As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day it is worth noting that the term “Holocaust” was not widely used by writers and scholars until the 1960s and was only one of several words that have described the extermination of an estimated 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, and around 1 million Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) by Nazi fascists between 1941-45.
One million of those Jews were slaughtered in mass shootings by Einsatzgruppen (SS and police units aided by local collaborators) who swept through areas of the USSR that the Nazis invaded from June 1941. Many others died from starvation and disease in walled ghettoes in which the Nazis incarcerated them. The majority, however, were industrially murdered in a network of specially constructed death camps. The Nazis harnessed the skills of architects, scientists, engineers and administrators to carry out this horrendous crime, while businesses profited from supplying poison gas.
The thoroughly evidenced facts of the Holocaust are uncontroversial for most, though the ranks of Holocaust sceptics and deniers are growing. But the naming of what happened is controversial.
The Nazis themselves chillingly described their actions as the “Final Solution”
(Endlosung) to the “Jewish question”. Early Nazi rallies featured a slogan: “The Jews are our misfortune”, but their project of mass murder began, on a smaller scale, with a different group. Around 275,000 disabled people in Germany and Austria were murdered by lethal injections or poison gas at “euthanasia centres” under the secret T4 programme initiated in 1939.
Trade unionists, political opponents, gays, and others deemed “asocial” or “inferior”, perished in large numbers too, through starvation and mistreatment in concentration camps. Every victim must be mourned equally, but to understand the process we must recognise that the specific intention of wiping out whole peoples applied only to Jews and Roma/Sinti, and, within Germany and Austria, to disabled people too.
The term Holocaust, from French via ancient Greek, means “wholly burnt”, but it carries connotations of “sacrifice”. Some fringe religious-Zionists believe that the “miraculous” creation of Israel compensated for the “sacrifice” of Diaspora Jewry. For others, “Holocaust” is an iconic, mystical term indicating an event outside of history, beyond previous scale or comprehension. The survivor Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016, described what occurred as a “madness” for which the only appropriate response was “silence”.
The combined Jewish and Roma/Sinti victimhood at the hands of the Nazis was actually exceeded by two other major historical events. One was the destruction of native South American peoples, principally by the Spanish. A 70-million-strong population before Columbus, was reduced by disease, enslavement and murder over the next 150 years to 3 million. Many died young, mining the gold and silver that adorns Latin American churches and underpinned Spain’s economic development.
Several African historians use a Kiswahili word, Maafa (disaster) to describe the second, also termed the “Black Holocaust”. From the 15th century onwards, many millions of African slaves died in captivity, en route to the Americas, or through mistreatment there by Europeans. Genocide, the term academic historians prefer, coined by a lawyer Rafael Lemkin during World War 2, had certainly occurred before the 1940s, and continued afterwards.
The Nazis’ killing programme against the Jews began in 1941 in the context of a war of expansion. It was marked out from other mass killings not only by the systematic industrial methods of slaughter designed by highly qualified people, and gruesome medical experiments, but also by the maintenance of detailed records of present and planned future victims.
None of the words chosen to describe the Nazis’ programme are free of ideology. The promotion or discouragement of certain terms reflects competing claims for ownership of the memory associated with this history.
By the mid-1970s, a Hebrew word, Shoah, was widely used, popularised further through Claude Lansmann’s eponymous 1985 documentary. Its literal meaning – catastrophe/calamity – lacks the sacrificial connotations of Holocaust, but stll carries considerable ideological baggage. Its elevation represents the Israeli state claiming ownership of Jewish history. Ironic given the Zionists’ extremely patchy record of opposing antisemitism and Nazism in the 1930s, and given the present day embrace by arch–Zionist Netanyahu, of European leaders who promote far-right ideologies and hatred of minorities today, while restoring the image of home-grown antisemitic movements of the late 1930s and early ‘40s.
Israeli spokespersons using the term Shoah are not looking towards the Jewish community alone. They would prefer non-Jews to see the destruction of Europe’s Jews through Israeli eyes. This reflects the historiography that Israeli schools promoted in the 1960s, that disparaged Diaspora Jews for going “like lambs to the slaughter”. It ignores the powerful resistance to antisemitism in Poland before the war led by anti-Zionist Jewish socialists (Bundists) supported by non-Jewish Polish socialists. It downplays the resistance of many Jews in ghettoes and even in the concentration and death camps, or falsely claims that such resistance was led by Zionists alone.
Zionist ideologues regard the fate of the Jews under Nazism as proof of the failure of Diaspora. If a Jewish state had existed in the 1930s, they say, more Jews would have been saved. The fate of Palestine’s Jews during the war, however, hinged on the Battle of El Alamein. If the Nazis had reached Palestine, Jews there would have shared the same fate as their relatives in Europe. And besides, however many Jews would have found sanctuary in Palestine, that would not have changed the fate of a million Roma/Sinti being targeted for slaughter alongside Jews for exactly the same reason.
So what terms have the victims themselves chosen? Until quite recently Roma and Sinti have favoured the term Porajmos, of Romani origin, which means “devouring”. But there has been a backlash among Romani-speaking activists, especially women, because this term also has connotations of rape, so some prefer the term samudaripen (mass murder).
Among Jews, both Holocaust and Shoah have marginalised the Yiddish word khurbn,
used in Yiddish memoirs by survivors. Some 15% of Yiddish words derive from ancient Hebrew – khurbn (destruction) is one of them. Its earlier use referred particularly to the destruction of the First and Second Temples.
Most of Hitler’s Jewish victims were Yiddish-speakers. The Nazis were determined to destroy Yiddish culture as well as Jewish people. It is surely more appropriate to use a term derived from the victims’ principal language rather than the Hebrew term Shoah which now dominates the discourse. In contrast with calamity or disaster, destruction implies agency.
As does genocide – my preferred term alongside khurbn. Genocide assumes perpetrators and victims. The genocidal intent to destroy entire peoples indicates a spectrum that includes ethnic cleansing, while distinguishing itself from random attacks and massacres.
Survivors and their families insist that the full truth of what happened to them and their communities at the hands of the Nazis should be known and attempts to distort, trivialise, marginalise or deny that history should be resisted.
For some Jews, the term “genocide” detracts from the uniqueness of what occurred under Nazism, though the further we move through the 21st century, the more I fear that its methods and processes will prove far from unique. Better, then, that we locate its memory within history, within the reality of what rational human beings have done and are capable of doing in pursuit of ideologies of extreme nationalism and notions of superiority and inferiority.
The Nazis were fascists, helped into power in 1933 by capitalists in crisis. But the seeds were sown long before, and not just in Germany. The urge to conquer, to suppress, to exalt the nation, to dehumanise others, had long been powerful ideas in European cultures and will surely reappear in new contexts for a long time to come. Our task today is to recognise danger signs at an early stage and find strategies to confront them, in whichever continent they emerge, and whichever nation or culture is exalted or detested.
This article was first published in slightly abridged form in the Morning Star on Saturday 26th January.