Daily Archives: 2008-01-04 07:24:40 UTC

Richard Bauckham’s “holy” awe of Auschwitz revisited (Niall Ferguson’s War of the World)

Having just completed Niall Ferguson’s “The War of the World“.

Nial Ferguson’s explores the ethnic conflicts that he argues have been spawned by economic instability and imperial disintegration, beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 right through World Wars 1 and 2 and their aftermaths up to the closing years of the twentieth century. It is depressing reading. I was reminded of reports not long ago that Iris Chang committed suicide partly as a result of the personal depression she suffered as a result of her meticulous research into the Nanking Massacre.

Also could not help but be reminded as I read of Richard Bauckham’s obscene use of the Holocaust to argue for a unique historical place for both the place of the Jews in human history and the miracles of Jesus.

Has there been outrage among academic circles over Bauckham’s claim that Auschwitz was such a “uniquely unique” horror that to acknowledge it as such is to logically admit the possibility of its polar opposite, a “uniquely unique” wonder of the miracles of Jesus?

Bauckham’s claim is testimony to the power of religious faith to suppress and distort normal human perception, comprehension, compassion and one’s sense of common human identity with both perpetrators and victims. That sort of suppression and distortion of our makeup is what makes killing and abuse without qualm possible in the first place.

Of the Holocaust and Auschwitz, Ferguson writes:

Himmler himself did not much relish the sight of the one mass execution he witnessed, at Minsk in August 1941. . . . . [Eichmann was asked about the possibility of using a “quick acting agent” as a “most humane solution to dispose of the Jews”] . . . .

It is its efficiency that makes Auschwitz so uniquely hateful . . . .

Though it was the most efficient, Auschwitz was not necessarily the cruellest of the Nazi death camps . . . . [at Auschwitz the gas used killed most victims in 5 to 10 minutes, compared with the use of diesel fumes elsewhere that required half an hour to kill] . . . .

Gassing victims was pioneered by the Nazis in their disposal of the mentally ill. It was only later applied to the Jews. But the point is that Ferguson documents enough other cases of horrendous mass killings by “less efficient” and more primitive means. Many were committed on horrendous scale in the Ukraine, largely against Poles there. . . . cats sewn into the abdomens of eviscerated pregnant women, “mixed Polish-Ukrainian” victims being sawn in half, fathers feeling compelled to murder their own sons in order to prevent them from murdering their own mothers under life-threatening pressure, infants being smashed or burned before the eyes of their mothers before they were raped and dismembered, both before the eyes of the fathers and husbands before they were brutally murdered.

Niall Ferguson’s book is long enough to be inevitably faulted at points and debated at several levels, but one humane service it does accomplish is to place twentieth century violence within the broader context of our collective humanity. The Holocaust was but one of a host of genocides and ethnic cleansings perpetrated in the twentieth century, and it was by no means “more” horrifying than many many others. To speak of it as “uniquely unique” is, at best, to speak in ignorance of history.


Some online reviews of The War of the World:

Guardian Unlimited (Tristram Hunt)

California Literary Review (David Loftus)

Washington Post (James F. Hoge Jr)