The question of whether or not the Holocaust was a unique event in history is quite a trivial one. In a sense, every historical event is unique since such an event is never identical to another one. It is not the uniqueness of the Holocaust that matters; rather what matters is whether there is some important distinguishing feature because of which historians regard it as a unique occurrence (Marrus 18-25). Indeed, there is such a distinguishing feature, and those who have debated over the uniqueness of the Holocaust have overlooked it. This is what shall be argued in this essay.
Many historians share the belief that the Holocaust is indeed unique as a historical event. In fact, the Holocaust has even been dubbed as “a historical singularity.” A claim for the uniqueness of the Holocaust is that technology was applied to death in an unprecedented manner. The Holocaust marked the industrialization of killing. However, this metaphor does not explain the Holocaust’s unique. First, this metaphor does not pay attention to the motives behind the Holocaust. Second, such an emphasis on the process of killing makes the Holocaust unique only related to events in history before it, but not in terms of sequent events.
Historians even argue that the Germans did not really share a similar belief in their ideology, that deep inside they were aware that they were doing something wrong, and that their ideology was just an excuse to carry out something they wanted to do anyway. Many of the Germans working in death camps were not even gut anti-Semite and had banal reasons to volunteer for this kind of service, such as avoiding service at the front (Klee, Dressen, and Riess). However, this does not explain why the killing of Jews was carried out with such eagerness and enthusiasm (Ullmann-Margalit, and Margalit 167-187).
The notion of the Holocaust as a unique event can also be explored from the Nazi outlook of the human race. The point is that the Nazis also did not share a similar wholehearted belief in race theory, yet they excluded the Jews from the human race. However, the Nazis also insisted that humanity is not a single race. In other words, the Germans believed in two different kinds of race theory. The first kind of racism asserts that particular races are superior to other races of the same species. The other kind of racism denies the notion of a common humanity.
Initially, the Nazis started out with the first kind, believing that the Jews would eventually lead to the extinction of the superior German race. However, over time, their ideology shifted to the second kind of racism, wherein they completely excluded the Jews from the human race. However, despite their view that the Jews were a species destined to die, which would mean that it would be pointless to humiliate them, the Germs could not help themselves of the constant humiliation they subjected the Jews to. Although this explains how the Holocaust was unique based on the German attitude, it distracts from their process of extermination.
Not only was the Nazi ideology abnormal, signs of abnormality can also be seen in the way the Germans practiced their ideology. The concept of humiliation can be applied here (Margalit and Goldblum), i.e. “institutions do not humiliate the people under their authority” (Margalit and Goldblum) in a decent society. Certainly, Nazi society was neither civilized nor decent. It is a cliché that the Germans killed the Jews after making them admit that they deserved to die because they were inhuman. This is somewhat similar to how the victims of the Inquisition were forced to confess their sins before they were burned. However, those victims were not tortured for humiliation.
The point is that exterminations and humiliation people have been common occurrences throughout history, the rarity and uniqueness in terms of the Holocaust is that the Germans systematically humiliated and killed the Jews. This is why the world has been so perversely fascinated with the Holocaust, a fascination that is quite similar to that with the murder of a victim who was first raped. In this sense, like a rapist who may murder a victim to avoid being tainted by his act, the Germans did not want to be tainted by their humiliation of the Jews and therefore, eliminated them.
The fact that the Germans were indeed afraid of being humiliated itself also explains why they adopted such unique procedures to kill the Jews. After the 18th century, punishment apparently became more enclosed and isolated than it was before (Foucault and Sheridan). However, this means that their practice of transporting the Jews before killing them was normal rather than unique. However, the Germans had such an extreme practice of deportation that made it seem unique. The Germans transported Jews across Europe for the sole purpose of killing them somewhere else. The Germans did not want the killings to take place near their own and the Jews’ living spaces.
There are several ways in which the claim that the Holocaust was a unique occurrence can be framed. It is apparent that the Germans had a bizarrely unique ideology of regarding themselves superior to the Jews, and the process of practicing their ideology was equally unique. Unlike any race in the present or past several millennia, the Germans’ denial of a common human race was not just theoretical, it was practiced as well. This denial was practiced with unique procedures to exterminate the Jews. It is a combination of these unique factors that makes the Holocaust itself unique.
Foucault, Michel, and Alan Sheridan. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.
Klee, Ernst, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess. The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders. William S. Konecky Associates, 1996. Print.
Margalit, Avishai, and Naomi Goldblum. The Decent Society. Reprint ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print.
Marrus, Michael Robert. The Holocaust in History (Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry). Reissue ed. New York City: Plume, 1989. Print.
Ullmann-Margalit, Edna, and Avishai Margalit. "Holding true and holding as true." Synthese. 92.2 (1992): 167-187. Print.