Commentary Magazine

The Holocaust in Historical Context, by Steven T. Katz


The Holocaust in Historical Context: Volume I: The Holocaust and Mass Death before the Modern Age.
by Steven T. Katz.
Oxford. 702 pp. $40.00.

In recent years, partisan evocation of the Holocaust has begun to occlude its image in historical memory. Ever since Betty Friedan, for example, in The Feminine Mystique referred to the suburban home as the “comfortable concentration camp” of contemporary American women, the Holocaust has enjoyed a prominent place in feminist discourse, with one feminist tract after another drawing parallels between the plight of women and that of Europe’s Jews.

Homosexual activists, too, have eagerly hitched themselves to the Holocaust bandwagon. “The fate of Jews and gay people,” writes the late Yale historian, John Boswell, in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), “has been almost identical throughout European history, from early Christian hostility to extermination in concentration camps”; the burgeoning corpus of homosexual-rights literature is studded with similar references to the allegedly analogous fate of Jews and homosexuals under Nazi rule.

In the rhetoric of anti-abortion advocates, parallels with the Holocaust are also ubiquitous. After the conviction of Paul Hill for the murder of a doctor and a security guard en route to a Pensacola, Florida abortion clinic, one right-to-lifer (an Amherst College professor of jurisprudence, no less) was moved to ask:

Would the media . . . have been filled as they have in this case with reports of “religious zealots” if a band of Jews had killed guards and executioners on their way to work in Auschwitz? Would we have heard stories of the killing of innocent workers, who were merely carrying out orders, and pursuing a policy that was fully “lawful” under the laws of the Third Reich?”

And Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association informs us in his recent book, Guns, Crime, and Freedom, that “the Warsaw ghetto stands in history as a shining example of the dangers of gun control.”

Even as it is reduced to a cliché, the Holocaust, it is clear, has acquired cultural cachet.



Over a decade ago, Steven T. Katz, a professor of Jewish history at Cornell University—and now the newly-appointed director of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.—began exploring the question of whether and in what sense the Holocaust ought to be considered unprecedented and unique. Comparison, he concluded, has all too often diminished historical comprehension. As he put it in a book published in 1983:

Unsophisticated generalizations abound, sectarian pronouncements take the place of sound arguments, and moral disapproval substitutes for hermeneutical precision and historical accuracy.

Katz subsequently embarked on the ambitious venture of systematically comparing the Holocaust with all other instances of mass murder which have been suggested as parallels. In this book, the first of three volumes, he considers instances of mass death which occurred before the rise of modern Europe. Subsequent volumes will examine the seemingly more compelling analogies often drawn between the Holocaust and mass murder in recent times. But to judge by this first volume alone, Katz’s project promises to rank among the more remarkable feats of scholarship of recent years.

In the detailed exposition of the historical episodes examined in this book, the distance between the premodern parallels and the tragedy which befell the Jews in our century becomes clearer as Katz proceeds. He shows, for example, that slavery in ancient times, despite its horrors, was governed by a utilitarian rationale at odds with genocidal purposes. Later, though approximately 100,000 women were put to death in the recurrent witch-crazes that began in Europe in 1450—a horrifyingly large number—these fatalities occurred over three centuries, making them a demographically insignificant fact. As for the persecution of homosexuals, Katz’s careful sifting of the evidence shows that over the course of many centuries homosexuality per se led to capital punishment in only a handful of cases.



One of Katz’s major contributions is to provide what is perhaps the most satisfying discussion yet of the nature and the extent of Christian anti-Semitism. In particular, he shows the fundamentally misleading nature of analogies drawn by some Jewish scholars between the Holocaust and the Crusader massacres of Jews in the early Middle Ages. He documents in great detail the recurrent attempts of Popes and Christian monarchs to protect Jews and to forbid their murder or forced conversion. Over the course of more than eight centuries, the Church, for example, not only rejected the accusation that Jews commit “ritual murder,” but sought to contain the violence against Jews which the libel periodically provoked in Christian populations (often incited by lower orders of the clergy).

This is hardly to deny that the long history of Christian persecution of Jews was “crucial to creating the matrix for the rise of Nazism.” But while stressing this fact, Katz also parts company with distinguished scholars of the Holocaust who have maintained that the continuities between Christian and Nazi anti-Semitism are more compelling than the differences. Nazism, Katz concedes, inherited from the Church the notion that Jews were fundamentally alien, but the novel element of Nazism lay in its racial explanation for Jewish otherness and in its insistence that this alien people must be eliminated from the earth. If Christian anti-Semitism was by its very nature “self-limiting,” Katz concludes, Nazism represented not the fulfillment of Christian dogma but its “revolutionary overthrow.”

To place the toll of Christian anti-Semitism in perspective, Katz shows that in the massacres of the First Crusade of 1096—which loom so large in Jewish memory as a precursor of the Holocaust—between only 1 and 2 percent of Europe’s Jews perished. As for the Spanish Inquisition, historians have documented the deaths of only 1,865 Jews over two-and-a-half centuries of persecution. The Nazis, in murdering six million Jews, destroyed approximately 65 percent of European Jewry, and almost 40 percent of world Jewry, making the Holocaust unprecedented in the annals of the Jewish past.

The Holocaust’s singularity in world history, however, cannot be assessed in numerical terms. In the 19th century, as Katz reminds us, some twenty million people perished in the Taiping Rebellion of 1857. In our own terrible century, Stalin murdered more people than Hitler, and Mao in all likelihood—if an accurate tally is ever made—will be found to have murdered more prodigiously than his Soviet comrade in arms.

With murder carried out on such a grand scale in Russia and China, in what way can the Holocaust be considered unique? For Katz, it is the “unconstrained, ideologically-driven imperative that every Jew be murdered” which “distinguishes the Shoah from prior and to date subsequent, however inhumane, acts of collective violence, ethnocide, and mass murder.” The Holocaust alone is an example of genocide if that term is employed in the strict sense on which Katz insists: an attempt “to murder in its totality any national, racial, religious, political, social, gender, or economic group.”



As The Holocaust in Historical Context amply demonstrates, Katz is a scholar with inexhaustible energy and overpowering erudition. He has a working knowledge of Hebrew, Yiddish, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin, and is a veritable one-man history and theology department, capable of entering deeply into a daunting range of topics and rethinking the issues at stake. Even with his considerable intellectual assets, however, this book—for reasons both of style and substance—is likely to encounter a thorny reception at best.

Not long ago, the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb lamented the decline of footnotes in academic writing. Though Katz’s book might partly restore her spirits—on page after page, the footnotes below the text struggle for space with the text itself—the line between erudition and pedantry is not always clear, and almost every reader will find that Katz has crossed it more than once. And even readers who find the footnotes useful are likely to be put off by Katz’s prose, which, though often powerful and striking, is sometimes labored and abstruse and occasionally descends into such difficult-to-decipher formulations as:

Anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon, in its polymorphous concreteness, is always embodied in singular forms and unique spatiotemporal loci that directly affect its actualized character. In this sense it is always something azygous, whatever larger history the sum of its specific manifestations comprises.



Matters of style and presentation aside, in some academic quarters Katz’s book will no doubt be derided as “derivative.” Professional historians today share a strong prejudice that the only significant contributions to knowledge are those which amass new facts from hitherto untapped sources. Works based upon synthesis and reconsideration—no matter how wide-ranging or analytically acute—are seldom greeted with applause. Katz brings together facts from an array of topics, each of which is already known by some historian, but most of which will be new to almost every historian, and which in their sum have remained unknown to any previous historian. Because scholars immersed in the reconstruction of a particular phenomenon rarely have the time or the inclination to read broadly and think deeply about events far from their area of expertise, they stand to gain a great deal from Katz’s exploration of comparative instances removed in time and space from the Nazi era.

Outside the historical profession, too, this book is likely to encounter criticism. Those wedded to an ideology of Jewish victim-hood—and who also hope, on that basis, to form coalitions with other groups—will be discomfited by Katz’s claim that the Jews were the victims of a murderous campaign that was in some sense historically unique. Others, particularly those seeking to harness the memory of Jewish suffering to some cause of their own, will undoubtedly dismiss his findings as Jewish special-pleading, or as a denial that other groups have suffered in history as well. Here, Katz, who marshals the forces of scholarly research and rational analysis, is up against a barrier not easily penetrated by either reason or fact.

Whatever criticism this book is likely to encounter, Katz is keenly aware of what is (and is not) at stake in the controversy over the uniqueness of Hitler’s war against the Jews. He adheres to the conviction that Jewish identity should not be bound up with the Holocaust. “There is no ‘ethnocentric glory’ in having one million Jewish children turned into ashes strewn across the Polish landscape, six million Jews in all being reduced to corpses,” he writes. Furthermore, there is no “‘prestige’ in what happened to the Jewish people under the Third Reich, and I do not claim any ‘prestige’ for the uniqueness that I will defend in relation to the Holocaust.” Instead of building a new Jewish identity on a foundation of victimhood, Katz has a simpler and in my opinion a nobler aim in view: it is historical understanding, no less and no more.

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