Remembering the Holocaust

January 27th, 2010

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, created in 2005 by a UN General Assembly resolution, coincides with the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945.  This is the first of a series of three articles being re-published to observe this solemn day of remembrance. 

By Tom Carter

The Auschwitz concentration camp was formally liberated by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945. In the 65 years since, Auschwitz has come to symbolize the Holocaust. However, Auschwitz (where about 1,200,000 people died) was only one, albeit the most efficient, of six specialized “death camps,” all of them in Poland. The other five were Treblinka (800,000), Belzec (600,000), Majdanek (360,000), Sobibor (250,000), and Chelmno (250,000). Other camps, mostly devoted to slave-labor industries, were not specialized death camps, although millions died in them from disease, maltreatment, and execution.

The numbers (source and source) of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, military prisoners of various allied countries, and others who died can only be approximated. It’s generally accepted that the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust is about 6,000,000, including about 1,500,000 children. The precise numbers will never be known.

Even those Nazis intimately involved in the killing give different numbers, and the much-vaunted precision of German record-keeping is, at least in this case, a myth. For example, this from the Nuremberg testimony of SS Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to the military rank of lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz:

I commanded Auschwitz [from 1 May 1940] until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70 or 80 percent of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries; included among the executed and burned were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of prisoner-of-war cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens, mostly Jewish, from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.

Although sometimes quoted, some of these numbers are almost certainly wrong. Most serious researchers and historians put the number of dead at Auschwitz in the range of 1,100,000 to 1,600,000, about 90 percent of them Jews. Why would the commandant of the camp himself be wrong? Höss gave strange numbers in both his autobiographical book, written while a prisoner in Poland, and his Nuremberg testimony. Perhaps he just didn’t know, or perhaps he was using numbers obtained from others, when he went from Auschwitz to the SS camp inspectorate office and worked with the administrators of many camps. Some believe Höss may have written the book under pressure from his Polish captors.

One doesn’t have to be a Jew to consider the holocaust the most disturbing event in Western history. I’ve spent a lot of time, both academic and personal, studying it and the historical period in which it occurred. This has included reading a large number of books and academic studies, participating in discussions and seminars, and studying informally with a rabbi who himself survived two camps in France and was a legitimate expert.

I’ve only been to only one concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen in Germany, which was razed by the British after it was liberated to stop a typhus epidemic. All that’s there now is a small memorial center, a monument, and large, low mounds beneath which the remains of human victims are interred. Row upon row upon row of mounds, thousands and thousands of people. I’ve studied the einsatzgruppen, SS killer formations which, along with their associated reserve police battalions, roamed through Poland, Russia, and other regions. I also know that some countries, and their people, tried and largely succeeded in protecting their Jewish citizens; the people of Denmark and Bulgaria were heroic indeed. Other countries chose instead to hand over their Jewish countrymen to the Nazis or, in some cases, to kill them themselves. France, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, and Poland come to mind. Countries allied in the war against fascism knew enough, at some point, to have saved many lives, but they largely did nothing. And the Vatican knew enough early on to have saved possibly millions, had they but wished to. This profound failure calls into question the belief of the Church in the most fundamental principles upon which it exists.

I’ve pondered the questions everyone else grapples with. Why did the Nazis consider less than one percent of their citizens (about 580,000 of 62,000,000) to be such a serious threat? The answers can only lie in centuries of anti-semitism, certainly from the time of the Crusades, and the need for a revolutionary movement to have scapegoats. How did a country of cultured refinement descend to such unspeakable depths? Did the German people really know what was happening? Perhaps not all knew, at least not the details, but there were literally hundreds of thousands of Germans directly involved in and helping manage the killings. They knew, and through them so did millions of other Germans. And why did so many in other countries, themselves at war with Germany, willingly surrender Jews to the certainty of death? To simply say “anti-semitism” is accurate but far from sufficient.

And perhaps the most irritating question, often heard from Holocaust-deniers and others who question the overwhelming burden of historical evidence, is this: Why did the Jews permit themselves to be slaughtered? Why did they march off to their deaths like so many docile sheep? There are several answers, none of them very comforting. Any subset of any people can be systematically slaughtered if those in charge wish to do it and the vast majority of their followers support it or at least acquiesce. When the sheer power of the state is applied against a relatively small number of civilians, it cannot be resisted. A few trained and armed soldiers and policemen can control a large number of average people, especially people who consider themselves full-fledged citizens of their country and who cannot bring themselves to believe such a monstrous crime could be instigated by their state. Until it’s too late. Of course, there were some who saw it coming and got themselves and their families out of danger, and there were others who resisted as much as they could. But generally, it was too few and too late.

There are many reasons why the Holocaust should never be forgotten, but one may be more important than all others. It’s true, of course, that there have been other examples of the horror of large-scale genocide, and there will be others. But there is a critical difference. This genocide was carried out against an accomplished people, a people who have contributed more to humanity than any other, by another people, meaning much of Europe, to whom the world looks for leadership and example in culture, achievement, and humanitarian impulse. If humanity could so seriously fail in that case, who is ever safe, anywhere?

The anniversaries of various events in the history of the Holocaust are useful for remembering, which is a fundamental obligation we owe to all those who perished. And it’s an obligation of every fortunate beneficiary of Western culture, Jews and non-Jews alike. The state of Israel is the homeland created by and for Jews all over the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the citizens of that small country of a few million struggle daily to defend their very lives against hundreds of millions, many of whom would see them perish in yet another Holocaust, the rest of us cannot lose sight of the simple fact that history can repeat itself. And if all of us are not vigilant, it almost certainly will. For the benefit of all humanity, the civilized people of the world must draw a line beyond which we will permit no transgression. For the sake of us all, we must embrace as a guiding principle the solemn obligation not only to remember but to ensure that it never happens again. Never again.

[Other articles in this series: Auschwitz and the Holocaust, The Church and the Holocaust]

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3 Responses to “Remembering the Holocaust”

  1. Edith Shaked |

    It is one of the most comprehensive articles I have ever read about the Holocaust.

    Tom, the author, displays an amazing knowledge of the events, and a meaningful understanding of the questions relevant to this tragic event, which I call – Assault on Humanity and violations of civil rights.

    Indeed, antisemitism is not enough of a reason to explain the war against the Jews, and by the way, against the other, the different.

    See lecture 14 at my website and Google:
    The Holocaust: Summing Up. What “caused” the Holocaust.

    Yehuda Bauer, a world well-known Holocaust scholar, correctly stated in his book, Rethinking the Holocaust, that there was a murderous CONSENSUS. People simply agree to kill the Jews, and those who are different than them.

    That’s the uniqueness or unprecedentness of the Holocaust: a certain group decided, based on a pseudo-science, to murder others.

    In my class, I like to describe the victims, as those who were killed, because of WHO they are (Gypsies, Jews, Slavs, Blacks, handicapped … the considered inferior people to the MASTER race, the Aryan and those killed, because of WHAT THEY DID: Jehovah’s Witnesses, resisters, homosexuals, political dissenders White Rose …

    Shaked’s definition of the victims:
    Anyone who is not blond, blue-eye, tall, healthy, hetereosexual and Nazi aryan.

    And like Tom, at the top of my syllabus, I wrote: Be vigilant, and speak up!

    Thank you Tom for a wonderful, thoughtful and knowledgeable analysis!

    Edith Shaked

  2. Brianna |

    “That’s the uniqueness or unprecedentness of the Holocaust: a certain group decided, based on a pseudo-science, to murder others.”

    With all due respect to what the Jews suffered in the Holocaust, that’s actually not a unique historical circumstance at all. Just ask the Armenians, the Kurds, the Christians and animists of South Sudan, the Tutsis and Hutus of Rwanda, to name a few groups who have suffered similar circumstances. Sure, the propaganda was usually based on tribe or religion, as opposed to the “psuedo-science” of the Nazis. But that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Nor was the Holocaust unique in the systematic nature in which the “final solution” was carried out; the gulags of Russia, the “Great Leap Forward” of China, and the “Year Zero” of Cambodia were equally systematic and regimented, though they focused on societal class rather than race.

    You’re absolutely right that the cause went deeper than simple anti-semitism. But I don’t think you can explain it by saying that everybody was simply seized with a severe case of “kill the Other” at the same time for no particular reason whatsoever, which is essentially what your argument about a “murderous CONSENSUS” implies.

    “This genocide was carried out against an accomplished people, a people who have contributed more to humanity than any other, by another people, meaning much of Europe, to whom the world looks for leadership and example in culture, achievement, and humanitarian impulse.”

    Yes, they are. I have often thought that if there is a single logical argument to be made in favor of the idea that some races have a higher average intelligence than others, it would be the existence of the Jews. And this, I submit, is the reason that the Jews were targeted. Just as when the Soviets, the Chinese, the Cambodians decided to embark on class warfare, they had to target the intellectuals, the businessmen, those who had contributed the most to their countries and the world, so when the Germans embarked on race warfare, they were forced to target the Jews.

    Far-left ideologies are essentially zero-sum; that is, they assume that there is some “pie” somewhere, that this “pie” is finite, and that if somebody is more successful than somebody else, then that person must have gotten more than their “fair share” of that pie. How? Evil theft from and treachery of the innocent, unsuspecting masses. Of course, there is no zero-sum “pie” and there never has been, but when you come to power preaching that there is, and you start implementing economic policies based on the assumption that there is, and your country starts to get seriously screwed up because what you’re doing is stupid and wrong… you’d better have a scapegoat handy before the people figure out who the real problem is. The Soviet’s ideology focused on class: they blamed the bourgeois. Hitler focused on race: he blamed the Jews. And because the ground of Germany had been primed for the collectivist, leftist ideology for much of the last century (Marx, Engels, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and a host of lesser men), when the country was in chaos and Hitler stepped up to the plate with all the slogans they’d been taught to adhere to for the last century in clear, unadultered form… Germany bought it. Wholesale.

    And yes, I’m lecturing a Jew born of Holocaust survivors and a professor of Holocaust history on my views of the ultimate cause of the Holocaust. At least you can’t say I didn’t stick up for them.

  3. Tom |

    When thinking, reading, and talking about the Holocaust, the question “What about all the others?” almost always comes up. It’s a reasonable question that deserves an answer. Here are a few points:

    — The Holocaust was genocide in its purest form and was certainly the most significant such event in Western history. There have been other genocides, of course — the Armenians in 1915 and Rwanda more recently are examples. There were also mass murders and other killing events that weren’t genocide — Cambodia under Pol Pot, Ukraine in the 30s, the Soviet Gulags, China under Mao. But in terms of the impact on Western society and culture, none of these surpasses the Holocaust in significance.

    — Victims of the Nazis other than Jews (Roma, homosexuals, political and military prisoners, etc) were not the subject of a highly systematic plan to murder every single member of their particular group. In the Nazis’ eyes they were untermenschen, of course, and they were rounded up here and there and murdered, but it wasn’t the same thing.

    — Jews and Judaism, in terms of religion and culture, are a major part of the underpinnings, the genesis, of Western civilization in many important senses. There has always been anti-Semitism, of course, and prior to the Holocaust it often flared into deadly pogroms. Moral people have long decried anti-Semitism and tried without success to understand its real roots. The Holocaust showed us where that kind of ignorance and hatred can lead, to the extent that some of us attempted to eradicate an essential segment of our own civilization.

    — In moral and ethical terms, there’s no question that every human life is of equal value in the most fundamental sense. However, there is also the value of the contributions of one human being to the lives of other people and to the benefit of mankind as a whole. In this sense, the contributions of Jews to the betterment of the world has been far, far out of proportion to their numbers. Taking Nobel Prizes as just one indicator, Jews have received 22% of all Nobels, despite being about 0.25% of the world’s population. The same pattern holds for other forms of recognition for exceptional individual achievement.

    — It’s a terrible irony that, as I said in the article, the Holocaust “was carried out against an accomplished people, a people who have contributed more to humanity than any other, by another people, meaning much of Europe, to whom the world looks for leadership and example in culture, achievement, and humanitarian impulse.” Anti-Semitism alone doesn’t explain the Holocaust, but it provided the framework of hate within which it happened. That same anti-Semitism is still alive and well in Europe, and it’s also clearly evident among some people in the U.S. As Israel struggles daily to defend against yet another wholesale destruction that Arab Muslims would gladly inflict, the rest of the world, and the West in particular, must never forget what once happened if we’re to ensure that it never happens again.

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