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Adam Muller

Lionel Steiman


posted April 10, 2012

A Response to Lionel Steiman 

By Dr. Adam Muller, Associate Professor, Department of English, Film and Theatre,University of Manitoba

April 7, 2012

The debate concerning the ontology of the Holocaust—the content and character of the atrocities committed by Nazis and their sympathizers, the apportioning of responsibility for these atrocities, including histories of the individuals and institutions enmeshed in them, the identities of its victims, and the appropriate forms that memory of the Nazi genocide should take—continues to be a matter for vigorous scholarly debate, here in North America and abroad. Lionel Steiman and I, and for that matter Catherine Chatterley and I, have engaged in this debate informally, and hopefully productively, before. As should by now be reasonably clear, we do not see eye-to-eye.
At least three issues serve to ground our disagreement: (1) whether or not the Holocaust was primarily an antisemitic experience; (2) whether or not the Holocaust’s victims were Jews and Jews alone; and (3) whether or not the Names Instead of Numbers exhibition currently on display at Westminster Church is properly considered a Holocaust exhibit. Convincingly defending either side of any of these issues is impossible in the context of a (relatively) brief editorial rejoinder, and so what follows must be considered a downpayment on the argument I am currently preparing in an article intended for academic publication. My primary concern in what follows will be with (1) and (2), since one’s position on these issues will determine one’s stance vis-à-vis (3).
In so far as (1) is concerned, I take Chatterley, Steiman, and Reich all to accept some strong version of the claim that the primary reason for the Holocaust was antisemitism. Chatterley refers to antisemitism as “the central motivating factor of Hitler’s racist policies,” Steiman considers it a “central dynamic” and “integrative factor,” and Reich refers to the Holocaust as “a specifically antisemitic experience.” Although this view continues to have some intellectual traction, it would be a mistake to claim that it represents anything like the leading edge of Holocaust or genocide scholarship. Difficulties with arguments defending the centrality of antisemitism to the Holocaust are immediately apparent: What evaluative standard or rationale allows us to know that antisemitism is the “most important” feature motivating the genocide of the Jews (as opposed to, say, just a contributing factor)? Evidence suggests that in 1933 the Nazis were every bit as antisemitic as they were in 1941 when they settled on their devastating “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question,” and yet they initially attempted relatively more pacific methods of removing Jews from Europe including, bizarrely, the Madagascar Plan to relocate four million Jews to Africa, resurrected by Adolph Eichmann in 1938 and only abandoned in 1940.[Editor's emphasis added] Reliance on antisemitism fails to yield insights into how the Nazis actually came to be exterminationist, or indeed how their genocidal practices evolved into what they finally became. It cannot account for the Nazis’ insistence on secrecy (if genocidal antisemitism was widespread, then why shield the wider German public from it?). Nor can it explain those relatively “ordinary” perpetrators, including members of the Wehrmacht and Schutzpolizei, who lacked any deep sympathy for Nazi ideology and yet nevertheless committed mass murder. Lastly, Reich’s claim that there is only one experience of the Holocaust and that it is specifically antisemitic operates at a level of generality so broad that it serves no useful purpose. There was no single experience of the Holocaust, there were roughly six million of them, and to see antisemitism as the salient feature of all of them is to rob those who were victimized of the specifics of their suffering.
In so far as (2) is concerned, I can only again point out that the issue of the breadth of the definition of the term “Holocaust” continues to evolve, not because I want it to (as Steiman seems to imply), but because like all manifestations of language the term is politically “troubled” and embedded in the flow of historical time. It is a matter of fact, not opinion, that the Holocaust has been universalized, in North America and in much of Western Europe, and it is equally a matter of fact that some nostalgics wish that it had not been so. Although the responses by Chatterley, Reich, and Steiman all object to this universalization, they together provide no glimpse of what’s really at stake in it, of what value it might have to those who advocate on its behalf. Instead they view universalization prima facie as a loss (of moral—though I suspect actually political—recognition of specifically Jewish suffering).  Alternatively, Jeffrey Alexander argues that “Narrowing rather than universalizing in morality and affect, earlier hatreds are reproduced, not changed. Rather than expanded human sympathy for the other, we have Hitler’s revenging the defeated German people, Serbia’s ethnic cleansing, and Hindu nationalism’s bloody-minded struggle against Islamic ‘intruders’ today.” There is, in short, something important to be gained by widening our lens on the Holocaust, a process of enlargement which has been underway in academic discourse and in popular culture since the 1980s, and which does not have to come at the expense of rigorous and focused academic inquiry into the particular experiences and tragedies of the Nazis’ Jewish victims. Like Zygmunt Bauman, whose profoundly influential Modernity and the Holocaust (1991) has reshaped our understanding of the basic terms of reference of the genocide, I think conceiving of the Holocaust too narrowly “can only belittle its importance.”
I have already stated that I find unproblematic the designation of Names Instead of Numbers as a Holocaust representation, for reasons alluded to in my discussion of (1) and (2) above. I would, however, like briefly to reassure Lionel Steiman that I am in no way confused about the difference between concentration camps and extermination centres, and to point out that the latter were not built for “the sole purpose of killing Jews” but for killing vast numbers of people, the majority of whom were Jews (there were members of many other groups sent there as well).  Steiman is also quite incorrect to propose that “The victims of the Holocaust were all Jews killed because they were Jews […] in death camps in Poland.” A claim such as this ignores, amongst others, the more than 1 million Jews executed by Einsatzkommandos throughout eastern Europe, the Jews who died in ghettos, swamps, or forests, those who perished on death marches, and those uncountable thousands who died in train cars before they ever reached an extermination centre.
I would also like to note in closing that I share the view of the clear majority of genocide scholars that the European encounter with indigenous Americans was a genocidal one. I dare anyone who has read Bartolomé de las Casas’ eyewitness description of this encounter to argue o
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