The Jewish Holocaust raises many questions that must be confronted. One of the contentious issues surrounding the study of the Holocaust is the question of uniqueness. There have been countless horrific acts of terror and injustice perpetrated throughout history. But, many scholars argue that a number of characteristics make the Jewish Holocaust distinct from these other tragedies.
The following notes are not ideas I have originated. I have gathered them from a number of sources and simply place them here in an attempt to grasp the distinctive nature of the Holocaust.
1. The twentieth century Jewish Holocaust was part of a centuries’ long pattern of antisemitism. The Holocaust did not spring out of nowhere; it is not an isolated incident. It takes its place in a long line of discrimination and violence against Jewish people spanning centuries and continuing to this day.
2. The persecution and extermination of Jews between 1933 and 1945 was systematically pursued as a calculated strategy of the democratically elected governments of “civilized” European countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland) for at least a decade.
3. The “Final Solution” was designed to exterminate every single Jewish man, woman and child. The intended extermination of Jews knew no geographical boundaries; it was conducted in what are now thirty-five separate European countries. The intention was to rid the whole of Europe, if not the world, of every Jew for no other reason than the fact that they carried even a trace of Jewish blood.
Jewish birth was sufficient cause for death. Assimilation for Jews was impossible. Conversion to another faith offered no protection. The biological connection to Jewish grandparents was guilt enough.
4. The extermination of the Jews had no political, economic, or social justification. It was carried out for purely ideological reasons. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself. The killing of Jews was a war in itself running parallel to the German war against the Allies. Enormous resources were diverted from the main European battle to facilitate extermination of the Jews.
5. The atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust were not primarily carried out by monsters or people who were mad. The perpetrators of the “Final Solution” were for the most part average citizens. Jews were swept away to concentration camps and death camps because in many cases they were betrayed by their neighbours and friends. Those running the camps worked all day in the most inhumane conditions imaginable and then went home at the end of the day to the comfort of their families. At the end of the war, many people who had participated in conducting the horrors of the Holocaust, simply returned to their normal lives.
6. The persecution of Jews between 1933 and 1945 unfolded without organized official opposition from any government in the world, despite the fact that details of growing persecution against Jews began to be internationally known as early as 1933. Certainly the terrifying details of Kristallnacht (Nov. 9 & 10, 1938) were widely publicized in the international press by correspondents who, in many cases, were eyewitnesses of the events they reported. Yet it took the invasion of Poland in September 1939 (ten months later) before the Allies, who at that point were required to intervene by their own treaty obligations, began military intervention in the affairs of Europe. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the world’s apathy at the unfolding horror in Europe was not in part a result of underlying subtle antisemitism.
On July 30, 1939 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote in a private letter about Kristallnacht: “I believe the persecution arose out of two motives; A desire to rob the Jews of their money and a jealousy of their superior cleverness.” He then went on: “No doubt Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself; – but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom.”
7. The governments of all nations share responsibility for the extent of the unimaginable devastation to the Jewish population of Europe. The circumstances of the Jews in Europe in the 1930’s were known around the world. The nations of the world had numerous opportunities as the events leading up to and during the Second World War unfolded to take measures that might have confined the damage done to the Jewish population of Europe. None of these steps was taken until far too late.
In Canada, we like to think of ourselves as an open, compassionate society. But Canada is among the countries whose response to the Holocaust at the time it was unfolding was most inadequate. Although made fully aware at the Evian Conference in 1939 of the horror facing Jews, Canada refused to increase its immigration quota and admitted only around 6,000 Jewish refugees throughout the entire 1930’s. This is one of the worst records of any country that received refugees.
After Kristallnacht (1938), the Government of Canada rejected a proposal by the Canadian Jewish Congress to guarantee financial support for 10,000 Jewish refugees to Canada and refused to allow them to immigrate. In 1939, when more than 900 German Jewish refugees on board the SS St. Louis were turned away from Cuba, Canada refused entry to Canada. They were returned to Europe.
On January 30, 1939 Prime Minister William Mackenzie King, told Parliament “that Canada would not throw her doors wide open to political refugees, but would deal with special cases on their merits.” This is the same day Hitler warned that in the event of war, “The result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
The impediment to Jews finding their way to safety did not lie in Germany’s willingness to let them go. The Nazis viewed emigration as a useful tool for solving the “Jewish problem.” The obstacle lay in the willingness of countries like Canada to receive refugees from Europe. It was not until 1948, when Canada needed workers to support the booming post-war economy, that immigration requirements were relaxed. Nearly two million refugees were welcomed to Canada in the next ten years.
8. Other examples of mass murder exist in human history: Mao Zedong 1949-87 (10 million executions, 30 million by starvation mostly during the “Great Leap Forward 1958-61), Stalin 1932-39 (at least 20 million died), atrocities committed by Pol Pot in Cambodia (2 million died), Turkish annihilation of Armenians (1.5 million died), Rwanda 1994 (800,000 died). Each of these atrocities is a violent affront to humanity that should never have happened. But none of these terrible events share all the characteristics of the systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
The distinctive features of the twentieth century European Holocaust do not diminish the horror and injustice of any other genocide in history. But it is important to confront the human capacity for evil and to struggle with the painful questions raised by any mass slaughter of human beings. In many ways the European Holocaust of the Second World War still lies on our doorstep. We share in this tragedy and must heed the lessons it so graphically holds before us.