What makes the Holocaust unique?
Steve Tomkins, editor of Reform magazine, has written the following web reflection to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
The Holocaust is a story of unique horror in our society. But I wonder what exactly it is that makes it unique for us.
It is not that more people were killed in the Holocaust than in any other genocide. The Holodomor, Stalin’s deliberate terror famine, killed maybe 7million Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. Tens of millions of native Americans were killed by the Spanish in the 16th century.
The Rwandan genocide of 1994, though smaller than the Holocaust, was more intense, the Hutus killing 800,000 Tutsi people in 100 days, three quarters of the population.
The holocaust is also not alone in being an attempt at the total extermination of a people: The State of California in the 1850s had a policy of war “until the Indian race becomes extinct”, which in fact killed 60% of the population, a similar proportion to the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
What is the thing that sets the Holocaust apart in our minds as being uniquely horrifying? For me, the answer is that it is just so close to home – not just when we think about those who died, but even more so when we think about those who killed. For British people, I think, it is a shock to realise that such horrors are committed not only by people in distant ages and places, but by people a few hundred miles away who look and think and act as much like us as an anyone in the world.
It could have been us, in other words. When we remember the Holocaust, we remember one of the greatest evils in the history of the world, and that it was committed by people like us. The distance between me and the criminals of Auschwitz is no greater than the distance between me and my own anger, fear, self-interest and failure to care.