OpinionIran in the World PressThe six-million person question

The six-million person question

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Wall Street Journal: “As to the Holocaust, I just raised a few questions. And I didn’t receive any answers to my questions.”

— Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, interviewed in Time magazine in September 2006.

The Wall Street Journal

Commentary

By MARK BOWDEN
October 4, 2006; Page A14

“As to the Holocaust, I just raised a few questions. And I didn’t receive any answers to my questions.”

— Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, interviewed in Time magazine in September 2006.

When Mr. Ahmadinejad visited the U.S. last month, he backed off slightly from his earlier position that the Holocaust was a myth. The systematic extermination of six million Jews by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, an atrocious historical fact that is as thoroughly documented as a fact can be, remains a living memory for thousands of survivors. My guess is that someone in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s circle has pointed this out to him since he publicly doubted it last December.

The president of Iran is a man for whom facts are mere fodder for political purposes, but there is little political advantage in making a fool of yourself on a world stage. So he has now retreated to the last refuge of all intellectual scoundrels, calling for “more research.” And he has adopted a slightly different critical tack, which he repeated in numerous forums during his recent trip to New York. In Time it went like this: “I said that during World War II, around 60 million were killed. All were human beings and had their own dignities. Why only six million?”

Here, if I understand it correctly, he is asking: Why, in a war where 60 million were killed, has the West made such a big deal out of the deaths of six million Jews? Were the other deaths not equally terrible? Was the world not equally impoverished by each of these losses?

This seems a fair question, and I can think of a good answer. I’m sure others can think of even better ones than mine. But since Mr. Ahmadinejad has complained about not receiving any, for what it’s worth, I’m happy to offer this one:

It is a tricky business, rating the moral depredations of the human species, because just when you have settled on the worst, somebody somewhere achieves a new low. In the 20th century alone, communism and its variants in the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia have been responsible for the slow and rapid execution of millions. Millions more perished in the saturation bombing campaigns and the atom bomb blasts of World War II. Conflict and murderously misguided idealism were big players in the atrocity game, and accounted for the deaths of many times more innocents than Adolf Hitler and his Final Solution.

The Holocaust haunts us more than these others for a good reason. The Final Solution was the deliberate act of a government to exterminate a portion of its own people. It employed the resources of the state — its policy makers, planners, intellectuals, legal system, police and military, industry, transportation system and to a large extent its people — to single out a particular group of citizens, systematically demonize and isolate them, and then count them, label them, strip them of everything, round them up, ship them to concentration camps, kill them and incinerate them. It attempted to squeeze some last value out of the most fit among those doomed, by employing them as slave labor or subjecting them to medical experimentation before killing them, and even then looked for ways to make saleable products out of their remains.

This horror began in peacetime, so the nation was not lashing out in self-defense, nor was it being threatened in any concrete way. In the early 1930s, when the state-driven process of isolating and demonizing Jews began, Germany had rebuilt itself after its defeat in World War I, and was the most powerful nation on the European continent. Indeed, it would soon sweep across its borders and conquer every country within its reach. Its science, medical and technological prowess were the envy of the world.

The Holocaust disturbs us so deeply because it demonstrates that none of the things we associate with the advancement of civilization — peace, prosperity, industrialization, education, technological achievement — free us from the dark side of the human soul. Just as there is evil in the heart of every man, there is evil at the heart of even the most “civilized” human society. It is a humbling recognition. Man and society are both capable of the most appallingly depraved behavior. Only in the case of society, it occurs on an industrial scale.

The lives lost in the firebombing of Dresden or the nuclear flash over Hiroshima are no less significant, and the military choices that brought about those deaths remain profoundly disturbing, but they at least took place in the context of war. Whole societies were caught up in a life-or-death struggle.

What the Holocaust demonstrates is the danger of a one-party state. It shows what can happen when a group of true believers, convinced of the superiority of their own ideas, have unchecked power. They are then free to rewrite history to suit their political ends, and crush those who disagree or protest . . . or who worship God in a different way.

Like, say, the mullahs in Iran.

Mr. Bowden, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is the author of “Guests of the Ayatollah” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).

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