One can probably say about every historical event that it has elements that are rooted in the past and similarities with past events, and at the same time has elements that are new and unprecedented. Of course, the proportions of old and new, differ from event to event. For example, World War I, is regarded by most historians as the first modern war because of the new technologies used, and the up-to-that-time unprecedented scale of carnage. Yet some of the modern aspects we associate with World War I, such as machine guns, modern transport of troops, and trench warfare, already made their appearance in the American Civil War some fifty years earlier. Whereas others, such as mustard gas, airplanes and giant artillery pieces like the Big Bertha, were new. Thus, one can argue for aspects of World War I that were unprecedented, whereas others have deeper historical roots. Similarly, one can say about almost each event that it has - at least some - unique features which are grounded in its specific context; here the term “unique” will be used, according to the Oxford dictionary, “in practice… [in] the meaning ‘very remarkable or unusual’”.
This is true for the Holocaust, too. Moreover, on the one hand it includes mass violence and a genocide and as such, aspects of it fit into a class of extreme crimes with a significant list of tragic cases. On the other hand, the Holocaust has some prominent and exceptional features that are not present in other instances of genocide and mass violence and that place it beyond the definition(s) of these categories.
Unprecedentedness and Uniqueness
It may be said that the unprecedentedness of the Shoah lies first and foremost in one of the central reasons Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler embarked upon it. The Nazis sought to remold their own country, Europe and essentially the world, in accordance to pseudo-scientific racial principals. They sought to make Germany a racially pure superpower (although at the time this term was not yet in use), totally independent and beholden to no one, a utopian society for members of their "master race." For this, they believed, they needed more land and all the material benefits that land would bring. War was the primary means of gaining land and the Nazis were not at all concerned with the price the inhabitants of those lands would have to pay to ensure the sustenance of Germans. But the worldview (Weltanschauung) of Nazi Germany had an even more extreme vision: to reform and reshape the world of ideas by fighting and erasing the “unnatural” idea of equality, which, so they maintained, had polluted the political, social and economic systems. They sought instead to institute the “natural” principle of hierarchy, including in human relations, a principle that would give the so-called Aryan race (as embodied first and foremost in the Germans) world domination.
According to Nazi thought, the principle of human equality originated in Jewish thought, was taken over by Christianity, and from there had penetrated and polluted modernity. The Jews were deemed the primary racial carriers of this idea and thus both an ideological and physical enemy; according to Nazi ideology solving the so-called "Jewish problem" was central to its entire enterprise. It wasn't just the physical Jew who was considered a danger by the Nazis. “Jewish Bolshevism”, embodied in the Soviet Union but with broad cancerous extensions, was seen by them as the most dangerous of all rival systems. In their view democracies, too, were “Jewified”. For the Nazis, the battle between the “unnatural” and “natural” principles had reached a decisive moment and needed an immediate and total solution. This drive gave the anti-Jewish Nazi enterprise – the Holocaust – a unique, apocalyptic dimension: in terms of geographical breadth, of resolute implementation, and of urgency.
Nazi policies for solving “the Jewish problem” unfolded over time. They started immediately after Hitler’s rise to power on January 30, 1933. Throughout the first years of Nazi rule the search for a definitive solution led to the exclusion of Jews from many spheres of life, expropriation and impoverishment, and an increasingly coerced emigration. After the beginning of WWII in September 1939, in the occupied territories, policies escalated and new measures were undertaken: concentration, marking Jews, forced labor, defamation and even random killings were implemented. During the second half of 1941 and the beginning of 1942 in broadening geographical circles, policies coalesced into systematic mass murder, called (by the German bureaucracy) the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." The notion that the Nazis believed they had to solve the Jewish Problem definitively for the good of Germany and essentially for the good of mankind, and that they attacked the physical and metaphysical Jew, was new in history and unique. In other words, the campaign – which Eichmann’s aid Dieter Wisliceny called “witch-mania” (Hexenwahn) intended to exorcise the “Jewish idea” and its physical carriers, which was viewed as redemptive, was unprecedented.
Systematic and Industrialized Killing Centers
The systematic murder campaign of Jews started in killing sites in the occupied Soviet Union and counted for almost half of the Jewish victims. Some scholars assert that this kind of wholesale murder of a group had its roots in German genocidal acts against the Nama and Herrero in Namibia at the dawn of the twentieth century. But another major aspect of the Holocaust that is usually seen as new, is the industrialized murder represented by the extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau (the Nazi term was Vernichtungslager, extermination camps), a term that is deeply rooted in their ideology, since those who were to be exterminated in them were deemed to be less than human and were considered to be pests in need of extermination). This well-honed system of large-scale industrialized murder could be implemented due to the fact that the “industry” was provided with victims who were “shipped” in a modern commercial mode as a “product” to them, by a well-organized modern state-bureaucracy using the modern railway system. This enterprise, which spanned the length and breadth of most of Europe can certainly be considered to be new.
The broad, transnational, modern and apocalyptic nature of the Holocaust, which encompassed Jewish communities of North Africa as well, thus stands out as different from other cases of genocide. In those cases, the conflict is between two entities, and mostly relating to domination over certain territories; thus, they were more restricted and their basis more concrete. In contrast, the conflict with “the Jews” was imagined, and not restricted to a given territory but global in its essence. Consequently, Nazi Germany implemented its anti-Jewish policies in every occupied country and the ideologues and planners envisioned its implementation far beyond Europe. Moreover, this enterprise was joined by people across the large swath of land they came to dominate either as occupiers or as senior partners in alliances. One can therefore say that Nazi antisemitism also radicalized anti-Jewish policies and traditions outside Germany. Germany’s ally Romania, for instance, was responsible for the death of close to 400,000 Jews. The transnational nature of the Holocaust is not only about the geography of persecution but also includes other geographical aspects, such as the places that emerged as sites of refuge or possible sites of refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. In short, it can be said that the events of the Holocaust touched much of the world.
Neither should one forget that the Third Reich existed only 12 years and 98 days, that the unprecedented numerical results of the murder campaign were reached in less than four years, and that this was all done without even having a designated budget for this purpose. I.e. the anti-Jewish campaign could be implemented only due to the broad and creative input of many ordinary players – Germans and others throughout Europe - not only Hitler and the Nazi elite.
Please stay tuned for Part II for a further discussion of the unprecedented and precedented aspects of the Holocaust, and their implications.