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Chicago Professor Novick scoffs at concern about the "growing influence" of people called Holocaust deniers

Novick bookThe Holocaust in American Life
by Peter Novick, Eric Chinski (Editor)

List Price: $27.00 • Our Price: $18.90 at a glance You Save: $8.10 (30%)

Hardcover - 320 pages (June 1999)

Houghton Mifflin Co (Trd); ISBN: 0395840090

Quote from the Book



OVER the years, various grounds for the Holocaust's uniqueness have been offered, but many, for one or another reason, were found wanting: Stalin killed more innocents than Hitler; over the centuries many other targeted populations suffered greater proportional losses than did European Jews during World War II. Other criteria presented other difficulties.

The most comprehensive argument for the uniqueness of the Holocaust was also the most radical. Whereas many other writers were willing to acknowledge that there had been other genocides but only one Holocaust, Steven Katz, in a book of more than seven hundred pages (the first of three projected volumes), argued that even the word "genocide", if correctly understood, could be applied only to the travail of European Jewry in World War II. It was on the basis of this book that Katz was named head of the Washington Holocaust Museum -- which suggests the appeal of the argument.

I remarked in the Introduction that the very idea of uniqueness is fatuous, since any event -- a war, a revolution, a genocide -- will have significant features that it shares with events to which it might be compared as well as features that differentiate it from others. The claim that an event -- as opposed to some features of an event -- is unique can only be sustained by gerrymandering: deliberately singling out one or more distinctive features of the event and trivializing or sweeping under the rug those features it shares with other events to which it might be compared.

For Katz, what makes the Holocaust unique, makes it the only real genocide, is that "never before has a state set out ... to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific people." If Katz is historically correct on this point -- and historians who have examined his arguments have their doubts -- this would indeed be a distinctive feature of the Holocaust. How did Katz decide that this is the criterion by which one should decide whether the Holocaust is unique, the only genocide? He himself supplies the answer when he writes that while the Final Solution has many other features, "only the element of intentionality can serve as the individuating criterion by which to distinguish the Sho'ah from other instances of mass death." Translation: I was determined to find that feature of the Holocaust which set it apart -- made it unique -- and this is the one I settled on. [....]

Katz, like virtually everyone else who makes this argument, asserts again and again that "unique" doesn't mean "worse", that the claim is not for greater but only for different Jewish victimization, that no one is saying the Holocaust is more evil than other atrocities, just that it's ... unique. Such disavowals are either naive or disingenuous because all of the talk of uniqueness takes place in a context in which, for various purposes, atrocities are constantly compared. And the talk of uniqueness cooexists with, overlaps with, and is inextricably intertwined with repeated insistence that the Holocaust is the archetype and yardstick of evil. [....]

The claim that the assertion of the Holocaust's uniqueness is not a form of invidious comparison produces systematic doubletalk. A rabbi, in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, writes that "it is degrading, even ghoulish, to seek to prove preeminence in suffering." But, he continues, "the holocaust was unique", and proceeds to offer a statistical demonstration. Does anyone (except, just conceivably, those making the argument) believe that the claim of uniqueness is anything other than a claim for preeminence?


Peter Novick, "The Holocaust in American Life", Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1999, Boston, p. 196, 197


Now see the scholarly debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education
"Do Americans obsess over the Holocaust? Has the focus on the Holocaust distorted scholarship and our understanding of history, and our perception of other atrocities and war crimes?"
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