« Stupid White Man | Main | Bad terrorists. No dessert for you. »

Very unique

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Sasha Volokh has been struggling with the question of the moral uniqueness of the Holocaust. Or, rather, he hasn't been struggling; he's "not into" it. Rather, his readers have been struggling to convince him otherwise. See here and here for followups. His basic point can be summed up here...

Alas, I still don't buy the moral uniqueness. To repeat my point from below: the Holocaust is evil because killing six million Jews is six million murders, and committing six million murders is highly, highly evil. Really evil. But not more evil than killing six million other innocents. (As I've mentioned below, the Holocaust also has lots of characteristics that make it especially grisly, especially memorable, especially important as a cautionary tale, especially relevant in a world of ethnic warfare, etc.; but you can be all those things without having extra evil.)
...but you should read all three links (don't worry; they're not too long) so that you understand the context.

Sasha has already rejected several explanations, so I'm not sure he's going to buy this one, either, but let me have a go at the topic: Sasha mostly rejects the idea that motive matters. But the Holocaust is morally unique precisely because there was no motive, because it was so senseless. There have been other mass killings in history -- though few on the scale of the Holocaust -- and some of those were also ethnically motivated. But, to my knowledge -- and I acknowledge here that my knowledge of history is incomplete -- the Holocaust is the only instance of genocide purely for the sake of genocide.

Some cases of mass murder -- the famines in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, for instance -- were the result of attempts to implement and/or maintain economic "reforms." Insane attempts, to be sure, and the deaths were a foreseeable consequence, and the perpetrators didn't mind. But the primary idea wasn't to wipe out all these people; the idea was to make an omelet without caring how many eggs got broken along the way. (Clarification: to an extent, these famines were targetted at specific groups of people, people who presented a problem for the regimes. But that leads to my next point.)

What about the ethnically-based mass murders, where the killings were intentional? Well, most of those cases were actually the result of conflicts over land, resources, etc. Saddam Hussein wasn't gassing Kurds for fun; he was gassing Kurds because there was armed Kurdish opposition to his government and he was trying to suppress it. The Bosnia/Kosovo ethnic cleansings were similar. The westward expansion of the United States, which some have termed "genocide," was a straightforward conflict over land. Indians had it, Americans wanted it, and the only way to get it was to take it by force. I don't mean, of course, that these arguments excuse the killings of innocents, particularly on the huge scales in question. These cases were terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. But in none of those cases was murder its own justification. General Sheridan may have said -- or may not have -- that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, but he didn't act on it. That is, while he may have killed Indians -- while many people did -- nobody was going around New York City ferreting out all those with a hint of Indian blood and slaughtering them; nobody, to my knowledge, was even suggesting it. Saddam Hussein wasn't planning to invade Turkey so that he could wipe out their Kurds.

But the Holocaust? It's different. The Nazi goal wasn't to take territory from Jews. It wasn't to take resources from Jews. It wasn't to destroy armed opposition to the German government. There was no underlying reason for it; the goal was to wipe out Jews. Worse, it was such an important goal for the Nazis that even while fighting a continental war for their regime's survival, resources were diverted away from the war effort to continue the Holocaust.

Is that different than merely killing people you come across? I think it is. I think killing for the pure pleasure of killing can be distinguished -- and can be reasonably said to be morally worse -- than killing to accomplish an end, no matter how evil the latter is. Sasha talks about the Holocaust being "not more evil than killing six million other innocents." I'll stipulate for the sake of argument that if a group decides they're going to kill six million names at random from the phone book, that would be just as bad as killing six million people in order to wipe out a specific ethnic group. But that isn't what happened, and as far as I know, that has never happened. As such, the Holocaust is morally unique among actual historical events.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.oobleck.com/mt3/mt-tb.cgi/1057

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Very unique:

» Continuing the Holocaust discussion from Solomonia
You know when I said in my last post on this subject that it was a "final update?" I guess I lied. The discussion continues. The discussion, not surprisingly, has lost its original context of the Mel Gibson remarks and... [Read More]

» Uniqueness update from In Context
Meryl has more, here and here. And Judith Weiss blew me away with her update to this post, which elaborates eloquently on the uniqueness theme.... [Read More]

» Christ-killers from Rex 2.0
Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, a lively discussion has been going on about whether the Holocaust was a morally unique event. Sasha Volokh believes it was not; that the murder of six million Jews was no more of a moral [Read More]

Comments (20)

Rex:

I don't know that I disagree with you about the ultimate conclusion, i.e., I'm not sure I agree with Sasha's contention that there is nothing morally unique about the Holocaust.

Having said that, I'm not sure I agree with you, either. First, I would argue that the Holocaust was not simply "genocide for the sake of genocide" -- Hitler's anti-Semitism served very specific political purposes.

Second, I don't know that I agree with the implication that WWII served the Nazi's goal of the Holocaust, rather than the other way around. In other words, I'm not sure that "wiping out Jews" was the primary goal for Nazi leaders (with all other goals, including winning the war secondary) any more than Hussein's ultimate goal in invading Turkey (was)(is)(would have been) to wipe out Kurds.

None of this to say, of course, that the Holocaust was not evil -- or, as I mentioned before -- not distinct in some meaningful way. Just to say I'm not sure its distinct the way you describe.

Hey, I thought David Bernstein's quote sounded like a familiar argument I'd seen elsewhere. Funny how the Usenet tree shook out. Hope you're doing well.

In response to Rex, there is substantial historical evidence that, when faced with the choice of using limited transportation resources to huge population transfers to ship Jews to death camps or to ship supplies to the overextended Eastern Front, Hitler chose, over the advice of his generals, to focus on the genocide. Given that, I think it's fair to say that the Nazi monomania for killing Jews overwhelmed their desire to win the war.

The Kurds in Iraq are a different story; Saddam wasn't searching out every drop of Kurdish blood, he was, however brutally and murderously, fighting an internal enemy in a particular region as part of a civil war. When the US/UK stepped in, Saddam pulled out of the Kurdish areas rather than risk further loss to his authority; the Nazis were killing Jews to the bitter end.

Not unique even for the reasons that you give: consider the Turks exterminating the Armenians during World War I. It wasn't as organized as the Holocaust (which also sought to exterminate Gypsies as well as Jews).

Rex:

Ted-

I'm not sure I'm willing to attribute the Holocaust solely (or even primarily) to Hitler's own monomania about Jews. (And Hitler may have chosen to direct trains the way he did because he was more interesting in killing Jews than winning the war, or he may have done so because he was nuts and prone to making strategically erratic decisions.)

Two further points:

1) The Holocaust was an enormously complex historical and sociological event, and like all enormously complex events, it doesn't lend itself (I think) to a single line of causation any more than we could describe any other genocide as having a single cause. In other words, I think it is difficult to try to draw distinctions among genocides based on causation, because that picture (for all of them) will inevitably be muddy.

2. The other major (and thus far as I can tell unremarked upon) problem with David's thesis is that it accounts for too little evidence. If Hitler's anti-Semitic monomania is what distinguishes the Holocaust from other genocides, then what room in the model is there for the six million or so other people who were killed (Roma, &tc).

For whatever it's worth, I think the reason why so many of us view the Holocaust as being historically unique is because most of us are culturally much closer to it than we are to the other ones commonly discussed. The Holocaust represents not just a horrendous crime against a specific insular minority, but a crime perpetrated 1) within the geographic and historical bounds of "Western Civilization" and 2) with a horrific efficiency that echoes too close for our comfort to the spirit and practice of capitalism. I think, tentatively, that what distinguishes the Holocaust is not so much the victims or the motivation, but the means, the time and the place.

Of course, all genocides occur in a unique set of time/place/means/persons. They just don't occur in *ours.*

For whatever reason, I've been thinking about the Holocaust for a quarter century, and I see capitalism as having very little to do with it. Stalin and Pol Pot were efficient Communist murderers, and the most "efficient" genocide of the last century was the overnight cataclysm in Rwanda. Capitalism would have found a better use for the millions of Jews (many highly educated) than Hitler's ovens -- take a look at the achievements of the third of European Jewry that survived the Holocaust by happenstance, and one can only begin to imagine what the Holocaust has cost us today. Did a cure for cancer go up in flames in Auschwitz?

Clearly Hitler's monomania over Jews was not sufficient by itself to create the Holocaust. It took root in a culture suffused with centuries of Christian and decades of secular anti-Semitism, and the Nazis found plenty of allies in Eastern Europe happy to be more systemic in the Jew-killing that had been engaged in in decades and centuries past.

The point remains that the consistent prioritizing of trains over the last three years of the war to focus on slaughter of Jews as opposed to supply of troops is only one of many examples where Nazi Germany chose to emphasize genocide over means of attempting to assure national survival--from which we can infer that the genocide was more important to the Nazis than Germany was. Christian conservatives with assimilated Jewish grandfathers, infants hidden in orphanages with no knowledge of Jewish heritage -- substantial state resources were devoted to rooting out and murdering such individuals. The Turks weren't hunting for Armenian infants in Constantinople orphanages.

The Nazis were on a campaign of genocide against Roma similar to their campaign against Jews, but as disgraceful as Weimar and post-Nazi German treatment of Roma was, it's clear that killing Roma was not as high a priority as killing Jews if only by the considerably higher survival rate amongst European Roma.

Rex:

My comment re capitalism was poorly worded (and perhaps not fully thought through). What I meant to get at was more along these lines: the Holocaust has special resonance because it is the first and only genocide to make such good use (if you will forgive the term) of the implements of twentieth century industralization. (It's also notable, perhaps, that the Holocaust occurred in a sorta-capitalist society that should have known better.)

I'm still not persuaded that the train example has much probative value, because I'm not sure that the decisionmakers ever faced up to the stark choice "kill Jews or win the war." Were they all self-consciously aware that they favored the first at the expense of the second? Or were they just insane and delusional? After all, had they won the war they would have had plenty of time and resources to hunt down whoever they wished.

George:

ďthe Holocaust is the only instance of genocide purely for the sake of genocide.Ē

Your argument depends on the assertion that the Naziís killed Jews for no rational reason, i.e. killing Jews did not serve their rational self-interest as, say, the Ukrainian famine served Stalinís interests in maintaining and extending Soviet control over the former Russian Empire. This is both true and false. It is true that there was no International Jewish Conspiracy to destroy the German people, so that it was not objectively in the rational self-interest of the German people to kill all the Jews. It is false to whatever extent that the perpetrators of the Holocaust believed it to be true. If Hitler really believed what he said about Jews then the Holocaust was not started just for fun but in the percieved long term interests of Germany.

JC Ravage:

All this talk of uniqueness and irrationality (killing the jews for no practical benefit) is interesting, but where's the evil?

Why is it more evil to kill people for no good reason than to kill people for your own benefit? The latter can possibly be motivated by desire for gain rather than simple cruelty, but at the end of the day you're gassing/shooting/starving someone in each circumstance. (That's Sasha Volokh's argument, and we seem to be losing sight of it here).

Plus: In Western court systems, when someone kills someone for no practical motive, they often then plead insanity. The insanity plea is a clear statement that "I'm not evil enough to go to prison/be executed, -because- I'm not sane," and one of the hallmarks of insanity is doing things for no identifiable reason, or out of delusions that one has an identifiable reason. I would argue that killing people for delusionary reasons or no reason at all is possibly a sign of insanity, which makes the act -less- evil, if we reject Sasha Volokh's argument that a murder is a murder, no matter the motive.

Mike:

REX -

I'm still not persuaded that the train example has much probative value, because I'm not sure that the decisionmakers ever faced up to the stark choice "kill Jews or win the war." Or were they just insane and delusional? After all, had they won the war they would have had plenty of time and resources to hunt down whoever they wished.

When they knew for a fact they were losing the war they still pressed trains full steam ahead from Hungary. To intimate they weren't consciously aware of decisions is idiotic on its face. As if Hitler and his Generals were efficient hasfraus to Nth degree. The Hungarian genocide started at the end of the war and yet about 70% of Hungarian Jews were murdered.

Mike:
Your argument depends on the assertion that the Naziís killed Jews for no rational reason, i.e. killing Jews did not serve their rational self-interest as, say, the Ukrainian famine served Stalinís interests in maintaining and extending Soviet control over the former Russian Empire. It is true that there was no International Jewish Conspiracy to destroy the German people, so that it was not objectively in the rational self-interest of the German people to kill all the Jews.

It is false to whatever extent that the perpetrators of the Holocaust believed it to be true. If Hitler really believed what he said about Jews then the Holocaust was not started just for fun but in the percieved long term interests of Germany.

Hitler killed Jews because he viewed them as did the Germans and many Poles as vermin. They were outside vermins masquerading as Europeans who ruined the blood lines and made Germany and Europe a weaker blood line, mongrelesque state. The Germans showed movies to the public viewing the Jews as rats. Signs to restaurants read "No Jews or Dogs" allowed.
Jews were war heroes for Germany in WWI. Of all of Europe Jews were the most integrated and successful and patriotic in Germany, they were Germans. The Russian Jews idolized the Germany Jews post WWI. They were seen similar to the way American Jewry is seen today.

It is false to whatever extent that the perpetrators of the Holocaust believed it to be true. If Hitler really believed what he said about Jews then the Holocaust was not started just for fun but in the percieved long term interests of Germany.

Now you know why Hitler started the Holocaust. It wasn't in the interest of WWII land gains. It was incidental and more convenient in its context. If Hitler hadn't started the war its highly likely the Holocaust still would have occured as the camps and designs were under way prior to the outbreak of the war as well as his designs on taking land incidentally as well. He just wouldn't have been able to kill Jews in Poland and Hungary, France etc...

Mike

Mike:
Why is it more evil to kill people for no good reason than to kill people for your own benefit? The latter can possibly be motivated by desire for gain rather than simple cruelty, but at the end of the day you're gassing/shooting/starving someone in each circumstance. (That's Sasha Volokh's argument, and we seem to be losing sight of it here).

Not for no good reason. They killed them to create a blood line pure Europe free from the vermin Jews corrupting their blood lines and culture. That's pure insane racism. The latter is interesting considering Jews were the most culturally contributing class in Germany and Hitler was an unsuccessful artist.

Plus: In Western court systems, when someone kills someone for no practical motive, they often then plead insanity. The insanity plea is a clear statement that "I'm not evil enough to go to prison/be executed, -because- I'm not sane," and one of the hallmarks of insanity is doing things for no identifiable reason, or out of delusions that one has an identifiable reason. I would argue that killing people for delusionary reasons or no reason at all is possibly a sign of insanity, which makes the act -less- evil, if we reject Sasha Volokh's argument that a murder is a murder, no matter the motive.

If you kill someone because they're black versus robbing a bank there is a difference. Both are horrible. But if you're going around murdering women, men and kids on the street, stalking them because they're black and you want to purify America from the "Negro Primitive" blood line and cultural influence. Than yes you're more despicable than the prior.

Killing the black person for no other reason is pure unadulterated sick hate. If you're killing black people who have worked with you, helped you, taught your kids in school, were friendly neighbors just because they're black, not because you want their house or land or have any dispute with them, that's pure racist hatred.

Mike:

The latter 2 are to George and JC I forgot to include their names above the blocked text.

To Rex let me also add that the rate of intermarriage in Germany at the time was over 40% and again were leaders in business, teaching, arts and culture. They were decorated WWI veterans as well. Far from helping Germany in the war. Killing the Jews not only took away resources it took away positive contributions to Germany's power. Of course the Jews hated the Nazi party though, and opposed it. How could they not, it hated them and painted them as the scapegoat vermins of Germany from its inception.

Rex:

Mike-

I'm not sure (still) I buy the argument that Hitler and his Nazi minions (as opposed, perhaps, to the general staff) understood the ramifications of their decisions and the impact of those decisions on the conduct of the war. They were very efficient, but not (as you point out) terribly rational.

I agree that there was no rational explanation for the Holocaust (or, at least, that we have to strain pretty hard to find one.) But I don't think it follows that the Holocaust was unique because of this.

Mike:

REX-

I'm not sure (still) I buy the argument that Hitler and his Nazi minions (as opposed, perhaps, to the general staff) understood the ramifications of their decisions and the impact of those decisions on the conduct of the war. They were very efficient, but not (as you point out) terribly rational.

They understood everything. If every one of us made perfect or unemotional poor decisions despite being otherwise brilliant than many empires would have never fallen. Again, Hitler Eichman and company sped up the murder in Hungary at the end of the war when they KNEW they were going to lose displays the depravity and obssessiveness of this hatred.

I agree that there was no rational explanation for the Holocaust (or, at least, that we have to strain pretty hard to find one.) But I don't think it follows that the Holocaust was unique because of this.
It was unique as this post above exactly points out. And if you want to understand the why of the hate a little more than just take a look at these pictures with captions from Nazi Germany at the time - linked at Kesher. (I can't find it right now!! sorry....)
Rex:

Mike-

I hate to keep picking at this because I suspect that neither of us is going to move much. But

1) even if Hitler et al. understood the implications of their actions re trains & Hungary, that still is less than perfect evidence that the "depravity and obsessiveness" of their hatred was measurably different than the depravity and obsesiveness displayed by any number of failing regiemes, which would rather salt the earth than bow to defeat.

2) I'm still not persuaded that the Holocaust represented "genocide for the sake of genocide," to borrow David's phrasing, especially not in the context of Germany's actions 1933-45. Hitler's scapegoating of the Jews served visible political purposes, esp. early in his reign.

I guess what it boils down to (for me) is this: did Hitler lead the Nazis into WW2 so that he could achieve the Holocaust, or did he effect the Holocaust as a part of some larger plan, which included WW2's military campaigns?

I don't think he was as single-minded as this post suggests, nor do I think his ambitions (perverse as they were) were so limited.

Rex:

Mike-

Something else occurs to me. If Hitler et al. were so monomanically focused on the Holocaust, to the exclusion (or dimunition) of all else, why pick a fight with the Soviets?

Mike:

READ THE LINKS BELOW AS WELL -
1) The point of salting the earth has nothing to do with murdering every Jew. The Jews weren't fighting for Russia or Europe they were just a race of civilians he wanted to exterminate, THAT'S THE FING POINT. If he salted the earth in Russia or England by Kamikaze bombing raids that's another thing.
2) To think that it wasn't genocide for genocide purposes shows to me that you haven't read or know much about Germany nor Hitler. That's a basic point and to think that it was for political purposes mainly is ridiculous considering everything especially the scope, near total, mass murder of Jews. The purposes were not soley limited to this perverse drive of ridding Jews, but it was mainly driven by it. I just read an article that clearly details this, that if not for the Jews the camps would never have been invented in the 1rst place.
READ THE LINKS REGARDING THE SOVIETS.
Hitler shouldn't have picked a fight with the Soviets regardless of the Holocaust. However, Hitler was driven to kill all the Jews regardless of his other land and conquest ambitions as well as lebensraum.

---------------------------------------------
There is a quote from Himmler (can't find the link now) where he comments (Nuremberg Trials I think) that Hitler made a speech in 39 that if another War were to break out that he would make it his burning purpose to use that to kill every single Jew, and Himler noticed the absolute purpose and passion in Hitler's eyes.
http://www.holocaust-history.org/hitler-final-solution/

The first is a diary entry by Joseph Goebbels of December 12, 1941. It runs as follows:
With respect of the Jewish Question, the FŁhrer has decided to make a clean sweep. He prophesied to the Jews that if they again brought about a world war, they would live to see their annihilation in it. That wasn't just a catch-word. The world war is here, and the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence. [7]

http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/What_makes_the_Holocaust_unique.html

http://www.holocaust-history.org/der-ewige-jude/stills.shtml


http://www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/holo.html
The motivations for it were entirely racial. There was little, if any, economic net gain; in fact, one suspects that the Holocaust brought economic loss to Germany. The victims presented no threat to the German nation, nor to the Nazi regime. Neither national security nor territorial expansion were served by it, though Hitler used the ideology of "racial purity" as a rationale for both.
The rational nature of its methodology -- its efficiency, calculability, predictability and control - are unparalleled in human history.
Its ferocious intensity. The systematic slaughter of between 11 and 12 million human beings did not begin until late 1938 and ended in 1945.

Mike:

It was Speer who observed it not Himmler.
http://www.holocaust-history.org/jews-central/
Albert Speer put it well:
The hatred of the Jews was Hitler's driving force and central point, perhaps even the only element that moved him. The German people, German greatness, the Reich, all that meant nothing to him in the final analysis. Thus, the closing sentence of his Testament sought to commit us Germans to a merciless hatred of the Jews after the apocalyptic downfall.
I was present in the Reichstag session of January 30, 1939 when Hitler guaranteed that, in the event of another war, the Jews, not the Germans, would be exterminated. This sentence was said with such certainty that I would never have doubted his intent of carrying through with it.

Here is a passage from Mein Kempf written in the 20's I believe.
In Mein Kampf, there are dozens of passages that vilify and demonize the Jews. A couple of examples suffice.


Was there any excrement, any shamelessness in any form, above all in cultural life, in which at least one Jew would not have been involved? As soon as one even carefully cut into such an abscess, one found, like maggots in a decaying body, often blinded by the sudden light, a kike.8

If we had at the beginning of, and during the war, subjected 12 or 15,000 of these Hebrew corrupters of the people to poison gas, as hundreds of thousands of our best German workers from all strata and occupations had to endure, then millions of victims of the Front would not have been in vain.

HERE IS A GREAT SUMMARY BY THE MOST RESPECTED HISTORIAN ON THE HOLOCAUST RAUL HILLBERG -

The one common thread throughout this "process of destruction," as Hilberg calls it, was the Jews. The Communists were often explicitly targeted as well, but the Nazis believed that Communism was a creature of the Jews in any event. The expression often used was "Jews and other undesirables," and the Jews were almost always the first group targeted in any initiative. There is no doubt that they were the focal point from beginning to end.

The Germans set up an office on the "Jewish Question" under the direction of Adolf Eichmann -- the infamous Bureau IV B 4. The name used for the ultimate killing action was "the Final Solution of the Jewish Question," Others were drawn in -- with horrific results -- but the key object and common thread was always the Jews.

There are thousands of captured documents dealing with the killing actions. Almost every one of them deals with the Jews and there are almost no documents that deal with another target that do not also address the Jews. The Einsatzgruppen reports almost always separate out the Jews from the other people shot, going so far as to break down the Jews by age and gender (http://www.holocaust-history.org/ intro-einsatz).15 And the Report 51, submitted by Himmler to Hitler in 1943, breaks down the victims into a variety of categories (bandits, partisans, etc.), but only lists the Jews as "Jews executed."16

Finally, the Korherr Report is entitled "The Final Solution of the European Jewish Question: A statistical report,"17 and once again, addresses virtually only the Jews.

Hitler said before the outbreak of the war that if there were another war, he would annihilate the Jews.18 He said during the war that he was in the process of annihilating the Jews.19 And he said in his Testament that he had done exactly what he had said he would do.20

The ultimate aim and the primary target never varied. Others were murdered in the course of the Final Solution, e.g. Gypsies, Russian POWs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on, but the first and constant target was always the Jews. The Final Solution was intended for the Jews, was about the Jews and chiefly affected the Jews. There is no denying that, without the Jews, there is no Final Solution.

To minimize or trivialize the "Jewishness" of the Final Solution is to seriously understate, if not, unintentionally perhaps, deny its essence. This does not mean that the suffering of other groups is to be ignored; on the contrary, it was terrible. But without the Holocaust, without the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question", the others live. The term "holocaust" was coined to describe the uniquely Jewish aspect of the Final Solution. It does not seek to negate the suffering of the other victims.

Rex:

Mike-

You're right. You caught me. Because I disagree with you on this I must be a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite. Damn, I should have hidden my hatred better.

Good luck with all.

Rex

Mike:

Where did I say that? I just copied pieces of info from a website?

Dude get a grip. Maybe you are if you're that paranoid about it.

Mike

About

This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 5, 2004 3:47 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Stupid White Man.

The next post in this blog is Bad terrorists. No dessert for you..

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.31