The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

The controversy surrounding the use of the Holocaust as a metaphor revolves in part on claims of the Holocaust's uniqueness. The targeting of one ethnic group said to be singularly evil; the use of medical and public health justification for the destruction of that group; the relentless and single-minded searching out and destruction of all men, women, and children in that group as an end in itself; the widespread collaboration of the public in each new country conquered; the dedication of enormous economic, military, and social resources to that end; and the systematic technological extermination of the group are said to set the Holocaust apart from all other cases of genocide in human history.

Lucy Dawidowicz (Hastings Center Report) has argued that the Nazi experience cannot be used to gain insight or help resolve the conflicts of other eras. If the Holocaust is unique and thus is a singular, exceptional, disjunctive moment in the course of human history, it lies outside the flow of normal events and cannot serve as a historical lesson. It therefore cannot be used to understand normal evil or even the periodic emergence of extraordinary evil. Conversely, if the Holocaust is just one, however singularly tragic, example of many historical examples of genocide or hatred, what is to keep its particularities intact when it is used constantly as the referent for the killing of the Armenians, African slaves, or embryos? The Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who is known for his advocacy of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, has tried to resolve the dilemma by arguing that the Holocaust was "a unique Jewish tragedy with universal implications" (quoted in Novick, p. 239). However, it is difficult to maintain that an event is both absolutely unique and universally applicable.

Arguments against the use of the Holocaust as an analogy to other cases of suffering take two major forms. One suggests that the Holocaust had a uniquely Jewish context and that to use the term as a referent cheapens and discounts the Jewish experience of suffering and loss. Edward Alexander in an article titled "Stealing the Holocaust" indicts those who use the Holocaust to call attention to other instances of injustice, arguing that they use up something accumulated by Jews through their suffering. A second argument suggests that use of the referent blunts the true horror and extremism of the event. Discussing the related use of the label Nazi in a Hastings Center Report Conference on bioethics and the Holocaust, Milton Himmelfarb lamented the "overly hasty invocation of 'Nazism' and the rather free and easy use of Nazism to brand practices with which we disagree____By universalizing Nazism, one makes it shallow, and one removes the actual reality of Nazism. If everything is Nazi, then nothing is Nazi, and even Nazism wasn't Nazi" (Hastings Center Report, p. 7).

Insisting that the Holocaust lies outside history and has no role in creating an understanding of other cases of mass killing is also problematic. The argument for the incomparability of the Holocaust trivializes other crimes and can lead to discussions such as the reported argument about whether the Bosnian slaughter was "truly holocaustal or merely genocidal" (Novick, p. 14). Some analogies are clearly apt. The discussion of the Rwandan holocaust in a medical journal, indicating with the lowercase h that the term is used as a noun and not explicitly as a reference to the Jewish Holocaust, seems a proper usage (Decosas). The tragic events in Rwanda are well described as a holocaust.

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