Was the Holocaust the failure of or the product of Modernity? Essay

May 26, 2022 by Essay Writer

The World War II can be fairly called the most terrifying period in the XX century. Among all the horrible events of that period, there was one phenomenon, which is still being argued about by scholars because of its dimension: the Holocaust during which over six million Jews essentially European were put to death by the Nazis in Germany and their allies elsewhere in Europe.

What was it that made Jews the main target for persecution? Is it European civilization with its Christian roots that allowed one religion to dominate and eventually persecute another?

Since European civilization in the XXth century is associated with the age of modernity, let us find out the nature of relations between modernity and the Holocaust. Specifically, this paper aims at investigating whether the Holocaust was a product of modernity or the greatest failure of this era.

First of all, to find the answers for the above mentioned questions, it is important to clarify what the term modernity means. In general, modernity refers to a post-medieval period in history. In a more specific meaning, modernity means considerable changes in all the spheres of human life, including politics, economy, and ethics.

This era is associated with the establishment of civilized living, as opposed to chaotic and unmanageable existence. Its roots go back to early 15th century, and its end coincides with the end of Victorian era in 20th century.

The date that traditionally marks the beginning of modernist era is 1453, when the City of Constantinople was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, as far as this date symbolized the end of the Byzantine Empire, and thus the beginning of a new era in world history.

Besides the fall of The other events include the end of the Hundred Years’ War, establishment of states and colonies, affirmation of religious positions, discoveries of new geographical territories, and development of international cooperation. All these events changed the very conception of living and sense of life.

However, it is important to realize that modernity was not just an era; it was a new philosophy, which introduced a new system of values. The notion that can be considered fundamental for modernity is rationalization, which involves planning the future and putting efforts to make it better. This idea implied not only changes in living standards, but also changes in behavior: a new thinking model was introduced.

This model had a prospective character, which implied focusing on the future rather than on past or present, and was based on calculating the benefit without consideration of moral and ethics. The modern era had “a single-minded commitment to a progress that throws too many individuals and spaces into the trash.” (Hell, Schönle, 2010, p.8).

It is also in this era that important political doctrines were realized such as the constitutional doctrine, which addressed power separation in governmental organizations. Sociologically, modernity is defined as the social conditions, conversation and progressions that resulted from the enlightenment age (Stark 2007, 44).

Another significant change, which was introduced by modernity, was secularization. Religion was not passed from parents to children anymore; it became voluntary and therefore, less powerful.

On the other hand, people felt that the position of religion got weaker, and this, together with the process of intense industrialization, made people feel less certain and unimportant. This uncertainty and emotional instability are referred to as the major characteristics of the modern era (Delanty 2007, 19).

Sociological theories

Having defined the fundamental features of modernity, we will search for the possible reasons of the Holocaust occurrence. With this purpose, sociological theories will be applied. The Holocaust is one of the biggest acts of victimization in history, because an enormous number of innocent people were treated unjustly. Thus, it would be logical to apply several victimization theories.

The first victimization theory that can be used to explain the roots of the Holocaust is the conflict theory. It is based on the idea that a civilized society cannot live in justice, as there is always a dominating group or class of people exploiting and oppressing the other groups or classes.

According to this theory, the disparity between the economic and social conditions of different groups of people can generate and lead to war, which makes conflict theory applicable to the Holocaust.

Another theory that can be applied is Marxist economic theory. According to Marx, victimization is most likely to occur in case some group or class of people proves to be an economic threat to another. It is a well-known fact, that at the end of 19th century, Jews managed to establish social equality and defend their rights in the countries where they lived (Mikhman 1998, p. 459)

In addition, many of them showed “prominence in professions such as medicine, law and finance” (Miller, 2002, p. 4.). This could present Jews as the potential economic threat for Europeans in some respect, automatically making this group of people a target for victimization, according to Marxist economic theory.

This very position of Jews in the world could be a root of genocide according to the passive victim precipitation theory, which states that the victimization occurs when “the victim exhibits some personal characteristic that unknowingly either threatens or encourages the attacker.” (Siegel, 2006, p. 73).

Holocaust and Modernity

As we can see, all the mentioned sociological theories are based on the idea that a crime is organized for a certain reason, and sometimes even with a certain purpose. From this perspective, the Holocaust is rather a product of modernity than its failure.

There are many facts, which prove Holocaust to be rather a product of modernity than its failure. For instance, we can argue that the genocide of Jews could have been caused by the rationalistic spirit of modernity. Because of this spirit, Germans confiscated Jewish businesses and destroyed their property.

Germans then were dominating Jews in a sense that Patterson calls “the doctrine of dominium”, with the word “dominus” meaning a slave master (Patterson, 1982, p. 32).

On the other hand, however, the same act of demolishing businesses run by Jews can point to the fact that the Holocaust was a failure of modernity, taking into consideration its urge towards industrialization and trade. Indeed, the destruction of Jewish property is unjustified due to the fact that modernization is aimed at improving living standards socially and more importantly economically (Brass 1999, 57).

In addition, during the Holocaust many factories were shut down and used as crematoria for Jews (Freig, 1981, p.91). This proved to be a great loss for the industrialization process, which is so important for modernity (Bauman 1989, p. 35). As it can be seen, from this perspective the Holocaust can be treated as a failure of modernity.

The connection between modernity and the Holocaust was discussed by a number of scholars. For instance, Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle in their book “Ruins of Modernity” argue that the Holocaust was definitely a product, not a failure of modernity.

To be more specific, they think that the model of destroying was rooted in the very beginning of the modern era. The authors argue that “Imaginary of ruins was created in early modernity rather than being the modernity’s end product” (Hell, Schönle 2010, p. 64).

Similarly, Presner does not consider the Holocaust to be a failure of modernity, he views it as “the most extreme dialectical expression” of modernity (Presner, 2007, p.15). Indeed, modernity established the new orders and destroyed the traditional ones. From this point of view, destruction is an inseparable part of modernity, and the Holocaust is a proof for this statement.

One more argument that proves that the Holocaust was a product of modernity is the fact that the mass killing of the Jews was due to the systematic and well organized governance structure, a form of civilization. Important to note is the technology used in the factories for cremation process.

The noxious gases used in the laboratories were a product of technology, which is one of modernization’s aspects, in addition to the roads and other cargo used for human transportation.


The history of humanity had a large number of acts of genocide against different nations. However, today we can say with certainty that, compared to the other acts, the Holocaust is unique. The first thing that makes the Holocaust differ from the other genocides is the anti-Semitic policy, which was methodically imposed on Europeans.

Thus, the Nazi soldiers did not simply execute the orders of their government concerning the mass killing of Jews; they actually believed that what they did was right. How the anti-Semitic policy was systematically organized and realized, how it spread rapidly and became influential among the locals and on the international level accords it uniqueness (Miers 2003, p. 86).

Another feature that makes the Holocaust unique is its uncompromising stand. As one scholar said, “the Holocaust is phenomenologically unique by virtue of the fact that never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle and actualized policy, to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific group.” (Katz, 1993, p.28).

One more fact that makes the Holocaust unique is its unpredictability. In the course of history, many conflicts can be predicted or at least assumed to happen. However, in case of the Holocaust, “no specific pronouncements anticipated the extent or the means – still less, the particular source in Germany, – of the Holocaust” (Lang, 1999, p.88).

Therefore, it can be stated that the Holocaust was impossible to predict, unlike the other major genocide acts, which occurred consequently to some conflicts between nations.


The uniqueness of the Holocaust can hardly be argued; however, there are some features, which are similar with other cases of genocide.

One of the examples of genocide from world history is the mass killing of people during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979 the regime is claimed to have killed more than two millions of people. Similarly to Jews, they were buried in mass graves in large numbers. Children, women and old men were killed just as brutally as men, just like Jews during the Holocaust.

In addition, while Jews were persecuted partially because of their religious preferences, the Khmer Rouge regime also introduced a policy, which implied defrocking Buddhist clergy and tracing the followers of this religion. What is more, the regime is similar to the Holocaust in the aspect of using tortures.

Khmer Rouge used to make people starve and forced them to work very hard; this treatment of people is equal to that present in concentration camps for Jews. Therefore, this act of genocide can be referred to as similar to the Holocaust to some extent.

Another case of genocide was performed when the American Indians were chased and slaved by the United States. In this case, the nation, which was a target of persecution, had no military force and was unable to defend itself. These conditions are similar to those which Jews had during the Holocaust. Even though the policy of genocide was never officially adopted by the American government, it still took place.

One more example of genocide, which can be compared to the Holocaust, is the incarceration of Japanese people by order of President Roosevelt in 1942. People were sent to concentration camps in different states of America, their businesses were shut down, and their property was destroyed. Children were treated the same as adults, and nobody was spared. All these actions are similar to those performed during the Holocaust.

As we can see, every act of genocide in the world is inimitable, but some elements can be similar. Comparing the experiences of different times and nations will help to avoid similar problems in the future.


Modernity was an era of changes in every sphere of human life. Its rationalistic spirit and need for constant development has improved human lives to a great extent. However, it was during this era that the most horrible act of genocide took place. In order to find the reason for this, we applied several victimization theories.

As a result, we established, that on one hand, it can be assumed that the Holocaust was a product of modernity because of the propagated rationality, destructive character of the era and technical advances available for mass killing. On the other hand, the philosophy of modernity did not propagate inhuman behavior, and was aimed at improving living standards in all senses.

Thus, the Holocaust can be treated as the greatest failure of history in general and of modernity in specific. Despite some features, which are similar to other acts of genocide, the uniqueness of the Holocaust cannot be argued.

References List

Bauman, Z.,1989, Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brass, T., 1999, Towards a comparative political economy of unfree labor: case studies and debates. Philadelphia: Frank Cass.

Delanty, G., 2007, Modernity, Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Malden Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Feig, K., 1981. Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness. London: Holmes&Meier Pub.

Hell, J, Schonle, A., 2010. Ruins of Modernity. London: Duke University Press Books.

Katz, S., 1993. Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Lang, B., 1999. The future of the Holocaust: between history and memory. NY: Cornell University Press.

Miers, S., 2003, Slavery in the 20th Century: the evolution of a global problem. New Jersey: Rowman & Littlefield

Mikhman, D.,1998, Holocaust: Jews, Belgians, Germans. Magdalen: Bergmann Books.

Miller, F, 2002. Before the War. Open Hearts – Closed Doors. Web.

Patterson, O., 1982, Slavery and social death: a comparative study. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Presner, T., 2007. Mobile Modernity: Germans, Jews, Trains. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Siegel, L., 2006. Criminology. NY: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Stark, R. 2007. Sociology. Wadsworth; Thomas.

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