A few days ago I noted that NOVA was going to run a special on Holocaust denial. The special turned out to be very good. It recreated part of the libel trial in Great Britain that Holocaust denier David Irving brought against author/scholar Deborah Lipstadt.
Lipstadt refuses to debate Holocaust deniers saying that their position is so illegitimate that it does more damage than good to take them on. Thankfully, overall the NOVA piece did an effective job of simply slamming the inanities of the denial position by showing just how intellectually bankrupt it is. I think this is important, because I think people like Lipstadt don’t realize just how deeply the denial-like mentality has spread. I remember several history classes in college in which the instructor maintained that there simply was no way to evaluate historical statements for their truth value — “The Holocaust happened” had no more or less truth value than “The Cubs won the 2000 World Series.” To say either of these statements is true or false, my professors said, is meaningless.
Don Larson had a different tack wondering why there is so much attention paid to the Holocaust despite the fact that there are other 20th century states that murdered as many or more people. The Soviet Union and China, for example, killed far more people than died in the Holocaust. Why the special attention to that particular act of genocide?
First, of course, we simply know more about the Holocaust than any other state-sponsored mass murder in this century. Even though the Soviet Union no longer exists, former Communists in Russia have managed to keep a lid on the more sensitive Soviet-era records. For China the case is even worse with speculation often having to take the place of documentary evidence. We know that upwards of 30 million people died as a direct result of actions taken by the Chinese Communists during Mao’s reign, but we still only know the broad outlines.
On the other hand, thanks to the Allied victory in World War II the documentary evidence for the Holocaust is overwhelming.
There is an ideological reason, and that is the claim that the Holocaust was a unique event unlike anything that happened at any other time in world history. In one sense, of course, the Holocaust was unique. Although somewhat derivative of socialist ideology, fascism was a unique ideological force in the world and combining that with a vitriolic anti-Semitism that could lead to plans to entirely wipe out an ethnic group on the scale that the Nazis attempted to do has very few precedents or antecedents (though I would argue they are there, from the Turkish slaughter of Armenians early in the century to the racial violence in Rwanda near the end of the century).
Neither China nor the Soviet Union’s massacres ever had the sort of pure ethnic motivations that the Holocaust had (yes Stalin wiped out millions of Ukrainians, but largely for political reasons — Stalin was never motivated by the sort of racial hatred that Hitler was).
Even so, I wonder how useful these distinctions are in the broad picture. Sociologist RJ Rummel has done intensive research into this area documenting what he terms democide — murder committed by the state. In his book Death By Government, Rummel estimates that in the 20th century states murdered about 170 million people at a minimum (the figure could be as high as 300+ million).
Rather than hold important the individual causes behind murders committed by fascist Germany or imperial Japan or even the democratic United States (although Rummel does explore such motivations), Rummel’s analysis suggests that it is political power itself which is dangerous. He summarizes his findings by revising Lord Acton’s famous maxim; according to Rummel, Power kills, and absolute Power kills absolutely. As Rummel puts it, the underlying motivations that states give for genocide and state-sponsored murder are certainly important to understand, but “power is a necessary cause for war or democide.” (And of course, to the victims of state terror, the motivation is less important than action — the Czechoslovakian prisoners of war massacred by the Soviet Union are no less dead than their counterparts murdered by Nazi Germany or those hacked to death in Rwanda simply because the ideological underpinnings of the murders in each case differed).
Although the 20th century saw a mind boggling array of improvements in standard of living, when it comes to state-sponsored murder, the trend was actually regressive. Gerald W. Scully has estimated the percentage of people murdered by states for several centuries and the results look like this,
murdered by states
Rummel’s numbers are even worse because he put the percentage of people killed by states in the 20th century at 9%, but his figures end with 1991, and there were significant state-sponsored murders after this period that aren’t included such as the massive racially motivated 1994 killings in Rwanda.
Although the Holocaust was certainly a unique historical event that (hopefully) will remain unprecedented, the sad fact is that state-sponsored murder on a massive scale was rather commonplace and unexceptional in the 20th century.