Why is this genocide different from all other genocides?

by tobybee

Last week I was in Sydney for a postgrad history masterclass in ‘patriotism, memory and history’. A masterclass basically involves a bunch of postgrads and academics sitting around discussing each other’s work in an intensive, collaborative, thought-provoking and academic setting for a few days. This was a great masterclass, with pretty much everyone being very supportive of each other’s work. But there was one stand-out moment when a postgrad from Sydney who works in Jewish studies turned up to my session to tell me I was wrong.

What was I wrong about? In a nutshell, she was adamant that 1. the Holocaust was unique and 2. that Jews in Australia after the Holocaust are not – and never have been – anxious about their/our place in this world. (This second point is basically the central argument of my thesis). This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard these arguments, but I believe that these two intertwined ideas are rather problematic.

I firmly believe, that while the Holocaust might be unique to me personally (as I lost many family members to it, and would not be alive myself if it hadn’t happened) and to many other Jews, because of their personal experiences, in historical terms, it is not a unique event. In the sense that every moment in history is unique it is, of course, also unique, but beyond that, to me the claims for uniqueness are a bit chauvinist.

Arguments put forward for Holocaust uniqueness tend to centre around the idea that the Holocaust was the worst genocide, the most terrible, the perpetrators were the most determined ever, the victims were the only victims ever who were killed just because of who they were etc etc. There are arguments against all these positions however – how do we quantify ‘the worst’ genocide (and why would we want to)? perpetrators of genocide are always determined to kill their victims, that’s the point; and, if we look at the Holocaust itself, we can see that Roma and Sinti were targeted in exactly the same racialised manner as Jews.

But I think these arguments are not about historical veracity, but instead about a determination to be identified as the worst off, the most victimised. This brings up many issues, such as why people would want such a designation and what are the political and ideological results of such a designation. I don’t want to explicate my ideas on these factors, although maybe that’s a discussion we can have in the comments. What I do want to suggest is that remembering the Holocaust in this manner works as a way of forgetting and denying other genocides. And I want to ask what the effects of this is.

Jews tend to – and rightfully so – get angry when people deny that the Holocaust happened. This is part of an ethics of memory: that we should remember in an ethical fashion, which works to remember as much as possible. By highlighting and overstating the Jewish Holocaust I think that people remember unethically: they remember for their own purposes, rather than to support others who have been through similar atrocities. Why down-play or deny others experiences? I don’t understand it.

And this, I think, underscores the anxieties which Jews in the post-war world feel: that unless we can be the standout victims then our position is precarious. Which makes it somewhat interesting to me that the woman who came to tell me I was wrong was, in the end, displaying her own anxiety that the history to which she clings would be challenged.

Maybe instead she, and we all, need to learn to live with our anxieties and ambivalences, to accept the uncertain and precarious and not always search for solid ground.