Once again, writing here is the last thing I should be doing at the moment, but with Kristallnacht commemorated so evocatively the other night by a priest, a cantor, a pianist and singer, two dancers, the mournful sob of a shofar, the lighting of candles, the breaking of glass, I find myself thinking again about the mass murders of the early 1940s, the slaughter of both sides of my family in those years, equally atrocious mass murder during World War I (the war to end all wars), the Khymer Rouge Killing Fields, so-called Ethnic Cleansing mass killings and the ongoing large scale slaughters in Africa, the Middle East and wherever else they break out, plus the killing of innocents in wars, declared and covert, that is going on as I type these words. This roll call of organized mass murder, genocide, if you prefer, puts me in mind of the painfully counter-productive, idiotic debate about which mass killing was worse than which other one. It is not hard to figure out that every one of them is the worst.
“The Holocaust was a novum,” said a professor of mine once, introducing a theory that was not his own. He was a German Jew who had left the Fatherland as a young boy, escaping with his family right before the heavy fist came crashing down on the Jews of Europe. A novum, he explained, was something never seen in the world before but explainable by science — and he ticked off the features that according to this theory made the Nazi killings a novum— the systematic, mechanized organization of it (never seen before), the singling out of Jews and others (but primarily Jews– unless you were one of the others, of course), the unprecedented hideous efficiency of the bureaucratized killing machine, the incredible numbers rounded up, deported and killed in such a short period of time.
I recall the professor seeming a little perplexed that some Blacks were angry about the term “The Holocaust” and the feeling, among certain Blacks, that the Jews were trying to corner the market on suffering when the Middle Passage, which went on for centuries, was as brutal, and killed as many, as Auschwitz and the rest of the novum of the capital H holocaust.
“But,” say those who argue that the Holocaust was the worst and most horrible example of man’s inhumanity to man, not an unreasonable claim, although the quibble misses the larger point, “6,000,000 Jews systematically murdered in four years, plus a couple of million others, is worse than perhaps 4,000,000 Africans killed over the course of hundreds of years, I’m sorry to say.”
“4,000,000? Are you serious? The number is more like 20,000,000, Mr. Novum.”
The number of Africans killed during the slave trade will never be known with any precision, the slave operation was conducted by several countries over hundreds of years and there was nobody keeping count, or interested in anything but maximizing the profit to be derived by increasing the number of live slaves that arrived fit for sale. The lives of those millions of enslaved people who managed to survive? Not much better, in many cases, than the life of a slave laborer from Auschwitz, though the American slave master had an economic, and sometimes Christian, incentive to keep his slave alive whereas the slave laborers from Auschwitz were in most cases disposable.
“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million men is a statistic,” noted mass murdered Joseph Stalin is said to have opined.
It should be remembered that Hitler laughed off concerns that a mass killing program would be a public relations nightmare for his administration. “After all, gentleman,” the famous psychopath is reported to have said, “who today remembers the slaughter of the Armenians?”
He made the comment only about twenty years after the last of the brutal killings of Armenians herded into the desert, toward what is now the Syrian border, and in Turkish villages and towns, drowned in rivers, marched to death, burnt, whipped to death, shot, starved. By 1940 few indeed remembered it.
This organized murder of more than a million people happened during the catastrophic World War, which was followed by revolution, the wildly roaring twenties, the stock market crash, worldwide economic depression and the violent, fevered lead up to the next World War. The world was busy, busy!!!!
The world is still busy, busy!!! We cannot stop to consider all the terrors we and this poor world are hurtling headlong into. If we reach any conclusion at all about it we shudder to think of the continual murderous horrors, some done in our name, that we are powerless to stop. The murderer may be sometimes be a patriotic American, pursuing a complicated policy designed and advertised as protecting our freedom, but the outcome for the murdered child and the grieving grandparents is the same as it has ever been.