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Wednesday, December 29, 2004
The Holocaust in Context

John's done an excellent job debunking Goldhagen's thesis. Leaving aside the details of John's critique (which Christopher Browning addresses in his latest book on The Origins of the Final Solution), Goldhagen is guilty of several fallacies of causation outlined by David Hackett Fischer in his wonderful little treatise Historians' Fallacies. The first is the reductive fallacy, by which a complex event (in this case, the Final Solution) is reduced to a simplistic explanation (virulent anti-Semitism). The second and related fallacy is the fallacy of responsibility as cause, which Fischer describes as "merging two different questions and demanding a single answer: 'How did it happen?' and 'Who is to blame?'" Ideologies in themselves, however hateful they are, are not the causes of great historical events (although they may be sufficient to explain individual actions); it is when these ideologies find expression in the institutions of power that things happen.

Why, then, do we "privilege" (to use a piece of contemporary jargon) the Holocaust over all other historical examples of mass killling? John suggests that there are many more "relevant" instances to study for the purpose of "moral instruction," and proceeds to rattle off a few of them: extermination of the native Americans (North and South), Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan. He could have added Cambodia, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalinist Russia, et al.

I'm not sure what John means by "relevant." If relevance is related to closeness in time, then the example of the native Americans doesn't seem that relevant; if it means culturally, then the examples of Rwanda and Sudan don't really matter to Americans or the West. As for me, while I regard all these examples as essential, I do think the Holocaust has a special (not in a moral sense) place in the historical consciousness of the West, and let me explain why.

To begin with, the Holocaust involved the Jewish people, and they occupy a special place in the history of the West. No historical group, at least within Western history broadly conceived, can claim to have been persecuted in the ways that the Jews were for several thousand years.

The Holocaust was also part of a larger historical picture in its time, by which I mean of course WWII. If the Great War was pointless in its destruction, WWII -- leaving aside the temporary alliance between the Allies and Soviet Russia -- was imbued from the start with a strong moral purpose: the destruction of fascism. The Holocaust did not take place in deepest Africa, and it did not involve the peoples of a single country in the way that the Cultural Revolution did. It took place within the context of the largest war the world has (not just had) ever known.

And third, it took place in Germany, the great hope for the (old) new world order envisioned by Wilson and the League of Nations; the home of Goethe, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Ranke. How could a distinguished nation commit such an atrocity? This is the question that all historians of the Holocaust ask themselves. Goldhagen is content to dehumanize all Germans as absolutely committed to the killing of all Jews; by contrast, as Christopher Browning describes in Ordinary Men, most Germans were not by instinct or by custom killers. The Nazis, as many have pointed out, were men of culture, not illiterate Cambodian peasants or Rwandan tribesmen.

Finally, the nature of the genocide committed by the Nazis was distinctively modern. While it may be true that most Jews died of starvation and disease, there is no denying that the form of genocide "perfected" by the Nazis was unique to history. The Nazis turned killing into an industry, impersonal and mechanized.