I recently listened to the Tuesday, 9/9/2014 episode of The Gist, a podcast hosted by Mike Peska entitled Reductio Ad Hitlerum. (It was such a good title I decided to plagiarize it.) In this episode he interviewed Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. The book is evidently an overview of different interpretations and/or explanations of who Hitler was and why he did what he did. Rosenbaum argued that the topic is significant because the Holocaust was an event of singular evil in the world. If one Hitler arrived on the pages of history (implying that only one has), is it possible that a second one could do the same? Pesca, by the way affirmed these sentiments without any pushback whatsoever.
This line of thinking upsets me deeply. It implies a level of Jewish exceptionalism that is either supremely self-centered or shockingly naive. What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is certainly abhorant beyond words. Furthermore, it is likely that the Jews have had to put up with more persecution than almost any other group in history. We should never forget that.
But while their historical experience has been horrible it has not been unique in history. Starting with recent history and working back, we’ve experienced the extermination of Christians in the corner of the world shared by Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. In conjunction with that, there has been an increasing hostility that is bordering on religious genocide of Christians throughout the Levant and on into northern Africa. There has also been the century long genocidal attempts to exterminate the Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds and take their land. And then there was the Rwandan genocide that centered particularly around hatreds stirred up between the Hutu and Tutsi people groups. In southeast Asia there was the unspeakably evil Khmer Rouge and the genocide of Hmongs, and other groups in Cambodia. And of course there were are the Roma (the Gypsies) who are occasionally persecuted, occasionally exterminated, but almost always either ignored or hated, in Central Europe.
I’ve had this contentious argument before and the rejoinder has typically been, that yes, there have been other genocides in recent history, in not quite so recent history, and in ancient history, but the Holocaust is singular and unique because 6 million Jews were exterminated (and then as an afterthought, possibly the extermination of homosexuals and Gypsies gets thrown in as well). It’s the magnitude that makes it singular and sets it apart. (And even this is not so singular. Some have estimated the genocide in Belgian Congo to have killed 10 million people. Granting that this is almost certainly an inflated figure, for there are no accurate population statistics, that late 19th century abomination is among the most massive in modern history.)
Genocide is so unspeakable that to diminish the Rwandan genocide, for instance, simply because it was smaller and less organized than the Holocaust is in itself unspeakable self-centeredness or cultural centeredness (or possibly an unspeakably cynical form of racism). Compare it to the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki. (I only mention Nagasaki because we can safely dismiss Hiroshima. A 21 megaton bomb was used above Nagasaki–compared to the mere 16 megaton bomb dropped on Hiroshima–and Nagasaki is therefore singular and unique in the horrors of history.) To dismiss the first because the second was larger is to miss a significant part of the horror.
And as it was with nuclear weapons, so it is with genocide. Adolph Hitler is not unique in history (in spite of Rosenbaum’s claims). There is Leopold II, Pol Pot, Idi Ameen, Ghengis Khan, Bashar al-Assad etc. Our fascination with Hitler very possibly blinds us to the ongoing horror of genocide in the world.
Or, possibly, our fascination with Hitler is a convenient way of not saying out loud that we don’t really care as much about those other genocides: those people, after all, are not like us. Do we remember the Holocaust because Jews are such an integral part of our culture? Do we fail to appreciate the plight of the Kurds because they are so different from us. Do we dismiss (on the broad cultural scale) the horrors of the Khmer Rouge because of its emotional association with the Vietnam War, which was such a terrible open wound for many years after the war? Do we downplay the neverending series of genocides in Africa, simply because it’s Africa and not Europe or North America?
Donald Rumsfeld, in a report to congress, said the following.
A few weeks after September 11th, I was in the Middle East, and I met in a tent in the desert with the Sultan of Oman. He expressed his sympathy for the loss of life in America. But he said that perhaps that tragedy will wake up the world, so that nations will come together to take the steps necessary to see that there is not a September 11th that involves a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon. Perhaps, he said, the loss of those 3,000 precious lives, in the end, will help to save tens of thousands of lives. (Thanks to Torie Clarke for the reference to this report.)
Clarke, during a radio conversation, went on to compare this to the video of the beheading of two American journalists by ISIS. Is their death the necessary price to wake us up to the threat, she wondered?
Or is it actually far more sinister than just that? Is it that the beheading of hundreds of Arabs doesn’t matter to us (just as the genocide of millions of Southeast Asians and hundreds of thousands of Africans doesn’t really seem to register). That’s what those people do, after all. It requires the death of Americans, of “our” folks who talk like us, for us to sit up, take notice, and be horrified enough to wake out of our slumber?