3 November, 2007
Chapoutot Johann

There have been many debates on what term should be used to recall a nameless crime, that is the assassination by the Nazis of six million Jews in extermination camps and killing fields in Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945.

The Nazis themselves resorted to a euphemistic expression, the «Final Solution of the Jewish Question» (Endlösung der Judenfrage in German) to tarn their crime. The lawyers of the Allied powers preferred the term «genocide» (génocide in French, Völkermord in German), coined by the Polish-American lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. The problem was that in the years following the Second World War, the term «genocide» was used to qualify other mass crimes, thereby depriving the destruction of the European Jews of its due specificity.

The term «holocaust» was also resorted to, probably because it had already been in use during the Middle Ages as a synonym for pogrom, but more probably because the word was widely in use during the interwar period to refer to the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. «Holocaust» refers to a huge massacre or destruction through fire, like the massive sacrifice of animals to the Gods in Ancient Greece and Rome. After the animal had been killed, it was completely and totally (olos) burnt (caustos ) to feed the Gods with the smoke of the burnt flesh.

While the idea of total destruction with the means of fire seemed relevant in the use of the word holocaust, the inexistence of any deity the Nazis could have worshipped while killing Jews and the fact that the killing of six million people was not a ritual, made the term appear improper. Today, it is still widely used in the English-speaking world, popularized as it was by the 1978 American TV-series Holocaust , and in Germany as the debate around the Holocaust-Denkmal in Berlin in 1998 shows it. In Israel, the Hebrew word Shoah , which means catastrophe, seems to be the only concept in use since the national day of remembrance (Yom Ha-Shoah) was established in 1951. But the word Holocaust is also used when it comes to translating in English documents linked to the Shoah, like at the Yad Vashem Memorial. Holocaust is definitely the primary English referent to the Nazi slaughter of the European Jews.

In fact, the word Holocaust pointed at a major characteristic of the mass assassination of the Jews by the Nazis: the fact that the targeted population should be totally destroyed, erased from the surface of the earth and even from human culture and memory. Early Nazi projects planned to turn the Jewish neighborhood of Prague (today Czech Republic) into a permanent museum of Jewish culture, of what the Jewish reality had once been. This is the only thing that was to remain of the European Jews after the Holocaust had been completed.

However, as far as the individuals were concerned, they had to be killed and burnt. Cremation was not chosen only for practical reasons, just because it helped to better get rid of the bodies than mass burials. Cremation meant the annihilation of beings that were reduced to mere smoke and ashes. Graves materialized the existence of former beings and were therefore excluded as such. Furthermore, in the strongly «biologized» discourse of the Nazis, Jews were considered as a virulent threat, as a germ of contamination. As politics (interior as well as exterior) were confused with biology and otherness was reduced to a disease, the Nazis never considered that others should be treated the conventional way. International conventions, common law or human customs were relevant only as far as human beings were concerned. Jews were not human and therefore had to be deprived of any human treatment even after their death. Hence the dissemination and the objectification of human ashes, that were sometimes sold as fertilizer.

This major aspect of the criminal Nazi endeavor is stressed over by the word «holocaust». In 1943, Heinrich Himmler said in a famous speech at Posen, Poland, that the «final solution» was «a glorious chapter of our history, a chapter that was not written and that would never be». Not only the victims but also the very memory of the crime had to disappear. In that sense, the will of Nazis is plainly fulfilled by the so-called «negationists», who in various parts of the world deny the very existence of the crime.

Still, the word «holocaust» must not overshadow the fact that the mass assassination of six million people was decided after other projects had been elaborated and abandoned. As explained in other articles of the OEMV (see: Shoah), the final decision was made as late as 1941, when the plan for a huge deportation to Madagascar was abandoned, and when the quick victories of the German armies in the East put millions of East European Jews under the jurisdiction of the German Reich.


BARTOV, Omer, 1998, «Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and reinterpretations of National Socialism?», in BERENBAUM, Michael, PECK, Abraham J. (dir.), The Holocaust and History. The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamined , Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

BAUER, Yehuda, 2002, Rethinking the Holocaust , New Haven: Yale University Press. BRAYARD, Florent, 2004, La « solution finale de la question juive ». La technique, le temps et les catégories de la décision , : Fayard, 650 p.

NIEWYK, Donald, 2000, The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust , New York: Columbia University Press.

FRIEDLÄNDER, Saul, 1997, Nazi Germany and the Jews? The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, New York: Harper Collins.

FRIEDLÄNDER, Saul, 2008, Nazi Germany and the Jews? The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945 , New York: Harper Collins.





Cite this item

Chapoutot Johann, Holocaust, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 3 November, 2007, accessed 27/04/2020, http://bo-k2s.sciences-po.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/holocaust, ISSN 1961-9898
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