The term ‘Holocaust’ itself did not become the accepted word for the destruction of European Jewry until well into the 1960s, but it quickly became the centre of Jewish awareness. With high rates of intermarriage, the decline of Jewish religious observance and cultural usage, Holocaust awareness, Israel, and concern about the enduring threat of anti-Semitism came to define for many Jews what it meant to be Jewish.
Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief “architects” of the Holocaust, was a “bureaucrat”, an “administrator” with no particular antipathy toward Jews, motivated primarily by the desire to do be the best he could at his job. Such “bureaucrats” led researchers to focus on “bureaucracy” as a cause of the Holocaust. And because “bureaucracy” and its culture of efficiency without ethics had become an intrinsic part of modern civilization, sociologists advanced the notion that “modernity” itself was the Holocaust. Other researchers assigned a similar role to science, technology, medicine and other aspects of “modernity”. These disciplines had become divorced from ethical constraints. Their practitioners were driven solely by careerism and the logic of their science that felt no compunction in using the “opportunities” made available by Nazis Germany’s conquests.
They weren’t necessarily anti-Semites or even Nazi.
Recent scholars have also focussed on the geographic and political environment of German Occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where most of Europe’s Jews lived and where the Holocaust happened. What they saw was a complex configuration of often overlapping and competing offices, agencies, and departments tasked with carrying out Germany’s conquest and colonization of lands with diverse populations and resources. A “Master Plan for the East” was drawn up. Its implementation required the removal, resettlement or killing of populations, and the re-allocation of their food and other resources to maintain the German military and security forces. Economists, demographers, agricultural experts, industrialists, contractors, and the trades were all involved. The various offices and agencies overlapped and competed, making it difficult to determine from their archives exactly which office or personnel did what and why as the populations were shifted around, ghettos established, Jews and others deported and resettled or killed en masse. This apparent confusion led some scholars to argue that, far from being centrally planned and ideologically driven by Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was improvised haphazardly and piece meal, driven by the “structural” and “functional” dynamics generated by competition and rivalry inside the vast administrative apparatus that Nazi Germany had imposed on its conquered territories.
These so-called “structuralist” or “functionalist” interpretations of the Holocaust threatened to eclipse the established “intentionalist” version, according to which the Holocaust was the implementation of a preconceived plan driven by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. But no clear evidence of such a plan has been found, and neither has any written or other order for the extermination of the Jews been discovered. This might appear to reinforce the credibility of the “structuralist” interpretations, but the problem with them is that they attribute agency to abstractions: it’s one thing to say that a particular bureaucrat did something, but you cannot show that “bureaucracy” made him do it. By the same token, you cannot say that it was “technology” that caused the Nazis to advance from killing by bullets and mobile gas vans to stationery gas chambers with built-in crematoria. And you can’t say—although some have said-- that it was “medicine” that caused the Holocaust because Auschwitz was run by doctors who prescribed mass killing as a “bio-medical” cure for the world’s ills.
It was striking that in some places both the initial colonization that began centuries ago and even subsequent decolonization had involved genocide. In fact, some scholars argued that the murderous assault on European Jewry by the Nazis bore parallels to and was even inspired by the earlier projects of European colonization in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The point of this research was not to “diminish” the significance of the Holocaust but to deepen our understanding of it by placing it in a broader context. All the major European powers had a history of colonizing non-European peoples, whom they regarded as “savages” without any culture worth preserving; all Europeans subscribed to theories of race that ranked the earth’s peoples in descending order from white black. The fact that a tiny number of British soldiers and administrators could conquer and rule a country of hundreds of millions was an example and inspiration to Hitler and other Germans in their colonial aspirations for the continent of Europe. Earlier, between 1884 and 1915, the German colonial rulers of southwest Africa imposed race laws that foreshadowed those against Jews in Nazi Germany and against blacks in South Africa under apartheid. Some historians have argued that later events such as the Jewish Holocaust were “not aberrations, but rather a logical outcome and continuation of colonialism”—and this despite the acknowledged differences between them.
The connection between colonialism and the Holocaust not only challenges the popular view that anti-Semitism was the most important cause of the Holocaust, but also has important implications today, where Israel is regarded as a colonial state, a settler society forcibly established by the declining great powers Britain and France.. In this view, opposition to Israel and its Zionist ideology is not anti-Semitism but justifiable opposition to colonial oppression, from which most of the world’s indigenous populations have been freed and for which they have received apologies—except for the Palestinians. To what extent anti-Zionism is driven by or becomes anti-Semitism is difficult to assess. The only point here is that their relationship is complex, and this complexity has made the usefulness of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ doubtful. Primarily though not wholly because of the Middle East, Jew hatred is no longer rooted only in the theology and legends of Christian Europe, where the word ‘anti-Semitism’ was invented in the 1870s to distinguish modern opposition to Jews from that based on medieval religion and superstition. The phenomenon itself however is global; but just as with ‘Holocaust’, there is no consensus on its meaning or appropriate application. This should be borne in mind as we come to consider how “the Holocaust” came to be, for many Jewish North Americans, a defining element in their identity.
It was not always like this. For two decades after WWII the mass murder of European Jewry did not have a name. The voiceovers in the grisly atrocity footage rarely mentioned Jews, who were simply merged with the other victims of Nazi barbarism. Only nationalities were mentioned; like Poles, Czechs, Spaniards, and so on. The “scourge of the Swastika”, title of a famous English account, was not directed against Jews in particular. The Nazi defendants at Nuremberg were charged with war crimes and “crimes against humanity”, not with crimes against Jews. Jewish survivors in the DP camps were just called DPs. When they got to Palestine/Israel they were disdained—instead of building the Jewish homeland, they had “gone like sheep to the slaughter”; survivors of Auschwitz wore long sleeves to hide their tattoos, or had them surgically removed: they were badges of shame, not honour. Although it is often said that survivors were too traumatized to speak, the truth is that few wanted to listen. So in Israel, America, or Canada they kept quiet and kept to themselves. Only much later would they be drawn out and accorded the title “survivor” and elevated to “secular sainthood.” It is no disrespect to point out that the most respected accounts of Auschwitz tell us that survival was due not to character but to cleverness, physical strength, and luck. Morality was irrelevant.
What may have been giving them greater cause for anxiety than the “new anti-Semitism”, however, was the rate of intermarriage— well over 50% of Jews were marrying out; less than a quarter of those remained even nominally Jewish, and fewer still were giving their children any kind of Jewish education. Leaders worried about the non-involvement of the young in Jewish affairs. This “thinning of Jewish identity”, as they called it, was a consequence of insufficient awareness of the Holocaust, which should have been “seared into their memory”.
The solution was education. Holocaust Courses and programs were mounted in colleges and universities and drew unexpectedly large enrolments; Holocaust memorials and museums were planned, with the greatest of them all to be situated on the Washington Mall. This was all a far cry from the time when survivors’ attempts to place a monument to Europe’s murdered Jews in New York City were blocked by Jewish leaders opposed to publicizing Jewish weakness and humiliation.
But things had changed since then: in the latter part of the 20th century America entered the age of “identity politics”, when politics came to be determined by an individual’s identification with interest groups based on ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, physical disability, or other post-colonial disadvantage . Group identity replaced political ideology. Some groups defined themselves as historical victims and based their communal identity on their remembered victimhood. The elevation of “victim” as a social category drove various groups to demand that their suffering be publicly acknowledged. The phenomenal public recognition accorded the Holocaust encouraged other groups to seek similar recognition. This generated what some have called a “culture of victimhood,” with competing victims claiming “moral superiority”. Whether they do so is debatable, but it is precisely this claim that some have accused Jews of making.
What members of many older ethnic groups have in common is their loss of touch with their ancestral languages, religious beliefs, customs, stories and histories. These fade further away with each generation, leaving only a vague feeling of “identity” but nothing concrete with which members can identify. While some rediscover the religion of their ancestors, or adapt it to a secular age, others might find the appeal of a shared victimhood more appealing emotionally and certainly less demanding. For many Jews, the heritage of the Holocaust may be a way for them to express a connection to Jewish heritage in general. What other basis was there for a distinctive shared identity? Neither religion nor culture suffices. Support of Israel still has great attraction for many, but this depends on accepting Zionist claims about the founding of the state of Israel and its connection to the Holocaust. And as these claims came under increasing scrutiny even by Israeli historians, the Holocaust as a unique event beyond history offered a symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity.
More important than “moral clarity” was perhaps marketability. Perhaps the major reason for the Holocaust becoming the focus of identity particularly for young Jews was its sheer marketability. Like so much else that made American culture globally attractive, the Holocaust is glaringly sensational, it appeals to our most basic (if not base) emotions and contrary impulses, and it immerses us painlessly in-- unimaginable horror. Schindler’s List has been called “the ultimate feel food film.” No other event or aspect of Jewish history has occasioned as much “interfaith dialogue” as the Holocaust; its museums and memorials are advertized as “the natural site for interfaith services.” The Holocaust Museum in Washington has been called “the official address of American Jewry.” At its official opening President Clinton stated that in dedicating this museum “we bind one of the darkest lessons of history to the hopeful soul of America.” Jewish Americans could now blend their Holocaust-identity with their American souls. The president added what he knew many of his listeners already believed, namely that the Holocaust “made certain the long overdue creation of the state of Israel.”
From the launching of plans to build the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, until well after its opening fifteen years later in 1993, controversy over content threatened to derail the project. . Scholars challenged the long assumed “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. Board members resigned. Proponents of uniqueness insisted that they were not claiming that Jewish suffering was worse than that of any other persecuted people. When some of them charged that others—Armenians, Ukrainians-- were “stealing their Holocaust”, they denied that their complaint was about losing some presumed moral or other pre-eminence.
Then what were they worried about? What they felt slipping away was their Jewish identity: according to the pre-eminent scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, all the talk about uniqueness “comes down to why the... [Holocaust] was “worse” than what the Armenians went through.” He found it “intellectually vulgar” and even “grotesque” to be arguing with other ethnic groups that our Holocaust was worse than theirs. “If you know who you are”, Neusner wrote, “you don’t have to make statements like that.” Is it possible that many Jews don’t know who they are except insofar as they have a unique victim identity? One can tour the sites of the death camps and learn the details of their operation, and come away knowing nothing about life of Polish Jewry. Critics have charged the “March of the Living” for not exposing its participants to the richness of the Jewish world that the Nazis extinguished. A Jewish identity based on catastrophe is a Jewish identity owed to anti-Semitism, which is a pretty a slim identity. But Jews were not committed to their continuity merely because there were those who wanted to annihilate them. They had created something that was, on its own terms, worth continuing and creating.