For better or worse, the Holocaust has taken on the status of a metonym in American culture, now designating not simply the attempt to exterminate the global Jewry but, at a broader level, the most horrific event in human history.
The Holocaust has taken on this role in spite of the fact that repugnant as the Hitler regime was, it certainly was not the most prolific in the annals of mass killing in the 20th Century.
Both Stalinism and Maoism killed more, although both had longer timeframes to work with than the 12 years of the Thousand Year Reich.
There are reasons for this, some benign, some more sinister. Both Stalin and Mao’s regimes collapsed like National Socialism but in ways that maintained their established political orders.
The same cultural prejudices horrified at the idea of gas chambers constructed by the descendants of Goethe and Schiller view barbarism occurring elsewhere in the world as par for the course.
The Holocaust also occupies a specific role in postwar American culture. The role of US troops in liberating camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald helped to inscribe the liberator narrative in the consciousness of the greatest generation and their progeny.
In time these events, which occurred as a happy but wholly unintended consequence of the advance of Allied forces in Germany, took on an outsized role, one which had the collateral effect of distracting attention from other, less savoury aspects of American history.
In this, the United States was by no means alone. At a stroke, Western Europe’s grim history of slavery and colonialism was now projected through the filter of Nazi atrocities.
Sometimes as victims, sometimes as liberators, it was as if the horrors that Europeans had in the past inflicted on others were now expiated by the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on them.
The importance of the Holocaust to the self-understanding and postwar historical narratives of North American and European states, and not unimportantly to those of the state of Israel, has had the effect of shutting off certain kinds of discussion of the Nazi genocide while promoting certain others.
The latter include first-hand testimony of the victims relating to experiences in Nazi-driven and controlled processes ranging from dissimilation to extermination.
These are of crucial importance, both because they form the basis of a minute understanding of the Nazi project of mass extermination and racial purity, and also because they record and pay homage to the suffering of those who experience it.
But there has also been a process of reduction associated with this. There is a strong impulse from some quarters to focus on the specificity of the Holocaust both within the Nazi project and with respect to other instances of genocide both before and since.
In part, this is a natural response to the complexity of the events in question. The Holocaust was a part of broader patterns and institutions of political and racial oppression. Some of these were specific to the mass murder of Jews, such as the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps in Poland (Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.)
Others, such as the concentration camps within the borders of the Reich (Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, etc.) touched on both the Holocaust proper and the oppression and murder of political opponents, gays and lesbians, Sinti and Roma people, and a range of others perceived to be enemies of the regime, or racially inferior, or both.
One important effect of the concern with specificity has been a corresponding rejection of comparison between the Holocaust, or Nazi repression and extermination more generally, and other historical events.
Here there are a number of underlying causes worth noting. People trained as historians of this period (I can say this from personal experience) develop a pronounced suspicion toward the tendency to free-floating comparisons between Nazism and other (more contemporary) historical events.
The focus on historical specificity gets strongly ingrained in the course of one’s training, and comparison is seen as the purview of social scientists and others given to flights of intellectual fancy.
The increasing synonymization of “Nazi” with “bad” has, over the course of the decades since the Second World War produced a concomitant tendency toward comparisons between Nazism and everything from primary school teachers to any and all holders of public office.
These generally have little or no substance, besmirching the object of the comparison while doing no conceptual work whatever.
However, this should not be taken to mean either that historical comparison is inherently invalid, or that comparison of the Holocaust and other elements of Nazism with other historical events cannot yield valuable insights.
It is the kind of thing that must be done with caution and due consideration that comparison illuminates rather than simply to cast aspersions. One case in point is the designation of the camps built at the instigation of the Trump Administration to detain asylum seekers that the southern border as concentration camps.
As those currently clutching their pearls at the use of the term concentration camps in the context avidly point out, it is associated in the minds of most Americans with specifically and immediately homicidal aspects of Nazism.
This was stated with bumptious clarity by Bill Maher, who pointed out that, while Holocaust might have meant something else before the late 1940s, those meanings have become irrelevant now that it has become associated with the Nazi Judeocide.
This is not exactly true. Holocaust is still occasionally used in its lower case “h” form, if admittedly rather less than in previous eras.
Concentration camps have a much more recent history. In its English usage, the term dates from the Spanish war in Cuba in the 1860s.
‘Holocaust’ entered more common parlance when it was applied to British internment camps for Boer civilians set up during the Second Boer War (1899-1902.)
At that point, and up into the late 1930s, ‘concentration camp’ was basically a term denoting a camp in which people (in practice specific ethnic groups) were held in extrajudicial detention.
Almost immediately after taking power in 1933, the Nazis ramped up this concept to previously unexampled dimensions.
Starting with communists and social democrats, the Nazis began to systematically detain people viewed as political enemies. They did so in places like Dachau, a former gunpowder factory near Munich, and in the Columbia-Haus, across from Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, and in dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of other places.
As David Rousset’s L’Univers Concentrationnaire recounts, during the first three years of the regime, the camps became increasingly imbricated with the Nazis’ anti-Jewish project, increasing in extent and brutality.
The extermination camps would become a fundamental part of the concentration camp system. But the point at which they entered the process is crucial. The move to mass lethality by the Nazi regime only got going in its last six years.
The T4 Program, in which nearly 300,000 incurably sick and disabled people were murdered in a program of “mercy killings” only began in the autumn of 1939. The Einsatzgruppen were formed around the same time in the context of the invasion of Poland.
The gas chambers of Auschwitz only came into operation in the spring of 1942, and the other extermination camps had even shorter spans of operation. Treblinka, where between 700,000 and 900,000 people were murdered, was only in operation from July 1942 to October 1943.
The Nazi move to systematic mass killing happened relatively late in the course of their rule and was fundamentally connected with the outbreak of the war for race and space in the east. Before that, conditions in the concentration camps were grim, sometimes lethal, but not systematically homicidal.
The point here is that there was a process that moved from dissimilation to detention, and only later on to mass killing. There was, as the historian Karl Schleunes noted, a “twisted road to Auschwitz” in which the end was prefigured in the beginning, but was not implicit in it, or predetermined by it.
Bill Maher and others argue that using the term concentration camps to designate the ICE detention camps implies a comparison to the exterminatory project of Nazism.
To the extent that this is true, it is a sign of the failure of Americans to learn the history underlying their collective narratives of national virtue. But the trend of late has been to apply this term to more cases in which it is apposite, such as the internment camps in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the Second World War.
The detainment of a specific ethnic group in degrading conditions and without judicial remedy is a common feature of all three cases. As such, a common term is warranted.
Clearly, the detention of asylum seekers and the forcible separation of their children is not comparable to industrialised mass killing on the model of Auschwitz.
But forcible internment of asylum seekers under degrading conditions, based on a process of dissimilation bringing the fundamental humanity of those detained into question, is alarming both on its own merits as well as due to where it might potentially lead.
Equally sad is the commentary on American discourse implicit in the fact that public figures are incensed by the terms used to describe a horrific process, but not by the process itself.
Photograph courtesy of Hayley H. Published under a Creative Commons license.