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The Holocaust & holocausts
Was the Nazi Holocaust the worst genocide in history? Revisionists claim that Jews and Jewish historians emphasize both the uniqueness and the destructiveness of the Holocaust in order to gain moral authority that grants social power. They rail against statements like this from Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, in the January, 1994 issue of ADL’s Frontline: “[The Holocaust] is a singular event. It is not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God’s chosen children and, thus, on God himself” (p. 2). This was an unfortunate choice of words that can lead to comments like this by Louis Farrakhan to Barbara Walters on 20/20: “Because I said the Holocaust of black people was a hundred times worse than the Holocaust of Jews, they were angry with me for even comparing this, and it is because you feel your life is so much more sacred than the lives of the Gentiles, or the lives of the Asians, Arabs, and Africans” (1994).
It is true that Jews and Jewish historians do focus on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism; it is no less true (or conspiratorially suggestive) that African-Americans and African-American historians are intensely interested in slavery and racism; or that Native-Americans and Native- American historians concentrate on their exploitation and destruction by the U.S. government. All groups are more interested in their own history than are others, and in a pluralistic society like America it is not constructive to get caught up in a contest over whose persecution is worse.
By a general definition it would certainly be reasonable for Native- Americans to claim to have been the victims of a holocaust. Approximately one million Indians were killed by the U.S. government in 100 years (Brown, 1970, p. 9). The policy of Manifest Destiny led to the tacit approval to kill, maim, torture, and displace Native-Americans because of their race (considered savage) and their land (considered valuable). As Thomas Jefferson observed: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities [they fought back] justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate” (Diamond, 1992, p. 308). A small “h” holocaust, then, will be taken to mean the intentional or functional near-destruction of a people based on race, religion, ethnicity, land, and/or property and wealth.
Likewise, the enslavement of Africans in the Americas may also be considered a type of general holocaust. Even though the intention was to keep them alive (dead slaves are valueless), the functional outcome of the capture and transportation through the “middle passage” resulted in an estimated 10 million dead in about two centuries (Curtin, 1969).
Other terms have been used to describe holocausts. Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1945 to describe what the Nazis did to the Jews, and defined it as an “intentional extermination of a race,” but this is not broad enough to include other motives. Lucy Davidowicz called it a war against the Jews (1975), but this is not semantically precise since a war is generally defined as “Hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state.” Neither Jews, nor Native- Americans, nor Africans were properly armed or organized for hostilities against foreign or domestic powers. (See the OED for these word usages.)
Like all historical events, then, the Holocaust is both unique and universal. Holocausts are a result of a conjuncture of thousands of events compelling a certain course of action. No holocaust could ever repeat itself exactly, any more than any other historical event could, because of the contingent nature of history. But universal necessities and underlying forces guide, direct, and push events down a certain path. Thus, the study of one holocaust gives us insights into others, as well as guidance on avoiding future holocausts.
Shermer, Michael. “Proving the Holocaust: The Refutation of Revisionism & the Restoration of History,” Skeptic, Vol. 2, No. 4, Altadena, California, June, 1994. Published by the Skeptics Society, 2761 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119.