century inwhich they were carried out. This is what sets the Holocaust aside from othermajor acts of atrocity, that the Germans were incredibly meticulous andcreative in their killings and spared no expense. In the beginning of the year1942, 15 high ranking members of the Nazi party met in the Berlin suburb of Wansee to discuss the implementation of the ‘FinalSolution to the Jewish Question’, this event came to be known as the infamous ‘Wansee Conference’. The outcome of theconference was the mutual agreement that all Jews in Europe should be shippedto Nazi controlled Poland where theywould be imprisoned in concentration camps and killed.6 Bythis time many concentration camps had already been created and were in fulloperation, examples of this are Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec and Chelmno, but mass shipping of Jews forexecution into these camps truly began mid-1942.
It is estimated that around 6million Jews died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans, out of the 6million approximately 2.3 million Jewish people were killed in the five mainextermination camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmo). The process for a Jew entering into aconcentration camp was incredibly dehumanisingand methodical.
As soon as Jewish prisoners stepped foot off of the trains thathad brought them there they wereseparated by gender, children staying with the mother. The next step was forthe prisoners to be registered, then all head hair was shaved off and clothingremoved, preparing them for a shower.7Only in Auschwitz were prisoners tattooed on their arm with theiridentification number. If it was decided that the prisoners would beexterminated upon arriving at the camp then they would not be showered, but instead lead into a gas chamber disguised as ashower room. This is where the infamous gas, Zyklon B, would be administered.The process for administering Jews into the concentration camps was not onlywell planned out and organised but aneffective weapon in dehumanising andhumiliating the Jews. Other methods of killing that the Germans employed were theuse of the Einsatzgruppen and Gaswagens.
The Einsatzgruppen was a special deathsquad operated under the SS (Schutzstaffel),created by Heinrich Himmler and were tasked with exterminating Jews and other individualsthe Germans deemed undesirables. Gaswagens were contraptions used by theEinsatzgruppen and other subdivisions of the Wehrmacht8,vans that were modified to be airtight in the rear compartment and had an inletfrom the exhaust so that victims being held would be asphyxiated by CarbonMonoxide. Death squads and gas vans are definitely not unique methods forcarrying out killings, the Russians had practically invented death squads inthe times of the October Revolution and they were the inspiration behind thegas vans. What the Germans did do that was unique was that they professionalised and perfected these methods tobecome incredibly effective in the crude art of killing. The same can be saidfor the concentration camps, used by the British in the Boer war and claimed tobe invented by the Spanish sometime in the mid-19th century butperfected by Nazi Germany in the early 1940’s.
When comparing genocides by death toll it isevident that the Holocaust comes out on top with estimates of total life lost caused by the Nazis ranging from 11million to 17 million, and 5 to 6 million of said deaths were solely Jewish9.The genocides that follow closely behind in regards to death toll are theHolodomor Genocide and the Cambodian Genocide with estimates ranging from 2 to7.5 million deaths and 1.4 to 3 million deaths respectively. It is incrediblydifficult to comprehend the sheer vastness of these figures, especially whenconsidering the Holocaust and the methods used to exterminate all of thosemillions of individuals. The next largest genocide, the Holodomor, was carriedout by Stalin’s Soviet Government by artificially starving the nation of Ukraineby taking control of large amounts of peasant-ownedfarmland. Understanding that to kill so many people by forced starvation is –in layman’s terms – relatively simple, but to put such a vast amount of peoplethrough a specific system like the Nazi’s did is astounding.
When learning of the details of a historicaltragedy it is important to understand the reasoning behind it, why such eventscame about and the justifications that the perpetrators had for conducting suchan event. In the case of Nazi Germany, it could be argued that Adolf Hitler wasthe cause for the hatred for the Jewish race. However this simply is not trueas anti-sematic views were widespread throughout Europe before the rise of theNazi party and Hitler. Christian theology is behind some of the large amountsof anti-semitism that was prevalent in the years before the Nazi party, abelief that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus and the view that theJewish were a race were in combat with the white Aryan race. Hitler was anextremely intelligent individual and a skilled manipulator and used thepre-existing hatred for the Jewish race as a foundation to build up the Jewishpeople as a living evil entity, a so called enemy of the state. Hitler’s moremodern reasoning for persecuting the Jewish people was based on the First WorldWar and the German defeat, blaming the Jews for stabbing Germany in the back.This can relate to other genocides closely such as the Cambodian Genocide.
TheCambodian Genocide came about due to the Khmer Rouge (led by Pol Pot) regime’swant to bring the nation back to a time when society was purely agricultural, atime the common people were focused on maintaining crops and farmland insteadof what was actually happening, the society was becoming more modern andadvanced. A KR leader is once reported to have said that the genocide was forthe “purification of the populace”10.This wording is very similar to what we know the Germans would say to justifytheir killings of the Jews, so in this sense the motivations were not entirelyunique. The reaction to the events that went on duringthe Holocaust after WW II were incredibly unique and resonated all around theworld. From the Nuremberg Trials to the recognition of the word Genocide by theUN and the weight that it carries with it show that the human race had comeforward in accepting what had happened, wanted to punish those responsible and attempt to make sure thatnothing like it would ever occur again. However, the very same nations that encourageda heavy punishment for all those responsible for the Holocaust did not takeaction during the Holocaust, when the Jewish people needed them most.
PresidentRoosevelt failed to mention anything about the treatment of the Jews in NaziGermany to the US press11,his Treasury official Josiah Dubois had to make the announcement after 998press conferences without mention of the atrocities. Switzerland, as a neutralcountry would have been expected to have no part in the persecution of theJews, but in fact aided in making travel and emigration more difficult forthose fleeing Nazi Germany. Switzerland closed her borders to all refugees fromthe 13th of August 1942 until the 12th of July 1944 andwere the catalyst behind all Jews receiving stamps on their passports toidentify them as being part of the minority group12.Switzerland also upheld some of Germany’s anti-sematic laws and leaders of theRed Cross (based in Switzerland) urged their committee to not condemn Germanyand their “attacks” on “certain categories of nationalities”13. Manyconferences were held in response to the ever increasing knowledge that NaziGermany was persecuting an ethnic group on a level never witnessed before. TheEvian Conference held in 1938 and the Bermuda Conference held in 1943 bothdiscussed the issue of Jewish refugees. The result of both conferences wereequal, most of the western countries attending refused to increase their quotasfor the amount of Jews allowed to enter their countries. The US even went asfar as disallowing fleeing Jews to fill the quota spots set aside for them asthe Department of State held onto 90% of the spaces allowed for such refugees.
However, in a time of rigidity in politics there were some nations that helpedthe Jews in any way they could. The Dominican Republic offered to accept up to100,000 Jewish refugees14, Denmarksaved 95% of all its Jewish inhabitants by sending them to neutral Sweden15and even Japan, an axis power, saved over 6,000 Jewish refugees from Lithuania16.In relation to other genocides, the public reaction is not wholly unique.
TheChinese government was a major supporter of the Khmer Rouge during theCambodian Genocide, supplying them with massive amounts of aid and over 15,000military advisers. In the UK and the US it was widely known what was going onin Armenia but external aid was seldom given. In conclusion it is evident that there are someaspects that make the Holocaust entirely unique from other genocides that haveoccurred, but there are also aspects that are universal between genocides orshare similar characteristics. The methods used by the Nazis to kill so manyJews were not entirely unique but were performed at such a professional levelto merit the Holocaust as not an “amateur” genocide as such.
Also publicresponse to the incident, like to many other genocides they follow the patternof not getting involved during, but publicly stating that the act was of ahorrific nature after the fact. 1 Pollard,The characteristics that made theHolocaust the most horrible crime ever committed2Longerich, Holocaust : The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews, Page 323Ibid, Page 524 Prunier,The Rwanda crisis : history of a genocide,Page 2475Buncome, Khmer Rouge chief: babies were’smashed to death’6Longerich, Holocaust : The NaziPersecution and Murder of the Jews, Page 3097Processing and Routines, HolocaustExplained 8Longerich, Heinrich Himmler: A Life,Page 5429UnitedStates Holocaust Memorial Museum,Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution10Hannum,International Law and Cambodian Genocide:The Sounds of Silence11Medoff, Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E.DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for an American Response to the Holocaust,Page 6 12Hilberg,Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: TheJewish Catastrophe 1933–1945, Page 25813Ibid,Page 25914Museumof Jewish Heritage, A Community Born inPain and Nurtured in Love15Auschwitz-BirkenauState Museum, Holocaust Survivors andRemembrance Project “Forget You Not”16Pfefferman,Sugihara’s Mitzvah