The New York Times report on the slaughter of Jews in the Galician city of Lviv was brief but horrifying. “Eleven hundred Jews were killed during the recent massacre,” the Times declared. “Hundreds of Jews are said to have barricaded themselves in a synagogue, which was set afire. Those who attempted to escape from this refuge were fired upon.”
The dateline was Nov. 29, 1918 — more than three decades before Adolf Hitler began his systematic program of exterminating Europe’s Jews. From 1917 to 1921, amid the aftermath of the First World War and the chaos of the Russian Revolution, uniformed armies and peasant gangs staged hundreds of deadly pogroms. Estimates of the total number of Jews killed range from several tens of thousands to a quarter million. No one really knows the precise number because the slaughter was done in small batches, often spontaneously. That New York Times article quoted above represents one of the very few Western reports on the subject published during this entire period.
For these victims, there were no official apologies, no days of remembrance, no memorials. Few prominent historians or journalists cared much about Jewish suffering. (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was just one of dozens of popular anti-Semitic tracts popularized during this era.) And in any case, mass slaughter was a common feature of just about every conflict during this period. In the Congo Free State, somewhere between five and 10 million Africans (again, no one is really sure of the exact figure) had died under the forced-labour regime implemented by King Leopold II. The Turks had just exterminated as many as 1.5 million Armenians without attracting much in the way of international condemnation. Legions of Assyrians and Greeks also were slaughtered by the Turks during the same period. The death toll was in the hundreds of thousands, yet the entire episode languished in historical obscurity. Set amidst all of this bloodshed, the Jews of Lviv were but a rounding error.
I recite all of these grim precedents now — on Holocaust Remembrance Day — because it helps us appreciate the Shoah not just as an epic tragedy, but also as a crucial turning point in the way our species marks the fact of human evil.
For as long as I can remember, Jewish leaders have worried that the world eventually would forget about the Holocaust. Twentieth-century history shows the exact opposite to be true. Whereas the historical details surrounding previous acts of slaughter against Jews and other minorities receded quickly into the mists of time, the Holocaust has remained a permanent, jagged scar on the landscape of Western history, culture and politics.
Visit Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, or any of the dozens of other similarly themed museums around the world, and you come to realize that we know more about the Holocaust than perhaps every other human genocide put together. That’s because the Holocaust was not only the world’s first centrally organized industrial genocide, it also was the first to leave behind a bureaucratic paper trail. It took place in the era of photography, and even of primitive video (for example, footage of the Liepāja killings in Latvia). And so it shocked the world’s conscience in an indelible way that isolated early 20th-century pogroms could not.
From the proliferation of digital resources, specialized academic disciplines, Holocaust literature and even a Hollywood genre (“If you do a film about the Holocaust — guaranteed Oscar!” a self-parodic Kate Winslet quipped in a 2005 episode of Extras), our understanding of the Shoah has created the template that now is applied retroactively to virtually every other historical slaughter — from the slave trade, to the Holodomor, to (most recently) the victims of communism.
A century ago, we didn’t even bother counting evil’s victims. Now, we etch their names into stone, and mark days on the calendar when we observe their suffering. That’s progress.
But there’s also a horrible flip side to this transformed understanding of human evil: for those disposed to admire Hitler and follow in his footsteps, the lesson of the Holocaust was that the extermination of gigantic swathes of humanity is a scientifically realistic goal.
The mass slaughter of Jews that took place a century ago, in the era of horseback pogroms, tended to be a random, village-by-village, piecemeal process — much as it had been in medieval times. Yet just 20 years later, Jews were being exterminated systematically like pigs at a slaughterhouse. This was a gruesome technological upgrade: Hitler fundamentally changed evil’s delivery system.
The after-effects of this are on full display in the modern Middle East, where groups such as ISIS don’t merely seek to conquer this or that territory, seize this or that government. They dream of exterminating their enemies wholesale through a combination of divinely ordained moral absolutism and Nazi-inspired technical efficiency — cleansing the Middle East of pollutants much in the way Hitler destroyed what Joseph Goebbels called the Jewish “bacillus.”
Whenever an Iranian legislator calls for Israel to be wiped off the face or the earth — or for the Jews to be “pushed into the sea” — they are echoing Hitler’s industrial-scale conception of evil. Which explains why Benjamin Netanyahu remains so adamant that Iran should never be permitted to develop its nuclear technology: If a first Holocaust, why not a second?
Although Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago, its shadow still hangs heavy over virtually every aspect of modern intellectual life. Hitler’s living victims may be dwindling with the passage of years, but the suffering that they and their loved ones endured will never be forgotten.