Holocaust uniqueness debate

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The assertion that the Holocaust was a unique event was important to the historiography of the Holocaust, but has come under increasing challenge in the twenty-first century.[1] Related claims include that the Holocaust is external to history, beyond human understanding,[2] a civilizational rupture (German: Zivilisationsbruch), and something that should not be compared to other historical events.[3][4] Uniqueness approaches to the Holocaust also coincide with the view that antisemitism is not another form of racism and prejudice but is eternal and teleologically culminates in the Holocaust, a frame that is preferred by Zionist narratives.[5][6][7]


The Jerusalem school of Jewish history originated in the 1920s and sought to tell Jewish history from a national, as opposed to religious or philosophical, perspective. It developed the notion that Jewish history itself was unique, a progenitor to the idea of the uniqueness of the Holocaust.[8] The uniqueness of the Holocaust was advanced while it was ongoing by the World Jewish Congress (WJC), but rejected by governments of countries in German-occupied Europe.[9] In the early decades of Holocaust studies, scholars approached the Holocaust as a genocide unique in its reach and specificity.[10] Holocaust uniqueness became a subject for scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, in response to efforts to historicize the Holocaust via such concepts as totalitarianism, fascism, functionalism, modernity, and genocide.[11]

In West Germany, the Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute") erupted in the late 1980s over attempts to challenge the position of the Holocaust in West German historiography and compare Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union. Critics saw this challenge as an attempt to relativize the Holocaust.[12] In the 1980s and 1990s, a set of scholars, including Emil Fackenheim, Lucy Dawidowicz, Saul Friedländer, Yehuda Bauer, Steven Katz, Deborah Lipstadt, and Daniel Goldhagen—mostly from the field of Jewish studies—authored various studies to prove the Holocaust's uniqueness.[13] They were challenged by another set of scholars from a wide diversity of viewpoints that rejected the uniqueness of the Holocaust and compared it to other events, which was then met with an angry backlash from uniqueness supporters.[14] Around the turn of the twenty-first century, polemical approaches for the debate were exchanged for analytical ones relating to claims of uniqueness in Holocaust memory.[15]

In the twenty-first century, several scholars including Alon Confino and Doris Bergen have described uniqueness claims regarding the Holocaust as outdated or no longer relevant to academic debate.[16] In 2021, A. Dirk Moses initiated the catechism debate, challenging the uniqueness of the Holocaust in German Holocaust memory. The same year, in his book The Problems of Genocide, Moses argued that the development of the concept of genocide based on the Holocaust led to disregard of other forms of mass civilian death that could not be analogized to the Holocaust.[4][17]


Proponents of uniqueness argue that the Holocaust indeed unique features and dimensions, that are not shared with other historical events. [18] In particular, supporters of uniqueness argue that the Holocaust was the "only genocide in which the murderers’ goal was total extermination of the victim, with no rational or pragmatic reason".[19] However, the accuracy of this statement has been disputed.[19] The counterargument is that every historical event has unique features.[8] Therefore, historian Dan Stone argues that uniqueness proponents are in fact making ideological rather than historical claims.[20][21]

Critics of the uniqueness concept have argued that it is Eurocentric.[22][23] Some Holocaust scholars supporting the uniqueness concept deny other genocides such as the Romani genocide or Armenian genocide.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blatman 2015, p. 21.
  2. ^ Rosenbaum 2009, p. 1.
  3. ^ Bomholt Nielsen 2021.
  4. ^ a b Stone, Dan (4 January 2022). "Paranoia and the Perils of Misreading". Fair Observer. Retrieved 22 March 2022.
  5. ^ MacDonald 2007, p. 5.
  6. ^ Morgan 2017.
  7. ^ Judaken 2018, pp. 1125, 1130, 1135.
  8. ^ a b Blatman 2015, p. 22.
  9. ^ Moses 2021, pp. 195, 206.
  10. ^ Stone 2010, p. 206.
  11. ^ Rosenfeld 2015, pp. 80–81.
  12. ^ Stone 2010, p. 207.
  13. ^ Rosenfeld 2015, p. 81.
  14. ^ Rosenfeld 2015, pp. 85–86.
  15. ^ Rosenfeld 2015, pp. 86–87.
  16. ^ Rosenfeld 2015, pp. 78–79.
  17. ^ Moses 2021, p. 236.
  18. ^ <Dan Michman, "The Jewish Dimension of the Holocaust in Dire Straits? Current Challenges of Interpretation and Scope", in: Norman Goda (ed.), Jewish Histories of the Holocaust. New Transnational Approaches (New York: Berghahn, 2014), pp. 17-38 - https://www.academia.edu/28025506/_The_Jewish_Dimension_of_the_Holocaust_in_Dire_Straits_Current_Challenges_of_Interpretation_and_Scope_in_Norman_Goda_ed_Jewish_Histories_of_the_Holocaust_New_Transnational_Approaches_New_York_Beghahn_2014_pp_17_38; idem, Holocaust Historiography between 1990 to 2021 in Context(s): New Insights, Perceptions, Understandings and Avenues – An Overview and Analysis, Search and Research Series 34 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2022)- https://www.academia.edu/77809179/Holocaust_Historiography_Between_1990_to_2021_in_Context_s_New_Insights_Perceptions_Understandings_and_Avenues_An_Overview_and_Analysis >
  19. ^ a b Blatman 2015, p. 24.
  20. ^ Stone 2004, p. 129.
  21. ^ Blatman 2015, p. 25.
  22. ^ Kellenbach, Katharina von. "Beyond competitive memory: The preeminence of the Holocaust in religious studies". The Routledge Handbook of Religion, Mass Atrocity, and Genocide.
  23. ^ a b Lim, Jie-Hyun (2022). "The Second World War in Global Memory Space". Global Easts: Remembering, Imagining, Mobilizing. Columbia University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-231-55664-4.