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AVlSHAl MARGALIT The Uniqueness

& GABRIEL MOTZKIN of the Holocaust

Was the Holocaust a unique event in history? The question can be triv-
ialized. Every event is unique in the sense of being nonidentical with any
other event. Yet the question, and the debate around it, are not trivial.
The question is whether there is an important distinctive feature of the
Holocaust that makes it unique.’ We believe that the answer is Yes. We
also believe that the distinctive feature of the Holocaust in human expe-
rience has eluded many of those who took part in the debate. This is
what we shall argue.
Uniqueness has several possible meanings: among others it can mean
incomparable or it may mean unprecedented. The alleged incompara-
bility of the Holocaust assumes that the Holocaust cannot be compared
either to past or to future events. This view, which makes the Holocaust
into an event that will always be unique, has served as a trigger for mys-
tifying the Holocaust, for transforming the Holocaust into the focus for
a new civil religion. For a Jewish consciousness in search of a metaphys-
ical interpretation of history, of a sense of identity that is not anchored
only in empirical history, the Holocaust serves as a new ineffability. It
replaces God’s election of His chosen people by another unworldly
presence in history.
In contrast, the notion that the Holocaust is unique because it is un-
precedented has triggered a different reaction based on a comparison
1. Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (New American Library: New York, 19871,
pp. 16-25. Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, vol. 1: The Holocaust and
Mass Death Before the Modern Age (New York Oxford University Press, 19941, pp. 27-63.
66 Philosophy G Public Affairs

of brutality in different places at different times. Some Germans view the

Holocaust as a statistical deviation in the graph of human cruelty, ex-
treme, to be sure, but not unprecedented.2 Construing the uniqueness
of the Holocaust as meaning that it was unprecedented suggests that
even if the Holocaust may have been unprecedented, new brutalities in
the future may relegate the Holocaust to being merely the first instance
of a new form of social behavior.
We take exception to both views, to a Holocaust-centered secular the-
ology and to the normalization (Normalisierung)implicit in a compara-
tive statistics of cruelty. In this article, we will seek to understand the
uniqueness of the Holocaust as a human experience, one which escapes
theological or statistical characterization. Both the interpretations of
uniqueness as incomparable and as unprecedented focus on the scale
of the atrocity, and not on the special quality of the experience.
What is unique about the Holocaust is its particular fusion of collec-
tive humiliation and mass destruction. In the liquidation of large groups
of people, there is a tension between humiliation and death. Perpetra-
tors will seek to inflict either the one or the other. Stalin aimed to destroy
the class enemy, while Mao‘s cultural revolution sought its humiliation.
For ideological reasons, the Nazis sought both the humiliation and the
death of the race enemy. Since the Nazis had a unique racial conception
of their Jewish enemies as questionably human, they devised a unique
fusion of humiliation and death in order to destroy them.


Intense interest in the Holocaust has grown dramatically during the last
fifty years. But different groups have grown more interested in the Hol-
ocaust for different reasons. Jews have discussed the Holocaust in order
to cope with their trauma, perhaps in the dubious hope that retaining
the memory of the Holocaust may help prevent future atrocities. Ger-
mans have discussed the Holocaust in order to rehabilitate their relation
to the past. Yet for others, the Holocaust has mainly served as a symbol
of the limit-case of the human condition.

2. For the notorious Historikerstreit see: Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Entsorgung der deutschen
Vergangenheit. Ein polemischer Essay zum “Historikerstreit” (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1988).
Also: Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: H i s t o g Holocaust, and German National
Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: €Iarvard University Press, 1988).
67 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

These exp-mations for the growing interest in L e Holocaust are an-

chored in the period after 1945.This emphasis on the Holocaust’s post-
war reception has been intensified by two features. First, in 1945 the
Holocaust was viewed as relatively marginal in comparison to the war
itself. The shift of interest from the war to the Holocaust seems to have
taken place afterwards. Second, while many atrocities have taken place
since World War 11, none has drawn the same interest. Though it is clear
that the significance of the Holocaust cannot be explained merely in
terms of its reception, nonetheless many analyses have taken postwar
atrocities as their starting-point for confronting the Holocaust. Because
the reaction to the Holocaust has been so dramatic, some have empha-
sized the uniqueness of the reaction to the Holocaust as an essential
component of its uniqueness3 In Jesus’ time, many others were cruci-
fied, but the reaction to Jesus’crucifixion was definitely unique irrespec-
tive of the question of whether the crucifixion itself was unique.
Indeed, in 1945 the Holocaust appeared to many people to be a very sad
but minor event. At Nuremberg, the Holocaust was only one issue among
others. The prosecution devised the Nuremberg trials as a forum for con-
demning Germany for waging World War 11; only during the trial did the
enormity of the Holocaust fitfully begin to penetrate the consciousness
of those gathered in the courtroom.4 For most people at the time, the fact
that the Germans started this second war was their great sin.
After World War I, even many non-Germans had adopted the German
view that the allies were as guilty for the war as the Germans.5 The pol-
itics of appeasement in the 1930s could be explained in part by the wide-
spread acceptance among the Allies of the idea that some injustice had
been rendered Germany at Versailles. For many Germans, any injustice
that they inflicted in World War I1 was no more than a compensatory
injustice for the injustice of World War I. Many Germans would later
3. The abundant literature on the special problems of the transmission of the Holocaust
into a future collective memory all point in this direction. Notable collections of essays:
Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.”ed. Saul Friedlan-
der (Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992); Lessons and Legacies: The Meun-
ing ofthe Holocaust in a Changing World, ed. Peter Hayes (Evanston:Northwestern Uni-
versity Press, 1991);Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies:The Ruins ofMernory (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).
4. Bradley E Smith, Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg (New York New American Li-
brary, ign), pp. 88-89.
5. Warren I. Cohen, The American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World
War I (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1967).
68 Philosophy G Public Affairs

argue that the subsequent emphasis placed on the Holocaust was

merely an additional stick with which to beat the Germans. Immediately
after World War 11, since most people still interpreted World War I1 in
the context of World War I, they did not want to use this stick at a1L6The
Holocaust slowly turned into a central event of World War I1 during the
1950s and 196os, when the specter of World War I began to fade from
While this first reception of the Holocaust placed it firmly on the other
side of the historical abyss of 1945,the relocation of the Holocaust in the
frame of contemporary atrocities detached it from its time and inserted
it into the postwar world. In our century, as throughout history, many
other atrocities have taken place. In some of them, more people were
killed (Stalin’sforced collectivization). In others, the brutality on display
has been no less (Pol Pot’s Cambodia). And some even meet the criteria
for genocide, the murder of a people (the Armenians). Moreover, some
have been not much less successful than the German murder of the Jews
The question of the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust has two
aspects. First, why is the Holocaust viewed as the preeminent atrocity
in human history? Second, is this attribution of historical uniqueness a
consequence of something about the Holocaust itself? It may be that the
Holocaust is not unique, but that the reaction to it is unique, and it may
be that this reaction is unique because the Holocaust is unique, and it
may be that both the Holocaust and the reaction to it are independently


The uniqueness of the Holocaust as an historical event is an assumption
shared by many historians. Thus the German historian Eberhard Jackel
has dubbed the Holocaust “a historical singularity,”7 by which he pre-
sumably means that in history as in gravitation theory “laws” do not
hold in cases of singularity. On this account, historians cannot use their
6. At Nuremberg, the standards by which German actions were evaluated stemmed
from the Hague Rules (igo7), the Covenant of the I.eague of Nations (1919). and the Kel-
logg-Briand Pact (1928). The primary criminal act was waging war. Bradley E Smith,
ReachingJudgment, p. 17.
7. One of the authors (Gabriel Motzkin) heard him discuss this term at a conference in
Jerusalem in 1986. See also: Eberhard Jackel, Hitlers Herrschuft (Stuttgart: Deutsche Ver-
lags-Anstalt, 1986) p. 132.Also: Wehler, Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheir, p. 1 0 0
69 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

normal kinds of explanations when it comes to the Holocaust. This

anomaly by itself does not exempt scholars from giving an account of
the Holocaust. What it means is that such an account cannot be a nor-
mal account. It may even require higher standards of scholarship. There
is a difference between claiming that uniqueness cannot be explained
and requiring an explanation for uniqueness.
Another claim for the Holocaust’s uniqueness is its unprecedented
application of technology to death. In the Holocaust an industrializa-
tion of killing took place. There are two major reasons why this meta-
phor of industrial death cannot by itself explain the uniqueness. First,
this metaphor diverts attention from the motives to the act. We believe
on the contrary that the meaning of the Nazi industrialization of death
reveals the inseparability of the method of killing from the motives. If
the motives are ignored, then the industrialization of death is merely an
efficient method. Second, this focus on the killing process suggests that
the Holocaust is unique only in relation to what took place in history
before it, and not in relation to subsequent events. When the Holocaust
will be viewed from a future perspective, it may then appear to be quite
normal, because this may by then have become the way of dealing with
unwanted populations. There is nothing unique about industrialization,
nor about the application of industrial methods to death (cattle). At
best, there may be something special about the application of industrial
death to humans. But then the Germans insisted that Jews are not
human beings.
It has been argued that the Germans did not really believe in their
ideology, that at bottom they knew that they were doing wrong, and that
the ideology was no more than a fig leaf for an action that they wanted
to do anyway. Certainly a cursory overview of the biographies of Ger-
mans who worked in death camps shows that many of them were not
gut antisemites, and that the motives for volunteering for this kind of
service were sometimes as banal as the desire to avoid service at the
front.* Some people volunteered to be part of a murder machine in
order to escape a higher risk of death.
On the other hand, this does not explain the enthusiasm with which
the Einsutzgruppen carried out their tasks, nor the extreme effort made
8. Complex and different attitudes are shown in the documents collected in: “TheGood
Old Days’? The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetratorsand Bystanders, ed. Ernst Klee, Willi
Dressen, Volker Riess, trans. Deborah Bumstone (New York The Free Press, 1991). Original
German edition: “SchBneZeiten” (Hamburg:S . Fischer Verlag, 1988).
70 Philosophy G Public Affairs

at every point to funnel deporting convoys of Jews to the killing centers,

sometimes just a few hours before retreating from’a given location. Why
did they carry out the killing of Jews with such zest if not out of ideolog-
ical conviction?g


It may be better to begin to explore this question from the point of view
of the Nazi account of what it means to be human rather than from their
account of what it means to be Jewish. Our point is that even if the Nazis
did not always believe in race theory wholeheartedly, they still denied
the shared humanity of humankind.
Much has been made of the Nazis’ necessity to exclude the Jews from
the human race, but not enough. The Nazis did indeed seek to exclude
the Jews from the human race, and not merely from the German people.
However, the Nazis also insisted that there is no human race, i.e., that
humanity is not one race. The Nazis viewed the Jews through the lenses
of two different kinds of race theory.1° One kind of racism is the racism
that asserts that certain varieties (races) are inferior to other varieties of
the same species. This kind of racism does not deny the idea of a com-
mon humanity, since it views all varieties as belonging to the same spe-
cies, but it finds one kind of human superior to another, and so relativ-
izes the ethical obligations that we presumably share toward fellows. The
other kind of racism denies the idea that humans belong to a common
species. There are different races in the same way as there are different
9. It could also be argued that the Nazis viewed the extermination of the Jews as a desir-
able goal, without necessarily believing in the ,ideology. Certainly this position, which is
based on the Edna Ullmann-Margalit and Avishai Margalit’s distinction between holding
true and holding as true, between acting as if something were true, and really believing in
it, would help explain the sudden collapse of the ideology after the war (Edna Ullmann-
Margalit and Avishai Margalit, “Holding True and Holding as True,” Synthese, 1992). Very few
Nazis actually defended the extermination of the Jews after the war. However, this illuminat-
ing distinction does not vitiate the difference drawn in the text between acting out of either
obedience to orders or opportunism and acting from conviction. It rather explains why
some convictions disappear together with their historical context, and others do not.
10. Nazi race theory was never very clear. See: K. Saller, Die Russenlehre des National-
soziulismus in Wissenschuft und Propugundu (Darrnstadt: Progress-Verlag,1961),p. 33: “Es
ist einigermagen schwierig, iiber die Kardinalbegriffe von Volk und Rasse aus dem nation-
alsozialistischen Schriftum ganz klare Vorstellungen zu gewinnen.” See also: Peter Wein-
gart, Jurgen Kroll, and Kurt Bayerz, Geschichte der Eugenik und Russenhygiene in Deutsch-
Iund (Frankfurt: Suhrkarnp, 1988).
71 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

kinds of animals. This kinds of racism asserts that Jews are not merely an
inferior race, but a different animal altogether, and that therefore they
should be treated in the way that one treats other animals. Nazi biolo-
gism confounded these two kinds of racism in a particularly virulent
fashion, for the lesson that the Nazis imbibed from the theory of evolu-
tion was that the boundaries of genus and species are not fixed, that
humans may well be on the way to becoming something else. However,
this possibility of becoming something other than human can mean ei-
ther becoming something better or becoming something worse. The
Nazis viewed the Jews as the paradigmatic example of a degenerative
evolution, one that would eventually lead to the extinction of their race.
Over time, Nazi ideology moved from the first kind of racism, the
racism of inferior varieties, to the second kind of racism, the racism of
exclusion from the human race. The SS discouraged the infliction of
excessive cruelty on Jews because it viewed them as a species fated to
die. The less the Jews were human, the less point there was in humiliat-
ing them. Yet despite this desire for clean destruction, the entire record
of German behavior in the extermination process shows that the Ger-
mans could not rid themselves of the constant process of humiliating
the Jews. The reasons for this impossibility are basic: You cannot kill
people without killing people. Some aspect of humiliation will always
inhere to the process of killing people. If there is any positive lesson to
be drawn from the Holocaust, it is that the Nazi project was self-defeat-
ing. By inflicting humiliation, the perpetrators acknowledged their vic-
tims’ humanity, and in a way that is the victims’ ultimate bitter victory.
The contradiction in Nazi doctrine between the desire to exclude the
Jews from the most universal category, humanity, and the very denial of
the existence of that category forced the Nazis to adopt two different
“logics.” When Nazism articulated its “positive”doctrine of Aryan race
superiority, it used only notions of races and nations and denied any
idea of a universal humanity. But when it criticized contemporary ideol-
ogies such as Marxism, it used their universal terms. One secret of Na-
zism’s appeal was this fusion of a sham Enlightenment universalism
with a racial self-affirmation.
The Nazis applied this dichotomy between the universal and the par-
ticular to the Jews in a perverse way. Namely, they claimed that the idea
of one human race is a Jewish invention, part of the insidious and cor-
rupting Jewish campaign for equality. The world could only be fooled
72 Philosophy 6 Public Affairs

into extending equality to the Jews by being intoxicated with the false
idea of a universal humanity.
For this Jewish invention of humanity, the Jews should be punished.
And they should be punished with their own logic. The Jews’Enlighten-
ment ideology of universalism will be applied to them in an extremely
negative fashion, namely by excluding them from something to which
they believed they belonged.
One unique aspect of the Holocaust is then the application of univer-
salistic categories to the extermination of a race. One may argue that
negative universalism has a parallel in the Marxist-Leninist application
of universalistic categories to exclude class enemies. However, there is
a crucial difference: Marxist-Leninists viewed class as an historical phe-
nomenon that will disappear, and not as a natural kind. For them, there
does exist a universal class, the proletariat, whose historical role is be-
neficent, and others may in principle join it. In contrast, Nazi ideology
emphasized the particularity of race as well as the ubiquity of races.
There are no individuals who do not belong to a race. Yet there is no
universal race. Even the Germans do not constitute a universal race:
each race is special. History for the Nazis is always race history; hence
the Jews’ role in history is antihistorical; they represent a threat to the
possibility of a future race history because they advocated an illusory
universal race. They corrupt the superior races by sapping their vitality
with their universalistic ideological teeth.
This explanation of the uniqueness of the Holocaust emphasizes the
German attitude to the Holocaust rather than the process of extermina-
tion. It goes against much German self-understanding after the war, for
which the method of destruction was not normal, but the alleged Ger-
man attitude of apathy was “normd.” Germans claimed that they were
normal people in abnormal circumstances. Yet if “normal” Germans
created these abnormal circumstances, either as instigators or as enthu-
siastic supporters, then we must question the meaning of normality
used here. German society was not an apathetic society subjected to an
intimidating reign of terror.

We have discussed why the Nazi theory was particular, but we wish to
argue that the way this theory functioned in practice also shows signs
73 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

of this abnormality. Here we apply the concept of humiliation devel-

oped by Avishai Margalit in The Decent Society.ll In that book, a decent
society is one in which institutions do not humiliate. A civilized society
is one whose members do not humiliate each other and those who de-
pend on them. Nazi society was clearly neither decent nor civilized. The
sense of humiliation that is defined in this book is a very strong sense,
namely rejection from the human commonwealth. Treating humans as
animals, as machines, as numbers, as demons, are ways of humiliation.
They are manifested to a large extent in symbolic gestures such as forc-
ing Jews to wear yellow stars, shaving their heads, and reducing them to
statistics by tattooing numbers on their arms. The symbolic gestures of
humiliation are culture-dependent, but the sense of rejection from a
common humanity is universal.
Both the humiliation that is inherent in killing and the humiliation
that stops short of elimination share the denial of a common humanity,
but the act of killing, while more extreme, obscures its inherent humili-
ation, whereas humiliation without killing, by keeping its victims alive,
highlights the humiliation through the living paradox of members of a
human community who are excluded from it.
It has become a clich6 that the Germans sought to dehumanize the
Jews before killing them. Indeed they often sought to get the Jews to
admit that they, as inhuman beings, deserved to die-a strange analogy
to the Inquisition’s demand that its victims confess their sins before
being burned. But the Inquisition did not torture its victims in order to
humiliate them. On the contrary, the Inquisition’s official ideology
claimed that it desired to save the souls of the condemned before their
death. The motif of enforced confession was the torturer’s recognition
of his victim’s humanity. The purpose of the attempt to convince the
Jews of their own inhumanity was rather to supply the Nazis with addi-
tional proof of the truth of their assertion of the Jews’inhumanity rather
than asserting a common humanity through suffering, as in the Chris-
tian case. In this way, the Germans sought to justify themselves in their
own eyes, whereas the Inquisitors sought their victims’ recognition of
an alleged higher justice. The Nazi and the Inquisitor both persecuted
Jews, but the meaning of their persecution is very different. That you die
does not vitiate the question of how you die; it does matter how you die.
11. Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
74 Philosophy G Public Affairs

How you die is not just a question of the mode of dying, but also of the
nexus of attitudes of killers and victims.
Humiliation requires the imposition of a collaboration between the
perpetrator and the victim. The victim should recognize that his tor-
mentor is expelling him from the human commonwealth. Thus “nor-
mal” humiliation requires the continued existence of a victim as some-
one who can recognize the fact that he is being humiliated. While there
is a destructive element in humiliation, there is a tension between hu-
miliation and destruction, for humiliation seeks to destroy some part of
the humiliated person without destroying that person. When the victim
is destroyed, there is no one left who can recognize himself as having
been humiliated. Thus keeping the victim of humiliation alive leaves
open the possibilities of sadistic enjoyment or of canceling the humilia-
tion of the victim through atonement or retribution.
Destroying the humiliated victim closes these possibilities. It does
cancel the victim’s previous humiliation, but only by imposing a final
humiliation, inherent in the imposition of unwanted death. But the mo-
tive for killing the victim is not the need to erase an earlier humiliation.
Indeed, the Nazis sought to preserve the humiliation of the Jews beyond
their destruction through creating institutions that would preserve a
memory of the Jews. Yet the contradiction between the humiliation of
degradation and the humiliation of death is insurmountable; death may
be implicit in humiliation, but humiliation cannot persist without a vic-
tim. This contradiction surfaces even when the ultimate consequence
is not death, when death remains only a possibility implicit in the act of
humiliation.12 Seen this way, the dialectic of humiliation and destruc-
tion is akin to the dialectic of master and slave. The master wants total
control over the slave, but he also wants recognition from the slave that
he is the master. But total control destroys the slave as a possible recog-
nizing agent and makes him a mere tool.
Our point is that many people have been exterminated throughout
history, and many people have been humiliated throughout history, but
it is exceedingly rare and maybe unique that a group of people has been

12. ”Poor settler: here is his contradiction naked, shorn of its trappings. He ought to kill
those he plunders, as they say djinns do. Now, this is not possible, because he must exploit
them as well. Because he can’t carry massacre on to genocide, and slavery to animal-like
degradation.” Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New
York Grove Press, 1963), trans. Constance Farrington, p. 16.
75 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

both systematically humiliated and systematically killed. The combina-

tion of humiliation and destruction helps explain the perverse fascina-
tion with the Holocaust, which partly resembles the fascination with the
combination of rape and murder.
The Germans wanted the Jews to scrape German streets before they
killed them. In this way, they sought to emphasize the diference of their
eventual collective death over the common identity that death imposes
on us all. The idea that we are individuated by our expectation of death
is Heidegger’s.When this kind of attitude is applied to the interpretation
of collective existence, it creates a different collective death for different
groups, e.g. sacrifice in war versus collective gassing. In this way, the
establishment of a racial difference is a deprivation of individuality.
Yet the demarcation of racial difference also involves singling out a
given population. Collective deindividuation thus contains an internal
tension. Any population that is singled out acquires, by virtue of being
singled out, a greater individuality both in its own eyes and in the eyes
of its tormentors. The purpose of condemning such a population to a
different collective death, then, is the destruction of the individuality
that has first been acquired through humiliation. The tormentor seeks
to overcome this tension, between the victim’s loss of identity through
humiliation on the one hand, and his or her gaining an identity as a
victim by virtue of that very act of humiliation on the other. The tormen-
tor destroys the victim only to discover that by this murder a link is
forged between the victim’s new identity as a victim and his or her pre-
vious identity as a nonhumiliated individual.
Traditional cultures often viewed death as inherently possessing dig-
nity; victims could negate their humiliation through death. The Nazis
sought to kill their victims in such a way that this dignity of death would
be denied them. However, their victims, both in their own eyes and in
those of the postwar world, reacquired their dignity through their death.
If the victims cannot be further humiliated through imposing a humili-
ating death on them, then that very quest for demeaning the victim has
instead the potential of contaminating the killer. Getting the victims to
admit their own inhumanity was also an attempt to prevent self-con-
tamination through the killing act, yet needing that admission from the
victims was an admission of their humanity.
It is very important to note that the Nazis were very aware of the
possibility of contamination by their murderous acts. The stain of hu-
76 Philosophy 0 Public Affairs

miliating the victim might spread to the perpetrator. Like some rapist
who may seek to eliminate his victim so as not to be tainted by his rape,
the Nazis sought the elimination of the Jews in order to exorcise their
own self-humiliation. Humiliation was not merely an instrumental act
intended to secure the acquiescence of traditionally anti-Semitic
masses to the Nazi death-machine; it was an essential component in the
construction of Nazi identity.’3
In a Christian society self-abasement or self-humiliation is often
conceived as a positive virtue. There is a vast difference between the
humiliation of others and self-humiliation. The humiliation of others is
intended to establish a gap between oneself and others, whereas self-
humiliation is intended to establish a common humanity with others.
The Nazi solution to their problem of self-humiliation was an ultimate
rejection of the Christian practice of humility.


Such a fear of self-humiliation may also help explain why unique proce-
dures were adopted for killing the Jews. In Discipline and Punish, Fou-
cault described how punishment was open and public until the eight-
eenth century, and enclosed and isolated thereafter.l4 The Germans
rarely killed in the streets, but rather transported the Jews before killing
them. In this way, they were following a “normal modern practice” and
were not unique at all. But their practice of deportation was so extreme
that the act of deportation is one of our basic synecdoches (part for
whole) for imagining the Holocaust. Wars had always been accompa-
nied by atrocities committed on site; besieged cities knew well the fate
awaiting them should the invaders succeed. However, it had always
been rare in war to take people elsewhere to be killed. For over three
years, the Nazis transported Jews across Europe for the single purpose
of murdering them. Both Raul Hilberg and Claude Lanzmann have fas-
13. While we generally agree with Berel Lang, Act and idea in the Nazi Genocide (Chi-
cago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990). we do not believe that the inherent tension
between humiliation and death can be resolved through an instrumental interpretation
of humiliation as dehumanization (p. 2 1 ) . Humiliation was a central motif of the Nazi view
of humanity in general.
14. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York Vintage,
19791,trans. Allan Sheridan. Original French edition: Surueiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard,
77 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

tened on the motif of trains carrying victims.&The underlying point is

the notion that the killing process would be dissociated both from the
living spaces of the perpetrators and also from the living spaces of the
Perhaps the underlying cause is the one already mentioned: the fear
of self-humiliation. Not that concentration camp guards had any such
fears; they would perform any action including that of bodily functions
in the presence of Jews, since Jews no longer counted. But the idea of
deportation was meant precisely to sever the normal nexus between
death and place, between perpetrator and victim, and it is this dissocia-
tion between the killer and the victim which is so striking. It is striking
because it would at first appear that this idea of dissociation, evidenced
in the relatively few Germans working in extermination camps, contra-
dicts the notion of humiliating the victims. How can one both remove
perpetrators from their victims and at the same time humiliate the vic-
tims? These procedures are meant to exorcise and insulate the perpetra-
tors from the danger of self-humiliation:the victims are first humiliated,
only then are the perpetrators protected from “contamination”by their
victims. Once the perpetrators have been cleansed, care must be taken
that they not be reinfected. Assigning Jews as concentration-camp
“Kapos” and selecting killing-squads from those intended for destruc-
tion are all meant to sterilize the Germans from the pollution of their
own actions.
The language we are using itself shows the uniqueness of discussion
about the Holocaust. This rhetorical uniqueness has two components.
First, it is a consequence of the Nazis’ biologism, a mode of thought that
has been common since Social Darwinism, but has never been applied
with such rigor as the basis for extermination except in the Holocaust.
However, this biologism appears so fantastic because of its application
to other humans rather than to other species of animals. Consequently,
the Nazis had to transform the Jews from human into another species,
i.e. to dehumanize them. It was not that easy to dehumanize the Jews
because the Jews were less different in appearance from Germans than,
say, Africans or Orientals. The Jews thus posed the possibility of causing
6.Raul Hilberg. Sonderziige nach Auschwitz (Mainz: Dumjahn, 1981), trans. Gisela Sch-
leicher from unpubl. English manuscript entitled “The Role of the German Railroads in
the Destruction of the Jews.”Claude Lanzrnann, Shoah: An Oral History ofthe Holocaust
(New York: Pantheon, 1985).
78 Philosophy G Public Affairs

Germans to see themselves. That possibility could only be effectively

canceled through humiliating the Jews. Humiliating the Jews took the
form of changing their appearance through measures such as shaving
their heads and starving them so that they would look emaciated, and
then very unlike Germans or “normal” human beings.
Humiliating others has traditionally involved the perpetrator in a pri-
mary relation with his victim. The Nazis sought to humiliate the Jews
while remaining detached. This need for detachment stemmed from
both their fear of contamination and also their fear of self-humiliation.
Himmler, when he addressed a gathering of officers involved in the ex-
termination of Jews, told them that their great triumph was that they had
remained “anstundig“ or decent.I6 He presumably meant that they had
successfully remained remarkably detached from what they were doing,
and consequently had remained free of contamination and self-humilia-
tion. In this way, the Nazis created a new way of humiliating people.


The idea of detached humiliation is related to the Nazis’ attitude toward
death. After all, the Nazis believed that heroic death is the only death
that is meaningful. A humiliated death was meant as its contrast. Heroic
death implies a strong relation of cause and effect between the heroic
act and the death of the actor. The Nazi concept of humiliated death was
designed to sever the relation between act and death: Unlike victims in
traditional wars, the Nazis’ victims were not even perceived as the vic-
tims of retribution. Even at Lidice, which was a reprisal for the assassi-
nation of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis were concerned to cut the tie
between cause and effect by selecting a village for liquidation that was
utterly unrelated to Heydrich’s assassination. The Germans behaved as
if they arrogated to themselves a kind of arbitrary cosmic power, and
made their actions appear as a kind of inscrutable cosmic dispensation.
The Nazis could truly not be predicted in their brutality, and this’made
them even more terrible. Again we face a contradiction, for on the one
hand, we are maintaining that there was a great element of unpredicta-
bility in Nazi behavior, and on the other hand their behavior toward
Jews, once activated, was predictable; killing the Jews was a logical con-
sequence of Nazi ideology. Because of the tension between humiliation

16. Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Trugedy (London: Collins, 1986), p. 615.
79 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

and destruction, Jews in Europe regularly misunderstood the scope of

Nazi intentions. Jews constantly (mis)interpreted Nazi actions as ex-
treme forms of humiliation including some degree of mass killing but
not total destruction. The Nazis encouraged this misunderstanding. The
usual account of this Nazi camouflage of their intention is that it made
their job easier. That is certainly true, but there were other motives. The
Nazis sought inscrutability for its own, cosmically omnipotent sense.
Playing evil gods, they were seeking to create a different civilization em-
bedded in a different cosmic order. The Jews were not the Nazis’ only
victims. The Nazis had plans for other peoples, and began to apply their
program to the Poles by liquidating the Polish elites. Gypsies and homo-
sexuals also figured high on their list. And the whole process was given
a trial run in the partial extermination of the mentally retarded. None-
theless, it has been the extermination of the Jews that has caught the
postwar collective imagination, and not these other exterminations. The
Nazis, as evidenced in their ideology, reserved a special place for the
Jews. What all these groups had in common was that they were judged
by the Nazis to be unfit to live. However, the mentally retarded who
were murdered through Operation Euthanasia were not humiliated. Nor
were the Gypsies, who were also the victims of planned extermination,
humiliated in an elaborate structure of humiliation like the one the
Nazis created for the Jews.’7 Homosexuals were humiliated, and they
were placed in camps, but they were not systematically exterminated.18
In other words, while the Nazis viewed all these groups as biologically
defective, and therefore unfit to live, the Jews were more than just unfit
to live. The Nazis’ self-image was not threatened by the Gypsies or the
mentally retarded. It was, however, by the homosexuals. They knew all
too well that there were homosexual SS officers. From the Nazi point of
view, the homosexuals were closer to being self and further away from
being other than the Jews. The mentally unfit were still further away. In
the graph of unfitness, the Jews occupied the precise place at which
humiliation and extermination intersected.
17. The Gypsies were also subjected to unimaginable medical experiments. Benno
MulIer-Hill, Murderous Science: Elimination by ScientGc Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and
Others, Germany, 1933-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, l988), trans. George R.
Fraser, pp. 58-62, esp. p. 71. Orig. German edition: Todliche Wissenschaft (Reinbek bei
Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1984).
18. Homosexuals were also subjected to medical experiments. Homosexualiriit in der
NS-Zeit. Dokumente einer Diskriminierung und Veflolgung,hrsg. Gunter Grau (Frankfurt:
Fischer, 1993)~pp. 345-58.
80 Philosophy G Public Affairs

As the war drew to a close, the Nazis both pursued their genociL,: with
ever-greater zeal and sought to hide their murders from posterity. But
from their point of view the murder of the Jews should have been re-
ceived as an heroic act of epic proportions. They did not believe, how-
ever, that their heroism would be appreciated by future generations:
they would have to conceal their heroic crime, heroic because it suc-
cessfully humiliated and destroyed the Jews while leaving the Germans

Not only was the Holocaust unique, so was its reception. The Nazis
could not foresee the emergence of the Holocaust as a negative myth of
origin for the postwar world. A myth of origin is a story that people tell
about where they came from and how the situation in which they live
was created; it serves as a general framework for the interpretation of the
world. Such a story may be true (the Founding Fathers), but we call it
a myth because it serves a mythic function in society. A myth of origin
is usually positive: like the story of Adam and Eve, it can even reveal the
common humanity of all peoples. It should be emphasized that this
mythic function is not a fictional one. When we call the Holocaust a
myth, we do not mean that it did not take place or that the actual event
was somehow different from the one we know. Calling the function of
the Holocaust in the postwar world a myth of origin means that we view
the Holocaust as both a caesura that separates us from the pre-Holo-
caust past and as the point in time and place at which the world of our
values has originated. It requires little acuity to ascertain that the Holo-
caust has become a universal symbol in our culture, that many other
events are constantly being compared to it.l9
A negative myth of origin, in contrast to a positive one, means a myth
that takes the moment of creation as a moment of chaos and destruc-
tion, and contrasts our order or disorder to that originary moment of
chaos and destruction rather than to any well-ordered process of crea-
tion or stabilizing harmony. The Holocaust has become such a founda-
tional moment. The current infatuation with the idea of historical dis-
19. Such a use of the Holocaust as a universal symbol, however, eventually undermines
its uniqueness. Comparing everything to the Holocaust makes the Holocaust look like
everything else.
81 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

continuity draws much of its emotional appeal from taleperception of

the Holocaust as a radical break. World War I1 as a whole is less effective
than the Holocaust in securing conviction in the primacy of historical
discontinuity over continuity.
A negative myth of origin such as the Holocaust infuses the entire
culture with a degree of nihilism, for it contains an intuition as to how
fragile and tentative our culture is. Other cultures have sensed their own
evanescence, but they contrasted their fragility in time to some idea of
permanent being. In the modern period, the lack of a sense of eternal
being has been compensated for by assigning a sense of permanence to
historical progress. Progress is viewed as opening the way to the future.
But our culture, unsure about historical progress, yet incapable of pro-
viding itself with a new foundation, views its temporary achievements
in contrast to the alternative that there could be nothing at all. It has a
basic nihilistic intuition of permanent nothingness, of a world without
human beings. After World War 11, a strong case could have been made
for a triumphalist liberalism. The awareness of what happened in the
Holocaust has undermined the notion of historical progress inherent in
liberalism. The Nazis have posed before all of us the possibility that the
idea of a universal humanity is not an unquestioned and fundamental
given. Remembering the Holocaust thus confronts us with the tension
between our obligation to affirm our common humanity and our un-
sureness about it. certainly those who wish to emphasize the unique-
ness of the Holocaust because it happened to the Jews have a hard time
using the Holocaust to affirm our common humanity. Here we have
taken a different tack the Holocaust is not unique because it happened
to the Jews, but because it was the expression of a unique world-view,
that of the Nazis. Many Germans understand this very well. The effect
of the Holocaust has been to render German history into a unique pa-
riah history for the foreseeable future, while the Holocaust’s discernible
effect on the postwar status of the Jews has been to make their member-
ship in a common humanity an unquestionable axiom.


The Holocaust has become the focal point for the current discussion
about memory; how the past should be remembered, how the past
should be commemorated, and what should be the relations between
82 Philosophy 0 Public Affairs

memory and history. We should like to single out the relation the Holo-
caust has created between memory and negation, between memory and
its absence. The Holocaust defines this relation between memory and
absence for our culture.
In 1937 The Nazis mounted an exhibition of so-called degenerate art
(Enturtete Kunst), in which they brought together premier examples of
modern art. The point of the exhibition was to show this art’s funda-
mental degeneracy. At one stage, they even considered placing museum
directors and artists next to the works so that the public could spit at
them.*O The Nazis understood that the museum is a central forum of
public display, and they sought to use it for public humiliation.
The Nazis collected Jewish memorabilia. They planned to create a
museum of an extinct race, as they called it, so that posterity could view
what the Jews had been.21They also collected Jewish skulls and pre-
served Jewish bodies, so that the evidence of Jewish racial inferiority
would survive the destruction of the Jews.z2The humiliation of the Jews
would survive their destruction. Here again we see the uniqueness of the
Jews in the Nazi world-view: The other extinctions were not coupled
with a plan for “preserving” the humiliation of the victims in museums
and anthropological collections. One would be permitted to remember
the Jews and their humiliation in their extinct form. James Young, in The
Texture of Memory, describes a postwar German monument to the Hol-
ocaust that was periodically lowered into the ground until it vanished,
in this way commemorating vanished victims of the Nazis.*3 If we com-
pare these two ideas, the Nazi museum and the postwar German monu-
ment, we see that the postwar German monument has reversed the rela-
tions between remembering and forgetting that were the preconditions
for the planned museum. The postwar disappearing monument memo-
20. Peter Adam, TheArts ofthe Third Reich (London: Thames and Hudson, igg2), p. 124.
21. The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections, ed.
David Altschuler (New York Summit Books, ig83), pp. 24-37.
22. Leon Poliakov and Joseph Wulf, Das Dritte Reich und die Juden. Dokumente und
Aufsiitze. 2d Edition (Berlin-Grunewald: Arani Verlags-GmbH, 19551,pp. 378-80. On the
preservation of Jewish bodies: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New
York: New Viewpoints, ig73), p. 609.
23. James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 19931, pp. 30-37. See also: Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen “The
Monument Vanishes. A Conversation with Esther and Jochen Gerz,” in: TheArt ofMemory:
Holocaust Memorials in History (Munich and New York Prestel and The Jewish Museum,
New York, 19941, ed. James E. Young, pp. 69-75.
83 The Uniqueness
of the Holocaust

rializes the vanished victims by a denial of the possibiIity of encasing

them in a monument or museum that presumes the notion of preserva-
tion] because the Nazis perversely linked preservation to extinction.
Since the Holocaust, the focus of memory has been the process of
the extermination of the Jews rather than the content of the life that was
destroyed. This focus on the process of how people are made to vanish
has become a distinctive feature of postwar conceptions of what mem-
ory is.

The argument concerning the uniqueness of the Holocaust could be
framed in three different ways: one could argue that the Germans are
unique, that the Jews are unique, or that the process was unique. In this
paper, we have argued that the Jews were much less unique than the
Germans, and that the uniqueness of the process of extermination de-
rived from the uniqueness of the German attitude both to the Jews and
to the way in which they would get rid of them. The Germans were
unique enough because, more radically than anyone else in the last sev-
eral millennia, they denied the idea of a common humanity both theo-
retically and practically. They embodied this denial of humanity in the
way in which they fused humiliation and extermination in their ridding
the world of the Jews. These unique aspects of the Holocaust have proved
central for postwar culture in two ways. First, the Holocaust has become
a constitutive story, a point of historical beginning. Second, after the Hol-
ocaust history is viewed as radically discontinuous. Memory has the dis-
tinct and new role of preserving the sense of this discontinuity.