I recently heard the following:
Antizionism after Auschwitz is, necessarily, antisemitism.
It got me thinking about a question which, I believe, influences many discussions on the Shoa (Holocaust), on the establishment and status of the state of Israel and on antisemitism:
Is (or was) the Shoa a historically unique occurrence?
Particularly on the political right, there appears to exist a notion that, since the Shoa is “in the past anyway” and has been stopped, there is no ‘need’ for Israel. On the other hand, many people point to the fact that rabid antisemitism still exists around the globe, from the subtle modern critique of “conspiring financial institutions” to the extreme Neonazis and Islamists who openly call for the eradication of all Jews.
Therefore I think it is important to consider the ultimate historic significance of the Shoa, in particular with regard to some seemingly discordant thoughts.
Please not that I am not a historian, nor do I have any other formal qualifications in this field. Also note that this post does not discuss the murder of people who were killed by the Nazis for reasons other than being Jewish.
Definition of ‘uniqueness’
When we wish to establish whether the Shoa was unique it might be useful to take a look at other historical genocides. Of course the definition of ‘genocide’ is hotly debated, but surely we agree that the Shoa was genocide.
Comparing the Shoa with other genocides in pure numbers shows that other historical genocides (such as the Armenian genocide or the Holodomor) at least approach the Shoa in number of people killed. However, any comparison by number must fail when we consider that even a single murdered human is innumerably terrible, regardless of motive. The Shoa as carried out by the Nazis was a highly organized, even industrialized process. While gas chambers and crematoria are good examples of this, the earlier shooting squads and gas trucks were also carefully prepared and executed.
One point where I fail to come to a useful conclusion is that of the uniqueness of the hatred expressed in the Shoa. Was the Holocaust so terrible because of the Nazis’ amount of hatred towards Jews? Did the Ottomans hate the Armenians less than the Nazis hated the Jews?
Treatment of the Shoa as unique and its implication for political arguments
If we view the Shoa as not unique, it might be argued that Jews do not need any extraordinary protection (“bad things happened to other peoples, too“). On the other hand, even if the Shoa is assumed to be unique, people could argue for the same goal: Since it cannot happen again, it is pointless to protect Jews now. This shows that it is probably pointless to debate ‘uniqueness’. In reality, everybody deserves protection. Every group of people must be protected from genocide.
Coupled with my earlier statements, it follows that debating whether the Shoa was unique leads down an interesting, but dangerous path. We should not compare the number of lives lost, nor should we wonder whether any particular group affected by racism or genocide is more worthy of protection than another.
The idea that Jews receive preferential treatment because Israel was established is an expression of antisemitic hate and paranoia. The establishment of Israel (whether you want to see it as a ‘Jewish state’ or not) is, by no means ‘preferential treatment’, but a necessity. In our world, where Jews are still the object of violent, genocidal hatred (even in countries like the USA or Germany, which would normally be considered secure), a safe haven is essential. Finally, the argument of preferential treatment is a universal aspect of ethnic hatred and is usually used to discredit any attempt of a persecuted group to receive protection.
Personal thoughts as an Austrian
Could the Shoa repeat? The fact that so many other genocides have taken place is indication to me that the Shoa is not unique in its demonstration of man’s potential and willingness to be cruel. However, the Shoa hits close to home. Austria and Austrians had leading roles in the Shoa, and antisemitism remains a strong force here after the end of World War II. When I walk through Vienna, I see Stolpersteine (small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism) every day. I wish the Shoa was unique. I wish it could not repeat.
I thank my friend Sarah for providing very valuable input and edits to this post.