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June/July 2002
Special Section: Animals and the Holocaust

Reviews of Eternal Treblinka
Book Review by Beth Gould


Humans are protective of their tragedies. They guard access to who has the right to discuss and disseminate personal experiences and pain, and resist comparisons to the experiences of others. Eternal Treblinka seeks to compare one of the most painful times in modern history, the Holocaust, with an ongoing moral travesty—animal slaughter for human consumption. Charles Patterson’s book seeks to move the animal advocacy movement onto a different moral plane alongside the widely accepted horror of human genocide. This is an intellectual endeavor that is both earnest and heartfelt, but one that risks alienating its audience as it tries to convince them about the cruelty of the animal slaughter industry.

The danger of alienation rests in the question of whether great sadnesses should be held up to each other, and used as an intellectual comparison. It’s true that by holding them up to each other we can often learn more about their causes. But it is also possible that by comparison, the individual and very different elements become obscured. The debate becomes centered on ‘how’ rather than ‘why.’ Problems often don’t get solved when the result is addressed, rather than the reason. The Holocaust started with anti-Semitism and German racial nationalism. Animal slaughter begins with the desire to use animals for human consumption, with no regard for their right to exist as autonomous beings. Does comparison to the Holocaust increase consciousness about animal suffering? Perhaps. Will it convince people to change their habits regarding the subjugation of animals? Probably not. It is a much larger hurdle to convince people that animals are their equals, than it is to convince them that animals don’t deserve a brutal, tortuous and unnecessary death.

For those involved in the animal rights movement, the silence from those we are trying to reach is deafening. Those who either don’t believe in the truth about slaughterhouses and unnecessary animal suffering, or seemingly don’t want to know, is perplexing. ‘Converting’ people away from the use of animals for food, clothing, sport and medicine is extremely difficult. Animal advocates have tried many different methods to educate and change the majority of the population. The media seems resentful of animal advocates, and unwilling to fairly report on the conditions of slaughterhouses and research centers. The personal cost of those who undertake direct action, such as vandalism, is too high for most. Many valiant people devote much of their own time, money and caring to rescue the animals that they can, but the numbers are meager compared to those who actually meet their doom in cruel conditions, for unnecessary reasons. The frustration is enormous. The animal advocacy movement has been unable to impress the general population with evidence of the cruelty imposed upon animals. In order to make people understand, some have turned to other historical atrocities, to draw parallels and therefore make people understand.

In Eternal Treblinka, such a parallel rests largely on the passage in Genesis 1:26 in which God gives man dominion over animals, which Patterson argues has allowed humans to feel justified in treating creatures they deem to be below them as expendable. He traces from ancient times the need of humans to see both their human and nonhuman victims as inferior, prior to their murder. Patterson is correct in this observation, but it is not a new one, nor does it aid in advocating against cruelty. Perhaps it is human nature to put ourselves apart from the other, as this has been a pervasive pattern throughout recorded human history. Patterson views the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition only in light of its decree regarding dominion over animals, and in Judaism’s largely unheeded admonitions regarding cruelty to animals. In his attempt to bring animal suffering into a new light, it is unreasonable to think that the spiritual teachings that the Judeo-Christian tradition affords its followers is irrelevant and contrary to a compassionate worldview towards animals.

Whether or not to equate the Holocaust with the use of animals for human use is in itself a passionate discussion. There are parallels, but those parallels run throughout the description of all the ways that humans have found to harm each other and their fellow creatures. The relevant question is what the comparison does to our understanding of animal advocacy and the Holocaust as separate events that are a constant contradiction to the basic goodness of humanity. And most importantly, whether this comparison aids understanding of the issues, and gives humanity a greater chance of ending such evils.

One of the attributes of both the Holocaust and animal slaughter that Patterson describes in detail is the effort by the oppressor to alienate its victims by isolating them from the greater whole of living beings deserving of respect. Great efforts were undertaken by the Nazis to broaden the pervasive anti-Semitism that was rampant in Germany at the time. Jews were characterized as animal-like, specifically swine-like. Germans were encouraged to see Jews as inhuman, logically making their role in extermination morally easier for those actually carrying out the final solution. The removal of any vestige of dignity and autonomy is also practiced upon slaughter animals: workers in slaughterhouses are encouraged to see animals as raw material, rather than as fellow creatures. I believe that this practice of separating ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is an invalid comparison because it exists throughout human social history, and by its mere pervasiveness is much more a function of social grouping. Perhaps this instinct was born in an early desire for protection from the unfamiliar. This trait is also not limited to humans. Canines are extremely wary of those not in their pack, and will fight to preserve the status quo of their social grouping. Small children, who have not yet digested the hatred and prejudice of their elders, will often cruelly isolate other children whom they see as different.

Another major theme in Eternal Treblinka is the similarity between the methods used in the mass killing of human and nonhuman animals. It is indeed true that the assembly line method of production removes the workers from the end result of their task, and this removal is vital to ensuring that Nazis and slaughterhouse workers do not feel as if they are actually murdering their targets. But this argument is resting on the effect, rather than the cause. People have to want to kill before they figure out how to do so as easily as possible. Perhaps because the means that are used to carry out the killing of animals are so horrific that animal advocates often use this as the crux of their argument against animal consumption. But the issue should be not how we kill animals, but that we desire to kill them at all. It is proven in a myriad of ways that humans can be extremely cruel, and that they are largely unfazed by institutional murder. Patterson proves this well with his descriptions of mutilation practiced by people all over the world throughout history on both humans and nonhumans. But it probably surprises no one that humans have the ability to be cruel. While the methods are horrible, it is the intent that is the most appalling feature of the Holocaust and animal slaughter.

In fact, it is upon the idea of intent that the most vital difference between the Holocaust and animal slaughter rests. The intent of the Nazis during the Holocaust was to end Judaism by murdering every single person affiliated to the religion or racial classification. There was no desire to continue the existence of Judaism. If every Jew had been killed, the concentration camps would have closed. Slaughterhouses exist to keep killing animals. They do not want to kill all the pigs, cows, chickens, horses in the world. Rather, they want to produce more in order to kill more. Breeding is as important a component to the animal slaughter industry as the killing, packaging and shipping. It is the appreciation for intent that has been left out of discussions tying together animal slaughter and the Holocaust, and it is our understanding of our intent that will determine whether or not we will prevent another Holocaust and stop animal slaughter.

How to change intent? The world is shamed by the fact that it allowed the Holocaust to happen, yet genocide is not an historical relic. But a big difference between the Holocaust and animal slaughter is that the world sees the former as bad, and the latter as acceptable. And perhaps this is why many animal advocates seek to compare the two. With the exception of Holocaust revisionists, Americans believe the Holocaust was a tragic smear on our self-perception as humans. To affiliate animal advocacy with an historical and moral certitude gives it credence. To point out the similarities is an attempt to borrow the horror that most Americans feel about the Holocaust in an attempt to expand it to their dinner tables. But this comparison does a disservice to both the Holocaust and the animal advocacy movement, and, most importantly, to the animals.

The Holocaust destroyed so many people and scarred so many lives that it deserves to stand alone. This does not mean it is the only horror, or even the only genocidal horror. It should serve always as a warning of what humans are capable of, and a teacher to inspire people to behave with compassion. It should not be expanded to be used as an argument for a movement that does not need it. The truth about animal slaughter is horrible enough, overwhelmingly so, that it deserves its own vernacular to describe the sorrow and hopelessness that is its very nature. Comparison with the Holocaust obfuscates the intent of animal slaughter, which differs greatly because humans seek to make their lives better on the backs and flanks of animals, while the Nazis were intending absolute annihilation. The challenge for animal advocates is to bring the issue of unnecessary cruelty and consumption into focus in its own right. This has been a frustrating task, without a blueprint or an answer. But in similarity to those who resisted the Holocaust, the animal advocates are on the side of kindness and respect, and these qualities can prevail.


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