Describing the Holocaust: Its Historical Uniqueness


Is there anything unique about the Holocaust when placed against the century's other mass murders? The Holocaust stands out against the twisted landscape of death in the twentieth century as the one mass murder utterly devoid of instrumental purpose: there is no comprehensible reason for it. Certainly obsessive antagonism towards the Jews was a functional bedrock of Nazism, first uniting the movement, then later providing enormous material benefits to tens of thousands during the dispossessions? But all this was secondary, if not unintended: the Nazi passion against the Jews was just that, a passion. Jews were exterminated not because they stood in the way of Nazi goals for example either by occupying contested space or offering resistance. Rather, their extermination was the goal. All other mass killings of this century have at least a clear, if





tenuous, connection with significant political purposes. And in most cases the murders have ended with the conflict which produced them. The Germans, on the contrary, rounded up Jews and shipped them off to be gassed after they became masters of a certain area, not in order to master it. Extermination of the Jews was an end in itself.

    The Final Solution indeed weakened the Germans' ability to fight.10 Nearly the entire Hungarian Jewish community was shipped to Auschwitz in May and June 1944, and gassed there while the Soviets were pushing the Germans out of Eastern Europe and the British and Americans were invading Normandy! Were not the troops and supplies more needed in the battles to keep the Soviets out of eastern Hungary? Were not the 147 trains of thirty cars each more needed for rushing troops to the multiplying fronts?11 'More needed' no such calculus animated German policy because extermination of the Jews was itself so necessary that the approach of the Red Army, and certain defeat, only intensified the work of the ovens. It was as if, after all, this was Hitler's purpose, the Nazis' holy mission, their contribution to Western civilization. That work stopped only when, by October 1944, it had become substantially completed: Central Europe had been rendered judenrein, free of Jews. Only a handful of survivors still lived in territories which were once home to nine million Jews. One must insist on the diabolical uniqueness of the Final Solution, even in this century of death.