Critique of two articles on The Holocaust

August 26, 2006 at 8:04 am 12 comments

“Is it proper to commemorate the extermination of Gypsies, Romani, homosexuals and the mentally retarded as part of the Holocaust?”






Milton, S. 1991. “Gypsies and The Holocaust” The History Teacher. vol. 24 no. 4. pp. 375-387.  Via JSTOR:  accessed on 15/8/06 at 12:15pm.


Bauer, Y. & Milton, S. 1992. “Correspondence: Gypsies and The Holocaust” The History Teacher. vol. 25 no. 4. pp. 513-525. Via JSTOR:  accessed on 15/8/06 at 12: 40pm.   







The following two articles provide a classic example of the tension that exists within current historiography of the Holocaust.  Both seek to define the Holocaust upon different criteria, of which ultimately devalues different groups that experienced Nazi persecution. 

Sybil Milton’s, “Gypsies and the Holocaust” details the history of the Gypsies under the Nazi movement.  Milton’s article is a convincing argument for the inclusion of the Gypsies and as a by-product, the handicapped, as victims of the Holocaust.  Milton provides a detailed history of the Nazi treatment of the Gypsies, from their placement in Zigeunerlager (special interment camps for Gypsies) prior to 1939, to their biological registration, relocation, incarceration in concentration camps and eventual massacre.


 Milton’s article lists reasons for the concentration on Judeocide within the Holocaust literature, and reformulates the categorisation of the ‘Holocaust’.  For Milton, the prime consideration on the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany in current historiography is related to a number of factors.  Two of these are the larger number of primary government documents relating to Jewish treatment, and the greater production of Jewish memoir literature.  Milton also considers the political motivation of the German people in concentrating solely on Judeocide: “if one considers the fate of the Gypsies and the handicapped, rather than just the Jews, one must begin to consider pre-1939 occurrences carried out by “ordinary” German bureaucrats, scientists and policemen.”[1] 


Milton challenges the dominant conception of the ‘Holocaust’ on the basis that it, “posits a qualitative difference between the murder of the Jews and that of the Gypsies and the handicapped without providing any convincing documentary evidence.”[2]  For Milton, the Holocaust constitutes the mass murder of the Jews, the Gypsies and the handicapped in the process of the Nazi conquest to create a biologically homogenous race.  Milton’s reformulation is significant on two points.  This definition of the Holocaust validates and recognises the experiences of the Gypsies and the handicapped under the Nazi regime.  Furthermore, it also places the Holocaust within the context of the Nazi’s attempt to create a pure “Aryan” race; this produces a level of comprehensibility in what is largely considered an incomprehensible subject.


Yehuda Bauer represents a prominent advocate of the ‘unique’ definition of the Holocaust: the Holocaust for Bauer is solely the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis.  In, “Correspondence: Gypsies and The Holocaust” Bauer provides a critique of the above article by Milton.  Initially, Bauer notes that there is insufficient scholarship on the relation between the treatment of the Jews and the Gypsies by the Nazi’s, and that, “one must reserve judgement,” on the matter.[3]  However, it is clear that Bauer has failed to meet his own recommendations.  While Bauer states that the treatment of the Gypsies by the Nazi’s is both, “poignant,” and “horrible,” he is adamant that they and the handicapped are not to be considered victims of the Holocaust.  Bauer’s primary basis for this judgement is that, in contrast to the Jews, not all Gypsies were targeted for extermination.  Rather, contends Bauer, the Gypsies were a mere, “irritant” to the Nazi’s: they were, “no ideological problem or threat.”[4]  Bauer seemingly ignores much of the primary evidence that Milton provides in her aforementioned article, and states that, “the majority [of Gypsies] were left alone.”[5]  This statement perhaps relies on the smaller total number of deaths of the Gypsies, however, fails to consider, as Milton points out, that a similar percentage of the Gypsy and Jewish population were killed under the Nazi regime.[6]  Bauer’s article’s weaknesses reflect the strengths of Milton’s article: his contention that the Holocaust is a solely Jewish phenomenon devalues the experience of the Gypsy and handicapped populations.  Furthermore, such a definition of the Holocaust prevents an understanding of this event in its context of wider Nazi racial policy.  In essence, Bauer is attempting to maintain the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust. 


Milton’s defence of her previous article in “Correspondence: Gypsies and The Holocaust” is largely similar.  However, for the purpose of my essay, a statement of Milton’s is significant.  Milton states that the murder of the Gypsies and the handicapped should be considered to be a part of the Holocaust as they were targeted by the Nazi’s on the basis of race.[7]  For Milton, this differentiates the Jews, Gypsies and handicapped from other victims of the Nazi’s including, “political opponents, members of the resistance and elites of conquered nations,” and more significantly, from, “Poles, Czechs and Serbs.”[8]  In her efforts to give validation and recognition to the experiences of Gypsies and the handicapped, Milton, as with Bauer, denigrates the experiences of other victims of the Nazi’s.  In her defence, Milton makes such a definition on available documentary evidence.  As she notes, 93.5% of the Gypsies incarcerated in Auschwitz died: “this figure hardly applies to Poles, Czechs or Serbs.”[9]  (Notably, Milton does not mention the other group under study in this essay, homosexuals.) 


However, Milton has fallen into the ethical trap of Holocaust studies: any definition that excludes necessarily devalues certain groups by exclusion; however, all-encompassing inclusion is also in danger of devaluing groups which were persecuted with more intensity than others. Indeed, the study of the Holocaust is a deeply ethical subject.  As Herman Von Ver Dunk has noted, Holocaust studies have a commemorative role: “it serves to strengthen the bonds of solidarity among victims and their descendants.”[10]  Indeed, it can be said that the term, “Holocaust”, can become central to the identity to the various groups who were victims of Nazi persecution.  Thus, in conclusion, I have made it clear that I consider both Bauer’s and Milton’s definition of the Holocaust to be problematic; however, it would seem that any definition of the Holocaust will be problematic.

[1] Milton, S. 1991. “Gypsies and The Holocaust” The History Teacher. vol. 24 no. 4. pp. 375-387. p. 378

[2] Milton. “Gypsies” p. 375

[3] Bauer, Y. & Milton, S. 1992. “Correspondence: Gypsies and The Holocaust” The History Teacher. vol. 25 no. 4. pp. 513-525. p. 513

[4] Bauer. “Correspondence” p. 513-514

[5] Bauer. “Correspondence” p. 515

[6] Milton. “Gypsies” p. 377

[7] Milton. “Correspondence” p. 516

[8] Milton. “Correspondence” pp. 516-518. 

[9] Milton. “Correspondence” p. 518

[10] Dunk, H.  2002. “The Holocaust: Remembrance and Education” European Review. vol. 10 no. 1. pp. 53-61. pp. 61-62


Entry filed under: Gypsies - The Holocaust, Handicapped - The Holocaust, Romani - The Holocaust, The Holocaust, Uncategorized.

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