There Is No Mystery

By Beichman, Arnold | The National Interest, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

There Is No Mystery


Beichman, Arnold, The National Interest


"The profound, agonizing mystery of the Holocaust echoes through the generations . . ." So begins a recent New York Times review by Lawrence Van Gelder of an off-Broadway play, "The Gathering." Elie Wiesel says the Holocaust "can never be comprehended or transmitted." A Lexis-Nexis search, I'm sure, would find hundreds of couplings of "Holocaust" and "mystery." Often, a writer on the Holocaust will begin with "We will never understand . . ."

So what is this "mystery" of the Holocaust? We have no difficulty understanding the genocides traceable to Lenin or to Stalin; Adolf Hitler adapted with equally diabolical success their doctrinal contempt for the individual in the name of Utopia. The Stalin-ordered genocide of the Soviet peoples, anywhere from twenty to sixty million, is no mystery. Mao Tse-tung's slaughter of - who knows? - fifty million Chinese is no more of a mystery than is communist China's genocide in Tibet. There is no mystery about the killing fields of Southeast Asia where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge murdered one-sixth of what had been a population of seven million. There is no mystery about Turkey's genocide of Armenians in the early part of the twentieth century. Of the fifteen million Afghans alive in 1978, more than a million are dead, thanks to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan two decades ago. There is certainly no mystery of Milosevic's killing of Kosovars, final figures not in yet. Why, supposedly, will we "never understand" Hitler's Holocaust?

I think it is time to stop defining the Holocaust as a "mystery." To call it such is to play into the hands of Holocaust-deniers and racists, and of the Nazis themselves, giving them an exculpatory dignity they do not deserve, as if they were tools, even victims, of some implacable destiny about which they could do nothing. How can we logically condemn what seemingly we cannot "comprehend"? Was the Shoah a natural disaster?

In reality, the Holocaust is not a "mystery", not even a pseudo-mystery as anybody who has watched Claude Lanzmann's nearly ten-hour documentary, "Shoah", knows. It is not a mystery as I learned when, as a ship news reporter in 1946, I used to go down to New York harbor to meet incoming ocean liners and one-time troop transports crammed with DPs (Displaced Persons was the euphemism in those days) who had survived Hitler's concentration camp universe. To the still beautiful Polish-Jewish woman I interviewed, who had been allowed to survive Auschwitz while her four young daughters had not, the Holocaust was no mystery at all.

The Holocaust was not the result of Adolf Hitler's random behavior. Mein Kampf offered a clue to Hitler's intentions - that he planned to exterminate the European Jews. The real mystery is why Hitler and his retinue were not taken seriously. As the historian Milton Himmelfarb has put it: No Hitler, no Holocaust. I think one could argue: No Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot, no genocide. These dictators used Marxism-Leninism as justification for mass slaughter of the "bourgeoisie" and "landlords", but in the end it was Stalin's personality that determined the Great Terrors. The real mystery here is why, at the height of the Great Terrors, Stalin, Mao and company had so many admirers among Western intellectuals. …

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