The Holocaust was unprecedented, and we had hoped that it would become a warning, not a precedent. But we have been proven wrong. It has become a precedent, and other genocides have followed it.
It was World War II, the most terrible conflict in human history so far, that provided the context in which Auschwitz, the symbol of genocide, could happen, and that war had been initiated by Nazi Germany, largely for ideological reasons: one, the desire to rule Europe, and through it, the world, and thus achieve a global racial hierarchy with the Nordic peoples of the Aryan race on top, and everybody else under them. The second major element in Nazi ideology was anti-Semitism. They saw the Jews as the Satan that controlled all of Germany's enemies. At one end, in their eyes, stood Hitler, the new Jesus Christ, who would lead humanity, under Germanic rule, to a glorious future. At the other end was the satanic Jew, who tried to prevent this utopia from achieving its aim of global rule.
It was in the name of that utopia of a wonderful new racist world that the vast majority of the German people were persuaded to commit mass murders, including three genocides at least: against the Poles, the Roma (“Gypsies”), and the Jews. We should never forget that utopias kill; radical universalist utopias, such as National Socialism and, today, the radicals who support global terrorism, kill radically and universally.
It is no exaggeration to say that World War II, and the death of tens of millions, the destruction of countries and cultures, the torture and death of children and adults, were caused in part by hatred against Jews.
There are two aspects to the Holocaust. One is the specificity of the Jewish fate, the other are the universal implications; they are two sides of the same coin. The Jews were the specific victims of the genocide. But the implications are universal, because who knows who the Jews may be next time.
The main parallel between the Holocaust and other genocides is that the suffering of the victims is the same. Murder is murder, torture is torture, rape is rape; starvation, disease, and humiliation are the same in all mass murders. There are no gradations, and no genocide is better or worse than another one, no one is more victim than anyone else.
The other parallel is that every genocide is perpetrated with the best technical and bureaucratic means at the disposal of the perpetrators. Thus, the recent genocide in Darfur was perpetrated with the help of air bombardments, use of cell-phones, and the government bureaucracy that supported the murderers and prevented effective outside intervention. The Holocaust was perpetrated with the best technical and bureaucratic means at the disposal of Germany. But the difference was that it happened at the very centre of European and world civilisation, and that was unprecedented.
During the twentieth century, vast numbers of civilians and unarmed prisoners of war were murdered by governments and political organisations, and many more civilians than soldiers were killed. Of these, close to six million Jews died in the most extreme case of genocide so far.
Why is the Holocaust the most extreme case? Why do more and more people show an interest in this particular tragedy, why is there a flood of fiction, theatre, films, TV series, art, music and, of course, historical, sociological, philosophical, psychological, and other academic research, a flood that has rarely, if ever, been equalled in dealing with any other historical event?
I think the reason is that while all the elements of each genocide are repeated in some other genocides, there are elements in the Holocaust that cannot be found in genocides that preceded it. The perpetrators tried to find, register, mark, humiliate, dispossess, concentrate and murder every person with three or four Jewish grandparents for the crime of having been born a Jew. This was to be done, ultimately, everywhere in the world, so that for the first time in history there was an attempt to universalise a genocide. Also, the ideology was totally unpragmatic, not like in all other genocides. In Rwanda, for instance, a Hutu supremacist ideology developed from the pragmatic background of a real power struggle within the Hutu establishment and a real military struggle against an invading force of the persecuted Tutsi minority. But with the Nazis, the pragmatic elements were minor.
They did not kill the Jews because they wanted their property. They robbed their property in the process of getting rid of them, first by emigration, then by expulsion and, in the end, by murder. They killed Jewish armament workers when they needed every pair of hands after the defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943; they murdered Jewish slave labourers while they were building roads for the German military. If they had followed modern, capitalistic practice, they would have robbed Jewish property and then utilised Jewish slave labour for their own purposes, as they did with the Poles, for instance. But they murdered the Jews because that was where their ideology led them, an ideology that had the character of nightmares.
They believed in a Jewish world conspiracy and in the notorious forgery called the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” produced in the early part of the 20th century by the police in Tsarist Russia, which was used and adapted by the Nazis. They believed in the accusation of ritual murder of non-Jewish children by the Jews. The genocide of the Jews, then, was based on nightmares that turned into ideology. Then, there was the utopia of a global racist hierarchy which had one real satanic enemy, the Jews, who had to be eliminated, although there are no races, because we all are originally from Africa. The Nazis very consciously opposed all the values of European civilisation such as liberalism, democracy, socialism and humanitarianism, and wanted to destroy them. They saw in the Jews embodiments of the values which they wanted to eliminate, and the destruction of the Jews followed. All this was without a precedent.
The Holocaust was unprecedented, and we had hoped that it would become a warning, not a precedent. But we have been proven wrong. It has become a precedent, and other genocides have followed it. I come from a people that gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Let us agree that we need three more commandments, and they are these: thou shalt not be a perpetrator; thou shalt not be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander.
(Professor Yehuda Bauer is Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem and the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.)
Alliance Française in Delhi will host a Commemoration event for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on February 1, 2011 at 18:30.