The brilliant commentator Leonard Pitts Jr. recently described the Nazi crimes as “singular, unprecedented in their sheer awfulness” (column, 4-26). I don’t agree: Hitler’s crimes were inconceivably vicious, but they weren’t unprecedented.
The racist hate that enabled the mass slaughter of 6 million Jewish Europeans and another 6 million to 10 million Slavs, homosexuals, disabled people, Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses had been practiced as a matter of routine by European colonists around the globe for centuries.
If we consider the Holocaust in the context of tens of millions of innocent indigenous bodies deliberately strewn across the Americas (or the mass casualties racked up in the colonies enveloping Africa and Asia), its barbarity appears typical, not abnormal. The violence of the Holocaust remains shocking and “singular” in the Western mind because the cold-blooded killing characterized by Hitler was for the first time inflicted upon the wrong type of victim: light-skinned Europeans.
The claim that Hitler’s crimes were unprecedented is a social piety that blinds us to the sordid realities of past and present. It distracts us from the lesser-known crimes against humanity, like the Circassian genocide in Russia, the Holodomer in Ukraine, and the genocides of Cambodia and East Timor.
Narrowing our attention to a single genocide cheapens the word itself and the magnitude of suffering it highlights. Figuratively, it creates a genocide Olympics and, literally, perverts history. We have the capacity to honor all the victims of such unthinkable cruelty and suffering, the likes of which we must stop claiming the world hadn’t seen until World War II.