There are considerable layers of political rhetoric and necessary sensitivity to negotiate when we think about the claim that the Nazis war against the Jews was a unique event. Any attempt to equate the holocaust with other events, for example by examining the links with and comparison to Stalin’s terror, are attacked. It is important to differentiate between different reasons for the response these kinds of discussions provoke.
Apologists for the Stalinist or Moaist regimes reject the notion that the deaths in China and Russia have an element of continuity over the lifetime of the regime. They argue that people died for different reasons at different times and that the claim that there was something in the nature of the regime itself that lead to a politics of mass murder is merely a cover for attacking any form of progressive project. Those who do not set out to apologise for the regime argue with Thomas Mann that while Nazism was mere depravity, there was an idea of humanity at the heart of Communism. The implications of this are clear. Killing was a stage in the evolution of a political idea. It was Stalin and Mao and not the killing on which the regime was founded that institutionalised murder. This is proven above all by the fact that the killing stopped after Stalin died and after Mao changed his approach.
If you stress the relationship between the Soviet and Nazis system you are on the same road as Ernest Nolte and will end up blaming Stalin and the Bolsheviks for Auschwitz. By stressing the similarities and not the differences you are in some sense serving the objectives of the Nazis.
If the comparisons attempted are broader or more conceptional then the response is politically driven in another direction. If the Holocaust is not unique then its role in the founding of the state of Israel cannot be privileged. This is separate from but connected to the necessary element of sensibility we should use in writing about this sort of a topic at all. The implication is that if you try and historically normalise the holocaust by contextualising and comparing it you are, in some sense, reducing or minimising the suffering of those involved. In neither of these cases should we attack the victims too severely. That the state of Israel uses the holocaust for political purposes and that the survivors and their families are concerned to protect the status of the events they suffered and seek compensation for their suffering, is perfectly understandable. Novick‘s critique of the overall phenomenon, as much as Finkelstein‘s attack on the material aspects of survivor politics, do little to diminish the needs served by the contemporary use of the holocaust. Israel has a right to exist and needs to use whatever means at its disposal to create and perpetuate a constituency in support of that existence. Victims have the right to pursue redress. That more balance needs to be applied in both functional uses of the past does not make them illegitimate. The right to question and debate the perception of the holocaust on which these ideas rests should also be accepted.
The Israeli aspect of the uniqueness position rests on one key claim to difference and the pro-Soviet position on at least two. Both positions have much more nuance and many more layers than the description that follows but are something like the following.
The state of Israel should have been created because never in history had a state set out on the total annihilation of a racial group simply because it was a racial group. There had been murder before on a huge scale. The Turks against the Armenians being an example, a precedent, that even Hitler himself cited. But never was the intention to kill every single member of a racial group simply for being a member of the group. You could not stop being a victim by joining the perpetrators because in the end they would have to kill you anyway. To flee would take you out of immediate harm’s way but if the Nazis and their allies won the war, there would be no place to hide. If this happened once, then it can happen again. Therefore, the only safe option for the victims was their own state from which they could defend themselves.
Putting the relationship with this idea to the future of the state of Israel to one side for a moment, the key claim is that never before had a state set out to kill an entire racial group.
The comparisons with the Soviet and Maoist cases are resisted for primarily political reasons but this resistance rests on three main connected ideas.
- The people who died at different phases of the Soviet regime from 1917 to 1991, in the Maoist regime from 1947 onwards, died for different reasons, at different speeds and in different ways. In other words that whereas the murder of the Jews was central to and ultimately became the purpose of the Nazis regime, killing in the Soviet Union was a consequence of other things and different things at different times. The Nazis regime is unique in that the purpose of the state became the continuation of the killing.
- There was no equivalent in the Soviet Union or China to the extermination camps themselves. Areas of the Soviet Union suffered famine and sub-subsistence levels of rations were introduced in the Gulags. During the cultural revolution many millions died in the countryside and entire classes of people disappeared. Similar forms of killing therefore existed in China during the Cultural Revolution and in Cambodia under Pol Pot. But this is different to the creation of a camp with the simple purpose of killing the inmates through the use of industrial techniques. If the Jews of Hungary had been left to starve in camps, then this could be equated to the Soviet regime but that they were shipped to extermination camps and that in these camps they were gassed and cremated in large groups. This makes the Nazis system unique.
- That the reasons behind the killing in the Soviet case shifted and the camps did not only exist to kill, ie you could be released, point to the major difference between the ideology of the Nazis and that of the Soviets – and by extension of the Chinese under Mao and later, the Cambodians under Pol Pot, and others. There was a body of ideas about the nature of humanity, which was being put into practice imperfectly, but which could be put into practice in the correct way if only errors had not be made and the wrong people not been put in charge. Killing was coincidental to and not derived from the ideology these regimes claimed to represent. In a harder response these regimes abandoned and broke any connection with the ideology of Communism, they ceased being placed meaningfully in this category when they began killing in certain ways. They were Communist when removing the old regime in each instance but became something else at some point when the idea of humanity that informs the Communist idea was replaced by blood lust.