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Dr Adam Muller


Dr. Adam Muller, March 27, 2012

[Editor's note: This piece by Dr. Adam Muller was submitted in response to Dr Catherine Chatterley's article ,the Holocaust is not an interfaith experience.

That article is supported by the article by  scholar and former Director of US Holocaust Museum Walter Reich's: 

My own editorial stance on this issue is in line with that of Chatterley and Reich, but  I am pleased to run Dr. Muller's contrary response to expose readers to the full breadth of the issue]


While I appreciate Catherine Chatterley’s injunction to be vigilant against attempts to distort the truth about the Nazis’genocide of the Jews, I do not share her view of the self-evidence of several points articulated in her recent editorial.

Along with many other Holocaust and genocide scholars, I take the Nazi genocide to possess no single cause such as antisemitism, but rather multiple causes including, in addition to long-standing prejudices: Europe’s recent history of recent interstate war (which Donald Bloxham has argued served to help model intra-state violence); European, and especially German, colonialism; the rise in the early twentieth century of militant conceptions of ethnic homogeneity (volkism) and national self-determination; anticommunism;the weakness following World War One of the international system and its restraints; and the renewal of world war and the chaos it engendered.

Nor did Hitler enjoy enormous support from the German people prior to his dispensing with the mechanisms of democratic politic representation in 1933. At best the Nazis received 44% of the German popular vote, in March 1933, an improvement over the 33% they had received in the election four months earlier. This improvement can be attributed to many factors,including the weak appeal of political parties opposed to the Nazis and the ongoing global financial crisis, which the Nazis promised to address.

Dachau was not a “political prison camp,” though it served in some respects as one, but rather a designated concentration camp that acted as as a model for those camps like Auschwitz which were constructed afterwards. SS guards who served at these other camps received training at Dachau, and a crematorium and gas chamber were constructed there though the latter was never used. Medical experiments were performed there, and Dachau’s prisoners were used as slave labour. It would therefore be a mistake to overemphasize Dachau’s distinctiveness as a site of cruelty and suffering. Furthermore, it is perhaps worth noting that the Nazis did not just experiment on Jews in order to refine their methods of killing. Indeed the disabled were the first to be gassed by the Nazis as part of the T4 euthanasia program begun in 1939, and the first casualties of Zyklon B were Russian POWs.

Lastly, it is important not to confuse defending the specificity of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust with defending the term "Holocaust" itself. The latter, the term, was only assigned (and then with much criticism) to the destruction of European Jewry in the 1960s, and did not become ubiquitous until the late 1970s. After that, in a process documented very ably by sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, the term “Holocaust” gradually lost its specific attachment to the Nazi genocide to the point where now many of us speak altogether too easily about environmental or nuclear holocausts. My point here is that “Holocaust” is a linguistic artifact whose attachment to real historical Jewish suffering was both belated and contingent.The terms of that attachment have continued to evolve, and it now includes reference to a range of different kinds of suffering, by a diversity of groups (hence Linda Altman’s 2003 title The Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust). Like many scholars, when I refer to specifically Jewish aspects of the Nazi genocide I use the term “Shoah,” though I admit the awkwardness of assigning a Hebrew term to mark the experiences of so many victims whose own first language was Yiddish.

In my opinion, for these and several other reasons I find it unproblematic to consider the Names, Not Numbers exhibition a Holocaust representation which accurately speaks to the complex features both of the Holocaust and of more recent attempts by young Germans to contend with their ongoing responsibilityto remember and redress the crimes committed by their forbears.

Dr. Adam Muller
Associate Professor

Department of English, Film, andTheatre

University of Manitoba

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