Mar 2001 Journal

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The exclusivity of death

The televised Holocaust Day ceremony was so moving and dignified that it ought to have silenced those who criticised the very concept of an annual commemoration. Its success ought not, however, blind us to the fact that the precise nature of the event at Central Hall, Westminster, left several issues unresolved. The most fundamental of them is whether the Shoah was unique or fitted into a broader pattern of mega-atrocities. Here, alas, considerations of what is true, and what is palatable to public opinion, are in conflict. The public would presumably view any insistence on the uniqueness of the Shoah as a form of Jewish exclusivity, re-affirming the much-resented claim to ‘chosen people’ status.

The organisers of the ceremony at Central Hall resisted the Armenian claim to have been victims of Turkish genocide. This has been criticised as the UK’s supine response to pressure from a NATO ally – but it needs to be borne in mind that the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915 were different from the Nazi ‘Final Solution’. For one, since the Turks were religious, but not racist, fanatics some Armenian women and children were handed over as chattels to Ottoman officials; for another the US ambassador and the French Navy organised effective humanitarian intervention. That is not to deny that what happened in Syria was a horrendous crime – for which no punishment was ever exacted. Twenty-odd years later Hitler cynically remarked ‘Who now remembers the Armenians’? One person whom a visit to the area prompted to jog the memory of the world was Franz Werfel. He viewed what the Turks had done to the Armenians as foreshadowing what the Germans were about to do to the Jews – and penned The Forty Days of Musa Dagh as, simultaneously, a chronicle of a half-forgotten atrocity and a warning of one yet to come.

Strictly speaking, genocide means the killing of a genus, or race, of people. Therefore Pol Pot’s murder of a million Cambodian ‘capitalists’ and intellectuals cannot be so classified since killers and killed belonged to the same nationality. Nor does the savage Nazi persecution of homosexuals fit into the category of genocide. Gays do not constitute a genetic entity; they appear in every racial group and ‘recur’ in every generation. Consequently they can never be exterminated, as the Jews of Europe nearly were. It is equally debatable whether the dead in recent Balkans conflicts ‘qualify’ as victims of genocide. In the 1940s Croats committed atrocities against Serbs – and fifty years later the Serbs behaved similarly towards Bosnian Muslims. In neither case did the governments responsible intend to liquidate the entire ‘enemy’ population. Which only leaves the Tutsis of Rwanda and the Gypsies as victims of genocide in the true sense of the word. But even those two cases are not quite comparable to that of European Jewry. One doesn’t want to quibble about statistics – but the fact remains that present-day visitors to the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Romania will find far more evidence of a continuing Gypsy, than Jewish, presence in those countries.

As regards the Tutsis, Hutu atrocities were truly genocidal, but they still had their roots in the long-established pattern of inter-tribal conflict that earned the Congo region the sobriquet ‘the Heart of Darkness’. Though it may be ethnocentric – as well as undiplomatic – to say so, I am left with the impression that the Shoah was unique.

And what made it unique was the ‘philosophical’ intention behind it. Hitler, the Catholic-educated arch-pagan, intended to create a world from which the kernel of all religions, i.e. morality, was totally expunged. One of his most revealing obiter dicta was ‘conscience is a Jewish invention’. Seeing the Jews as what he would term ‘germ carriers’ of the morality enshrined in Mosaic Law, he wanted them wiped off the surface of the globe.   
Richard Grunberger

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