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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 as a 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 that the 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 as a 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 far apart as  either of them might insist.  Both would surely agree that a variety of contextual  historical factors must be considered in accounting for the genocide of European  Jewry.  But where Chatterley regards antisemitism as central and 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."


 by Dr. Adam Muller


[Editor's note: This piece by Dr. Adam Muller is the piece that Lionel Steiman was referring to in his article above.

Dr. Adam Muller's piece 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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