28 Mars, 2008
Chapoutot Johann

After 1945, survivors, journalists and historians were confronted with the problem of naming the crimes perpetrated by the National-Socialist regime. A new word had to be created to allow the Nuremberg tribunal to prosecute those responsible: the word genocide, which means, etymologically, the killing of a people as a people, was created by the Polish-American jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Following this pattern, the word judeocide is sometimes resorted to. For the survivors, those words were too technical, too erudite to be adequate names. Some even refused to give a name to what symbolized the ultimate destruction, the triumph of nothingness and nihilism, a black hole in the history of humankind. Claude Lanzmann (the director of a high quality documentary on the catastrophe) and its actors and witnesses even said during a press interview : “If I could have not named it, I would have done it. How on earth could one find a name for so unprecedented an event in history? I said ‘the thing’. Rabbis found out the word Shoah, which means annihilation, cataclysm, natural catastrophe. Shoah is a word in Hebrew that I did not understand. It is a short, unbreakable word. An opaque word that nobody will understand. A radical act of nomination”.

The word Shoah, which means catastrophe in Hebrew, was very soon used in Israel, for instance in the Declaration of sovereignty from May 14, 1948. Other words from Hebrew were proposed, such as the Hourban (destruction) used by Elie Wiesel. The word Shoah is now widely accepted in the Hebrew and in the francophone world. In France, it was acclimatized by Claude Lanzmann’s documentary (1985), whereas the TV series Holocaust (1979) has rooted that other concept in the english-speaking world and in Germany. In Paris, there is a Mémorial de la Shoah, in Berlin a Holokaust-Denkmal, in Washington D.C. the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The word Shoah has been criticized for being exclusively Jewish, while other people, the Gypsies, and other categories (the homosexuals) were to be annihilated as well. The word holocaust, from ancient Greek origin, is allegedly more universal and neutral. The problem is that it has a religious signification: an offer to a God that is to be burnt (caustos) entirely (olos). The word thus refers to the cremation of the victims in the extermination camps, but the question was risen to what God those “sacrifices” were actually made. The genocide was not a sacrifice and does not have the meaning of a religious act: it is an absurd and heinous crime, perpetrated for no religious reason. Other words can be used: the expression “final solution” is often referred to. The problem is that it is the direct translation of the technocratic expression used by the Nazis (Endlösung), and that it still implies that there was and is a “Jewish question” (Judenfrage), a question that might be, or was, a problem to solve one way or another. Furthermore, it euphemizes the reality of the crime: “final solution” is one of the numerous expressions the Nazis used to tarn the crime and to make it possible in the minds of the hangmen by euphemizing the reality of the massacre. The most neutral expression was proposed by Raoul Hilberg in his Destruction of the European Jews (1961). The word “destruction” corresponds in Hilberg’s mind to the cold, rational and industrial way imagined by the Nazis to kill the victims: a well organized and precise bureaucracy with death factories or, as Hilberg coldly writes, “killing centers”.

The word Shoah primarily refers to the killing of the European Jews. The Shoah took place in the gigantic death industry created by the Nazis in Poland: a combination of train deportations, camps, gas chambers and crematoria. Shoah, in the eyes of a broad audience, evokes names such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, Wannsee and Eichmann. Still, there is another Shoah that was long forgotten and that is now better known since the fall of Communism and the opening of archives in the East: the so-called Shoah by bullets. When the German army attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, they were followed by four Einsatzgruppen (intervention units in German), made up of numerous Einsatzkommandos with Waffen-SS soldiers, German policemen and voluntary collaborators. Those mobile firing squads had to execute every communist and Jew they would meet at the rear of the Wehrmacht and of the Waffen-SS. In the course of the summer 1941, the Einsatzgruppen were ordered to kill women and children as well. In Ukraine, Crimea and the Baltic countries, those troops killed more than 1.5 million people out of the six million killed in what remains an unprecedented crime in history.


FRIEDLÄNDER, Saul, 2007, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

HILBERG, Raoul, 1961, The Destruction of the European Jews, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

WIEVIORKA, Annette, 1992, Déportation et génocide, entre la mémoire et l’oubli, Paris: Hachette.

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Chapoutot Johann, Shoah, Mass Violence & Résistance, [en ligne], publié le : 28 Mars, 2008, accéder le 20/01/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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