Is the Holocaust comparable to slavery?

About the uniqueness of the Holocaust

It is understandable that many people in our country are demanding “normalization” in everything over 60 years after the end of the war. Germany is applying for a seat on the UN Security Council. A German could become Pope. Can't we - especially members of the younger generations - draw a line under the entire National Socialist era? In spite of everything, doesn't that also apply to the undoubtedly dire atrocities in the concentration camps and, above all, against the Jews?


Let me just come back to one example to illustrate the problems. It cannot be overlooked that a lot has remained unresolved. That is why conflicts flare up again quickly. Sometimes you can be amazed how quickly they get pretty violent. In a sermon on January 6, 2005, Epiphany, the Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Cardinal Meisner, named abortion and euthanasia with the crimes of Hitler and Stalin in one sentence: “First Herod, who had the children of Bethlehem killed, then Hitler, among others and Stalin, who let millions of people annihilated, and today, in our time, unborn children are killed millions of times, ”said Cardinal Meisner in Cologne Cathedral. If man forgets God, it is all too easy for him to make himself a god who assumes control over the lives of others. The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dr. h.c. Paul Spiegel, immediately attacked the Cologne cardinal sharply for this. He has absolutely no understanding for statements that equate abortion and euthanasia with the crimes of the Nazi regime. Such sentences are an insult to millions of Holocaust victims. After protests, especially from the Jewish side, Cardinal Meisner deleted the reference to Hitler in the written documented form of the sermon.

At the meeting of the Permanent Council of the German Bishops' Conference on January 24, 2005, there was a general discussion of the situation. The above-mentioned dispute was addressed, initially not at all intended. The following note was formulated in the minutes: “A one-sided and incorrect quotation of Cardinal Meisner's sermon on the Epiphany (especially by the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Paul Spiegel) briefly caused a stir in the German media. The Permanent Council thanks Joachim Cardinal Meisner, who mastered this situation confidently and intelligently. In the further discussion, similar experiences with the public behavior of the Central Council are recalled and the concern about its counterproductive effect is expressed. ”Although the minutes of the Permanent Council are confidential and only for internal use, the church newspaper for the Archdiocese of Cologne the protocol note is published. This in turn outraged the Central Council of Jews. Individual members of the Central Council understood the statements of the Bishops' Conference as a "declaration of war". Now I don't want to go into the individual interpretation. In any case, the situation worsened again when, at the end of February 2005, from the book of the late Pope John Paul II, "Memory and Identity - Conversations on the Threshold between the Millennia", which appeared shortly afterwards, the Pope's opinion was summarized to the effect that the Pope also moved the abortion close to the extermination of the Jews by the National Socialists.

Of course, the Pope first wanted to draw attention to the dignity and inviolability of human life. It is understandable that the Polish Pope, whose birthplace Wadowice is 30 km away from Auschwitz-Birkenau, also thinks of the millions of times that human life was destroyed during the Nazi era. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, rejected the allegations when the papal book was presented in Rome on February 22, 2005. The Italian press then apologized for the “falsifying exaggeration” of the Pope's words. Reading the papal book shows that the text has to be seen in a much more differentiated way. It is not about a comparison and also not about equating different forms of annihilation. The Pope's aim was to show where it can lead if man wants to shape his life radically without God. Finally, on February 25, 2005, the President of the Central Council of Jews and I had a conversation with each other to ease the situation. This ended with a joint press release on the same day. Apart from the establishment of a working group to continue the content-related dialogue and deal with the dissent, there was agreement that “the singularity of the murder of European Jews by the National Socialist terror regime must not be relativized; that it would be absurd to understand the Central Council's criticism as the cause of growing anti-Semitism; that a particularly sensitive language is always required when the Holocaust is taken up or touched on in political, social and church speeches ”. President Dr. Spiegel finally expressed "an emphatic understanding of the great importance that the Catholic Church attaches to the protection of unborn life".

This memory of an event not long ago can show how sensitive the matter is and how quickly it ignites like a torch. It is therefore necessary to dwell on the matter itself.


One can easily and quickly see that the Jews are extremely vigilant when the Holocaust is quickly related to other forms of the annihilation of human life. You can see this in Paul Spiegel's statement that the Catholic Church did not understand or did not want to understand "that there is an enormous difference between factory-based genocide and what women do with their bodies". The systematic extermination of around six million Jews, which was ideologically prepared and carried out in a factory-like manner, is sui generis mass murder. Any comparison runs the risk of relativizing the monstrousness of this extermination and thus favoring the beginning of a trivialization of this genocide.

It cannot be overlooked that, soon after taking power in 1933, the National Socialist ideology began to set up concentration camps and adopted resolutions and laws hostile to Jews with increased dynamism, which were implemented in the so-called "Reichskristallnacht" (November 9-10, 1938). found its first expression and finally, from the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, pushed ahead with the desired “final solution to the Jewish question” by all means. The Jews were completely ostracized from society by many laws, had no rights, had no possessions and should have no chance of survival. The unimaginable process of "selecting" several million people according to "racial" criteria, deporting them and murdering them in a factory manner and at the same time collecting and utilizing their last possessions, even the hair and the gold teeth of the dead, reflects the singular way of thinking and proceeding with the murder of European Jews.

It is not easy to speak of such a tremendous event when we are literally out of words. Even back then, a concentration camp victim, the Jewish author Primo Levi, said: "We realized that our language lacks the words to describe this insult, this destruction of man." Certainly, this could not mean that one is silent because one lacks adequate words. The lack of precedent of the Holocaust could not mean that the establishment of concentration camps should not be studied in their genesis and related to one another. The incomparability could not mean that from a historical point of view all similarities with slave labor camps and other camps are forbidden from the outset. But how do you talk about it then?

You can already see this in the terms and words that are familiar to us. The word “Holocaust” has a slightly different sound and a nuanced meaning in the various languages. Holocaust is a word from the Greek Bible translations of the third century BC. And migrates from there to the Latin versions of the Bible. The word initially means nothing else than burnt offering, sacrifice (cf. Gen 22.2; 1 Sam 7.9; 15.22; Hos 6.6). The term has to do with the gifts offered in the temple, the sacrifices ascending to heaven. Today's understanding of the word has gone different ways. While in the German language it is still more associated with this understanding of sacrifice, but has also broken away from any religious context and sees itself very strongly as the systematic extermination of the Jewish people, the word is much broader in English-American usage therefore also more easily transferred to other forms of extraordinary life annihilation. In the context of the National Socialist persecution of the Jews, the term was obviously used as early as 1943/44, when American-Jewish publicists and probably also English politicians used the word to denote mass murder. Later, the film "Holocaust", which was broadcast in 1979 with a great response in the Federal Republic of Germany, made a major contribution to the fact that the term "Holocaust" became very common and also established. It will be admitted, however, that the word Holocaust with its former meaning cannot grasp the unique process of genocide against the Jewish people. The connection to sacrificial terminology and thus to the cult raises further problems.

This is probably one of the reasons why not a few Jews and scientists tend to use the term “Shoah” to denote this unique catastrophe. You are picking up on a word that was used in the Jewish tradition to describe serious historical defeats. There are also other terms for this, such as "geserah" (persecution), a word that already appears in the persecutions during the first crusade in 1096 and again at the end of the medieval Viennese community in 1421. Another word is "churban" (destruction, catastrophe), which appears in reference to the destruction of the First Temple. These two words have a religious connotation.

The word Shoah is undoubtedly also derived from the Bible (cf. Ex 2.23; Isa 6.11; 10.3; 47.11; 1 Sam 5.12). Shoa is an “Old Testament term for the threat potential that characterizes foreign peoples like Assyria and Babylon as opponents of Israel and is primarily drawn with the image of roaring masses of water ... but also destructive thunderstorms ... and is thus afflicted with the symbolism of chaos ". Thus the complex of ideas suggests enormous devastation. Although the term was derived from the Bible, it has acquired a strongly secular meaning and has increasingly become a basic word in the description of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews. This was officially shown to a certain extent in the fact that the declaration of independence for the State of Israel from 1948 included the term Shoah for the Nazis' persecution of Jews. Finally, with the naming of the commemoration day of the persecution of the Jews introduced in 1951 as the “Day of the Shoah”, the Shoah has become even more binding. It is not a religious day of remembrance, but it has a central place in social life. Since the term Holocaust is rather unsuitable because of the cultic roots in the Greek Old Testament, the Shoah can at least partially indicate the devastation emanating from humans, which, however, contains unique dimensions.

From this perspective it is understandable that one often simply uses “Auschwitz” as a condensed symbolic word to characterize the Nazi persecution of the Jews, in order to describe the concreteness of the extermination particularly clearly. Some also like to use the term “final solution to the Jewish question”. It used to be understood to include emancipatory assimilation and settlement projects. In anti-Semitism, the term served to refuse emancipation and to demand the discriminatory exclusion of Jews, including, for example, non-admission to the public service, the "final Jewry" of the press and public life, and the social ostracism of "mixed marriages". From 1933 the metaphor radicalized to the "final solution" in the sense of extermination. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942, the word was already a fixed, presupposed term.

A connoisseur of the matter, Johannes Heil, summarizes the situation as follows: “The Shoah in Israel is self-explanatory, but otherwise, especially in the non-Jewish context, a term with a circumscribing and occasionally obscuring tendency. For Germany, both terms, Holocaust and Shoa, but also Auschwitz and all the terms linked to them, have filled a blank space since the late 1970s: there was no separate term in German that would adequately replace the National Socialist cynical euphemism Final Solution of the Jewish Question. So after 1948 either distancing paraphrases were used (“fate”, “suffering”, “persecution”) or - where the events were mentioned by name - they were ranked: '[the victims were] murdered ... gassed, burned, shot "beaten to death or [did] not survive the inhuman treatment in the concentration camp" (Th. Heuss, Our Jewish fellow citizens). More than 50 years after the murder of millions of European Jews, it seems unlikely that in future a German term that is more appropriate to the events and subject to unjustified criticism can be found. "

Perhaps it has now become clearer why one needs a high level of sensitivity when using the word Holocaust in particular. The range of meanings with its relative breadth and at the same time indeterminacy creates difficulties, especially if the specific use is not specified. This is less the case with the word Shoah, but it is not entirely excluded. That is why one is more tempted to speak of the Shoah in this context with a view to the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Certainly it has to do with the fact that this lack of language caused a fundamental embarrassment, so that Th. W. Adorno's famous sentence came about that one could no longer write a poem after Auschwitz. This is linked to the question of whether and in what form one can write about the Holocaust symbolized in the name of Auschwitz. Does this tremendous break in civilization allow a continuation of cultural activity at all? There is also a revealing study from the USA into how the narrative literature of the Federal Republic of Germany dealt with the human crime of the extermination of the Jews after 1945. The focus is on well-known authors such as Heinrich Böll, Wolfgang Koeppen, Günter Grass, Peter Schneider and Bernhard Schlink. Of course, there are also important “outsiders” here, such as Hermann Lenz, Gert Hofmann, Alexander Kluge, etc. The author notes that, similar to the public debate, one has gradually broken away from the almost complete silence about the Holocaust and has found a new language from generation to generation. However, it largely remains with ritualized mourning gestures, there is a lack of the ability to really face the crimes committed emotionally. Even with all efforts and advances, “the language of silence” is still reflected in literature.

Perhaps one has to include other writers and poets, even literary forms, e.g. poetry. So I am convinced that Paul Celan has found his own language to visualize the horror, e.g. in the "Death Fugue". The same applies to Nelly Sachs.


So one is thrown back beyond the conceptual history to the questions about the singularity of the Holocaust. The problem, which has almost been forgotten today, was negotiated in a special way in the so-called historians' dispute. The controversy between German historians from 1986 to 1988 revolved around the question of whether the National Socialist extermination of the Jews was “comparable” to other forms of mass murder. The controversy began with an article by Jürgen Habermas in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” (July 11, 1986), in which the theses of the historians Andreas Hillgruber and Ernst Nolte were rejected, which - I shall shorten - question the singularity from a historical perspective which could lead to a relativizing reassessment of the Holocaust and the National Socialist dictatorship. However, this is not about a necessary and careful presentation of E. Nolte's positions in particular. Habermas explained that the Auschwitz crimes are so unique in the whole of world history that they cannot be relativized. Such a relativization could only result in a trivialization of the National Socialist regime and its criminals.Therefore, the comparison between the Nazi crimes and those of communism - from the Russian civil war to Stalin to Pol Pot - should be rejected. There is no such thing as “normalizing the past”.

We do not have to deal here with the thesis whether the singularity of the Nazi crimes can be explained primarily by the tradition of a “German special path” that consistently led to the Third Reich. In any case, one can state that the “historians' dispute” ultimately did not come to any lasting result. A. Hillgruber and E. Nolte were certainly put on the defensive, but fundamental questions remained controversial and, above all, unanswered. It was particularly about the question of a "historicization of the Nazi era". It should remain clear that E. Nolte did not question the uniqueness of the Nazi crimes. It has become clear that singularity certainly cannot mean incomparability. Without such a comparison, one could ultimately not justify the singularity either. Of course, singularity does not just mean that every event in history is something individual and unique. "’ Uniqueness ’rather refers to something that is unique of its kind. In this context, singularity can only sensibly mean that our crimes stand out from the ranks of the others to such an extent that they open a new chapter in the history of human crimes that they go significantly beyond the others in terms of quality. In this respect, they would be unprecedented in history - which of course does not mean that they will also be in the future. With this expression neither the human race nor future world history is played down. - But the comparison by which singularity alone can be determined is difficult. The history of the mass murders ... has ... not yet been written. Although more has been explored in detail by some of them than is kept present in the general consciousness. "

The reason for this uniqueness was not least that no state had previously decided to kill a certain group of people including all the elderly, women, children and infants as completely as possible, and this decision was made with all possible state means of power do the deed. It is not only about an unimaginably large wave of murder, but about the attempt to systematically exterminate an entire people, which has been practically industrialized. In the historians' dispute - I think rightly - not only an increase or a new mode in the scale of the possibilities of killing was shown, but a qualitative leap was also presented. "Because it was not only the mass gassing that was completely new, but also the non-plus-ultra of human contempt, which is expressed in the fact that the murderers were not even expected to exert the cruelty and confrontation with the screaming plight of the victims, which it was otherwise it is necessary, but that in the end there was only the cold, factory-like extermination. ”If the word singularity is less appealing to you, Chr. Meier should consider a radical or a completely exceptional type of extermination of the Jews. “Awareness of the full extent of this crime is also the prerequisite for really getting to see this truth; that we do not meet her unworthily; that we don't start too shallow when trying to relate to her. We should try to 'weed out' the Roma and Sinti, to exterminate the Polish elites and other atrocities, such as multiple murders against Russian villages or the death of three million Russian prisoners of war, some of whom were shot and others who perished in the camps, do not forget. Only they are far surpassed by the Holocaust against the Jews and, for various reasons, are by far not able to assert themselves as sustainably in the memory of history. "

One can of course also exaggerate the "uniqueness" in a problematic way. Then the Shoah's unprecedented precedent could be undermined. This becomes clear in the book by Norman G. Finkelstein about the Holocaust industry, which is problematic in some respects. It's a polemic. She attacks the Jewish organizations in the USA head-on and accuses them of having developed a real Holocaust industry that was exclusively dedicated to the systematic exploitation of Jewish suffering during the Nazi era and wrongly postulating a historical uniqueness of the Jewish catastrophe. The real events are covered by the machinations of a "Holocaust ideology" and made almost unrecognizable. Certainly he does not deny the genocide of the European Jews. Like others before him (R. Hilberg and P. Novick) he defends himself against a sacralization of the Holocaust. This takes the Holocaust out of its historical context and gives it a kind of liturgy that is almost fetishized. Here Elie Wiesel in particular is attacked for his advocacy of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The murder of the Jews would be symbolized as a quasi-religious, incomprehensible event. There is also a tendency towards a latent kitschification of the Holocaust. Incidentally, this would also make the Holocaust an instrument of moral blackmail. This also leads to a strange mixture of the compensation policy of moralization and commercialization. Finkelstein is rightly accused of failing to take sufficient account of the facts in this regard.

However, it seems to me that one of Finkelstein's observations must be taken more seriously. He criticizes the "historical decontextualization of the Holocaust" with the tendency to liturgize and kitify memory. Reference should be made here to the statements by A. Assmann and U. Frevert, who draw attention to the problem of a prevailing “memory inflation”. Even if it is still necessary to remember the unspeakable and not to let up in the process, there is in fact a threat that commemoration has experienced a sometimes extremely dubious cultural-industrial shape. N. Frei described this, at least for the period from 1945 to 1957, with the keyword “politics of the past”. Some forms of the following “coming to terms with the past” and “preserving the past” are also sometimes in danger of appeasing what has been. The ubiquity and excess of Holocaust symbolism can help to suppress the real events. In this sense, the Holocaust can become a real magic word. The adequate representation of the true story becomes a problem: “The dilemma seems insoluble. The survivors and those born afterwards cannot remember Auschwitz without cultural-industrial mediation; but the post-totalitarian society produces a form of remembrance that makes what really happened in Auschwitz disappear behind the cultural artefact of the 'Holocaust' it is also about consumer-oriented aestheticization and trivialization of the terrible events.

So you have to endure the tension between a simultaneous singularity and an actualization that goes as far as kitsch. The preoccupation with the Holocaust must not become increasingly detached from the historical context. Otherwise it could be that one constantly refers to the story and yet at the same time forgets it in a deeper sense. One then denies the true singularity. “At the same time, however, it must always be remembered that the form in which millions of people inside and outside the concentration camps were tortured and murdered is so unique and senseless that any political argument or any instrumentalization of the Holocaust should be forbidden. Memory as an ideological use of the past comes up against a limit that cannot be transcended in the Holocaust. ”After all, J. Habermas can also say in a similar way:“ The coming to terms with (the past) threatens to stand still in the palaver of the show events. ”

In this sense, there is also a warning, especially from the Jewish side, about dealing with the Shoah. The German writer Rafael Seligmann has repeatedly warned that the modern Hebrew should not indulge in a “surrogate identity”. The Shoah is not a source of Jewish identity. “The genocide was the worst catastrophe in Hebrew history - it was not an independent Jewish achievement. Anyone who puts genocide at the center of Jewish consciousness is consequently elevating Adolf Hitler in God's place to the creator of Jewish identity: that would be the final mental victory of anti-Semitism. "And with regard to documents and memorials, Seligmann says, as well as to historical accounts:" But as These building blocks are not suitable for the basis of future Judaism. A living Judaism must reflect on its traditionally created values. Faith cannot be prescribed, but knowledge of Jewish history, tradition and culture is essential to justify a Hebrew existence ... For Jews and non-Jews alike, the way into the future begins with getting to know one's own history. It cannot stop at Auschwitz, and arguments are inevitable. But please as lively and illuminating as in the Jewish school. ”R. Seligmann is by no means alone with this warning. In the preface “To the German Readers” of his book about the risks involved in dealing with the Holocaust, P. Novick writes that American Jews late made the Holocaust “at the center of their own self-image and self-portrayal”. Along with prominent representatives of American Judaism, he criticizes “that an identity based on the Holocaust - in a way that was not intended by anyone - displaced other foundations of Jewish identity and created a 'victim consciousness' among many American Jews that was neither appropriate nor desirable. "


With that we are ready to go back to the beginning. But I don't want to expand this. It was about the concept and use of the word Holocaust. The question was whether Cardinal Meisner committed sacrilege by relating the millions of genocide of the Nazi era to the millions of abortion victims of today.

It has already been shown that, especially in Anglo-Saxon societies, the term Holocaust is much more open and ambiguous, i.e. it is also more easily applied to other forms of life annihilation. This is also clear from the diverse literature. There are many examples of how people in the USA, for example, speak more freely about the high number of abortions from the Holocaust than in our country. But this does not only apply to the American language area. The Belgian moral theologian M. Schooyans can speak more freely of the abortion scandal in connection with the Nazi ideology. He sees a “fundamentally identical hostile inspiration between abortion and Nazi ideology”. Other examples could be given. In any case, these comparisons do not call into question the uniqueness of the historical Holocaust. They even underline them. Inhuman thought patterns - far from the historical comparison of facts - are brought into connection with the “Holocaust”. Here one must consider the various uses of the term Holocaust. This can certainly lead to misunderstandings, but if you take the broader term of the Holocaust into account, there is definitely a foundation - even if it doesn't suit everyone. E. Wiesel, for example, occasionally spoke of a "nuclear holocaust".

Even a member of the Jewish people can understand this broad meaning of the Holocaust, why a churchman somehow sees connections between today's abortion scandal and the extermination of an entire people. The churches already understand the differences, but we also see possible analogies in the fundamental threat to human life. After all, there are millions of abortion victims around the world every year. That is why we also protect Cardinal Meisner, who has made his statement more precise in a not insignificant place. Even if, for example, I don't want to talk like him myself, at this point and in this matter we are absolutely of the same conviction with Cardinal Meisner. And we also refer to the Bible in the scandal of the abortion victims. One of the fundamental commandments of God is the indivisible protection of life, as required in the fifth commandment. Then as now, God calls out to us when deciding between life and death: You should not kill! Yes, you have to hear it literally from Deuteronomy: “Herewith I present you today life and happiness, death and misfortune ... I present you life and death, blessing and curse. So choose life so that you live, you and your descendants. "

At the beginning we talked about the many who demand a "line". But you cannot do what cannot be done. Jews and non-Jews must understand the Holocaust as a warning to the whole world not to forget that evil continues to exist even when it is quiet.

(c) Karl Cardinal Lehmann

The spoken word is valid. - The original contains a number of footnotes.