I do not pretend to fully grasp the Jewish argument for the uniqueness of the Holocaust. But I do know that Jewish scholars are not saying that the Jewish Holocaust was worse than any other genocide. They are certainly not trying to diminish the horror and injustice of so many other terrible events that blot the story of human history by elevating the Holocaust above all other atrocities.
My sense is that Jews use the term “unique” in reference to the Holocaust not as an evaluative term, but in an attempt to indicate that something different happened in Europe between 1938 and 1945 than has ever happened previously or has ever since been repeated. As far as I understand it, the argument for uniqueness resides primarily in the fact that the Nazi intention was to eliminate all Jews from Europe solely because they were Jews.
The American historican Lucy S. Dawidowicz who died in 1990 wrote,
To refer to the murder of the 6 million Jews as distinctive, as unique, is not an attempt to magnify the catastrophe that befell them nor to beg tears and pity for them. It is not intended to minimize the deaths of the millions of non-Jews that the Germans brought about, or to underplay the immeasurable and unendurable suffering of Russians, Poles, Gypsies, and other victims of the German murder machine. To speak of the singularity of the murder of the 6 million European Jews is not to deny the incontestable fact that the gas chambers extinguished without discrimination all human life. The murder of the 6 million Jews stands apart from the deaths of the other millions, not because of any distinctive fate that the individual victims endured, but because of the differentiative intent of the murderers and the unique effect of the murders.
The intent on the part of the German dictatorship to annihilate the Jews was based on their judgment that the Jews had no right to live, a judgment that no one has the right to make. Karl Jaspers, German philosopher, explained the uniqueness of the murder of the 6 million Jews: “Anyone who on the basis of such a judgment plans the organized slaughter of a people and participates in it, does something that is fundamentally different from all crimes that have existed in the past.”
The “differentiative intent of the murderers” to which Dawidowicz refers is the Nazi determination to destroy Jews only because they were Jews. As Emil Fackenheim has said, the Jews’ “‘crime’ was Jewish existence.”
The “unique effect of the murders” Dawidowicz describes as that fact that
The immensity of the Jewish losses destroyed the biological basis for the continued communal existence of Jews in Europe. Every country and people ravaged by the war and by the German occupation eventually returned to a normal existence…. But the annihilation of the 6 million European Jews brought an end with irrevocable finality to the thousand-year-old culture and civilization of Ashkenazic Jewry, destroying the continuity of Jewish history. This is the special Jewish sorrow. This is why the surviving Jews grieve, mourning the loss of their past and the imperilment of their future.
For me as a Christian, it may be that the particular importance and power of the Holocaust lie in the undeniable link between the vicious antimsemitism at the heart of Nazism and the tragic history of many Christians’ attitudes toward Jewish people.
The fact that the Jews of Europe were slaughtered solely because they were Jews means that their destruction was at heart fundamentally driven by antisemitism. And it seems increasingly clear to me that there is a link between a kind of arrogant Christian triumphalism and the legitimization of antisemitism. We must acknowledge the damage done by the Christian tendency to divide the world into those we accept as fully blessed by God because they agree with us and those we view as excluded from God’s full favour because they do not accept our understanding of God and faith.
So, the Holocaust demands of me as a Christian that I renounce any claim to God’s special favour to the exclusion of any other of God’s people. It challenges me to examine deeply the Christian claims for the distinctiveness of Christ. I must be wiling to ask myself what impact the Christian claims for special status before God may have upon my ability to embrace the whole human community with the openness and compassion I believe are the fundamental characteristic of the God who is the source of all creation.