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by Prof. Lionel Steiman, April 5, 2012

[Editor's note: In the article below, Lionel Steiman refers to media coverage of the "Names Insted of Numbers" exhibit currently on display at Westminister Church. I am providing the links to this coverage such that readers may reference them should they desire to do so.  [the words 'Holocaust exhibit' are used in the title ]  [the words ' Holocaust exhibit' are used in the title] -[ the words 'Holocaust exhibit' appear in the title and in the body of the article and also the words 'interfaith dialogue' appear in the article] [the term 'Holocaust exhibit' appears here].  [the words 'Holocaust exhibit' appear in the article and the words "content has been interfaith" appear here]. [the words 'Holocaust exhibit' appear here].


by Lionel Steiman, Senior Scholar of the Department of History at the University of Manitoba

Adam Muller’s response to the piece by Catherine Chatterley is headlined “Nazi  Genocide has Multiple Causes, Antisemitism is not Single Cause.”  Dr. Chatterley’s  purpose was to offer a corrective to misleading press coverage of the “Names Instead  of Numbers” exhibit at Westminster United Church.  Two pieces in the Winnipeg  Free Press [and other media pieces] left the impression that the exhibit was a “Holocaust” exhibit.  The fact  that the inmates of Dachau represented a variety of beliefs may have reinforced the  view that the “Holocaust” included groups other than Jews; and a hope that the event could lead to interfaith dialogue led may have led some to conclude that the exhibit itself was an “interfaith” exhibit. 

Chatterley set  out to dispel these and other false impressions.  She emphasized that Dachau was a concentration camp, in which primarily German and other political prisoners were  interned; the death camps, on the other hand, were facilities constructed for the sole  purpose of killing Jews and, to a lesser extent, Roma and Sinti.  From its inception in  1933 to its liberation in 1945, Dachau registered some 220,000 prisoners.  The  German exhibit currently in Winnipeg features photos and bios of Dachau prisoners  of various nationalities. They were all mistreated and many died horribly, but no  particular group was targeted for extermination. The victims of the Holocaust were  all Jews killed because they were Jews; they died not in concentration camps in  Germany but in death camps in Poland: Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor.  Over a million others were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, a vast complex that  was also the site of German industrial combines exploiting vast supplies of forced  labor. 

In challenging Chatterley’s disqualification of Dachau as a site of the Holocaust, Dr.  Muller blurs the distinction between concentration camps and death camps-- the  latter built for the sole purpose of killing Jews, the former for incarcerating prisoners  of various identities and serving a variety of purposes.  Muller correctly points out  that Dachau was in some respects a model for other camps, and that it served as a  training site for their personnel, but this in no way negates the fact that its primary  and enduring purpose was the detention of individuals considered politically  dangerous or socially undesirable.  

Walter Reich, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in  Washington, D.C., praised Chatterley’s piece in the following words: “Dr.  Chatterley’s essay trenchantly demonstrates the historical truth of  antisemitism’s lethal consequences during the Holocaust—the truth that the  Holocaust—the Shoah--was, indeed, not an interfaith experience but the  most intense example of a specifically antisemitic experience.  And it  provides an important corrective to the increasing tendency to universalize  the Holocaust….”

Dr. Muller’s piece, while a response to Chatterley, does not engage the main points  in her article but uses the occasion to advance a conception of the Holocaust  different from that recognized by most other scholars and the general public.  From  his opening statement that the Holocaust had no single cause such as antisemitism,  readers would infer that Chatterley believed that it did have a single cause, namely  antisemitism.  Chatterley believes no such thing.  She clearly states in the article in  question that “Antisemitism was the central motivating factor of Hitler’s racist  policies.…”   Neither does she suggest anywhere else the belief in a single-cause  interpretation of the Holocaust.  In fact she would likely agree with Muller’s list of  various other causes— including the widespread cultural influences of war,  colonialism, nationalism, and racial science— to the extent that these long term  background factors had a role in setting the stage for the murderous persecution of  Jewry.  But where Muller infers from these ubiquitous contextual factors a  redefinition of the Holocaust that universalizes that event, rendering it a calamity for  humanity in general rather than for the Jews specifically, Chatterley sees them as  contributing factors of varying importance.  Along with other scholars, she regards  Hitler’s paranoid Jew hatred as the central dynamic and as the integrative factor in  his global ambitions. 

Moreover, the traditions of European war, colonialism, nationalism, and “militant conceptions of ethnic homogeneity” that Dr. Muller cites as examples of the “multiple causes” of the Holocaust operated equally in North America where there was no Holocaust—unless one accepts the view of historians such as David Stannard and Ward Churchill who regard the extinction of aboriginal life aa genocide as deliberate and thorough as that inflicted by Europeans on the Jews.

Dr. Muller alludes to the complex history of the word ‘Holocaust’, a history which can be trawled for any number of applications however broad or narrow. But the meaning of words is decided by popular usage as much as by scholars and dictionaries. Muller is right to remind us thathe word ‘Holocaust’ is a linguistic artefact, but other words are also constructed according to fashion. He may have other better reasons for preferring a wider application of the word ‘Holocaust’, but his present argument is not convincing. 

Finally, although Muller’s letter is framed aa critique of Chatterley’s conception of the Holocaust, it must be repeated that nowhere does Chatterley propose anti-Semitism as the single cause. Their positions, however, are not nearly so faapart as either of them might insist. Both would surely agree thaa variety of contextual historical factors must be considered in accounting for the genocide of European Jewry. But where Chatterley regards antisemitism as centraand accepts the designation ‘Holocaust’, Muller would extend the term to encompass victims other than Jews, for whose murder he prefers the Hebrew word ‘Shoah’, or some Yiddish equivalent. One thinks of Shakespeare’s line about a rose smelling as sweet regardless of what we name it; but also of the maxim attributed to Confucius, that “to name is to destroy, [but] to suggest is to create.” And of Faulkner’s quip: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

--Lionel Steiman


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