The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

The President's Commission on the Holocaust
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators as a central act of state during the Second World War; as night descended, millions of other peoples were swept into this net of death. It was a crime unique in the annals of human history, different not only in the quantity of violence-the sheer numbers killed-but in its manner and purpose as a mass criminal enterprise organized by the state against defenseless civilian populations. The decision was to kill every Jew everywhere in Europe: the definition of Jew as target for death transcended all boundaries.

The concept of the annihilation of an entire people, as distinguished from their subjugation, was unprecedented; never before in human history had genocide been an all-pervasive government policy unaffected by territorial or economic advantage and unchecked by moral or religious constraints.

The Holocaust was not a throwback to medieval torture or archaic barbarism but a thoroughly modern expression of bureaucratic organization, industrial management, scientific achievement, and technological sophistication. The entire apparatus of the German bureaucracy was marshaled in the service of the extermination process. The churches and health ministries supplied birth records to define and isolate Jews; the post offices delivered statements of definition, expropriation, denaturalization, and deportation; the economic ministry confiscated Jewish wealth and property; the universities denied Jewish students admission and degrees while dismissing Jewish faculty; German industry fired Jewish workers, officers, board members and disenfranchised Jewish stockholders; government travel bureaus coordinated schedules and billing processes for the railroads which carried the victims to their deaths.

The location and operation of the camps were based on calculations of accessibility and cost-effectiveness, the trademarks of modern business practice. German corporations actually profited from the industry of death. Pharmaceutical firms, unrestricted by fear of side effects, tested drugs on camp inmates, and companies competed on contracts to build ovens or supply gas for extermination. (Indeed, they were even concerned with protecting the patents for their products.) German engineers working for Topf and Sons supplied one camp alone with 46 ovens capable of burning 500 bodies an hour.

Adjacent to the extermination camp at Auschwitz was a privately owned, corporately sponsored concentration camp called I.G. Auschwitz, a division of I.G. Farben. This multi-dimensional, petro-chemical complex brought human slavery to its ultimate perfection by reducing human beings to consumable raw materials, from which all mineral life was systematically drained before the bodies were recycled into the Nazi war economy: gold teeth for the treasury, hair for mattresses, ashes for fertilizer. In their relentless search for the least expensive and most efficient means of extermination, German scientists experimented with a variety of gases until they discovered the insecticide Zyklon B, which could kill 2,000 persons in less than 30 minutes at a cost of one-half-cent per body. Near the end of the war, in order to cut expenses and save gas, "cost-accountant considerations" led to an order to place living children directly in the ovens or throw them into open burning pits. The same type of ingenuity and control that facilitates modern industrial development was rationally applied to the process of destruction.

The Holocaust could not have occurred without the collapse of certain religious norms; increasing secularity fueled a devaluation of the image of the human being created in the likeness of God. Ironically, although religious perspectives contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism and the choice of Jews as victims, only in a modern secular age did anti-Semitism lead to annihilation. Other aspects of modern dehumanization contributed to the Holocaust, notably the splitting of the human personality whereby men could murder children by day and be loving husbands and fathers at night. The division of labor that separated complete operations into fractions of the whole permitted thousands to participate in a massive bureaucracy of death without feeling responsible. For example, Adolf Eichmann, who supervised the roundup of Jews for deportation, could claim he never personally killed a single person; employees could insist they did not know what they were doing; executioners could explain they were only following orders.

Whether the product of technology or a reaction against it, the horror of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to the conditions of our time. By studying the Holocaust, we hope to help immunize modern man against the diseases particularly to the twentieth century which led to this monstrous aberration.

The American philosopher George Santayana has warned that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The Holocaust reveals a potential pathology at the heart of western civilization together with the frightening consequences of the total exercise of power. Remembering can install caution, fortify restraint, and protect against future evil or indifference. The sense of outrage in the face of the Holocaust expressed in the declaration "Never Again."-neither to the Jewish people nor to any other people-must be informed by an understanding of what happened and why.

Reprinted by permission of The President's Commission on the Holocaust.