Section: Animals and the Holocaust
Reviews of Eternal Treblinka
Book Review by Norm Phelps
Conventional wisdom holds that the Nazi murder of 10 million people,
six million of them Jews, was a unique horror. But even a cursory glance
at history confounds the conventional wisdom. Closer to home, the genocide
of the indigenous populations of North and South America by European
conquerors was no less a horror than the Holocaust. We only see it
more often, choose not to see it at allbecause the perpetrators
were our national ancestors and we are the beneficiaries of their crimes.
While perhaps not technically genocide, slavery and segregation were
atrocities of comparable magnitude. Moving into the last century, between
1915 and 1923, the Turkish government slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians,
an atrocity that served as a model for the Holocaust. Hitler is reported
to have assured his lieutenants that they could slaughter whole populations
without fear of retribution because No one remembers the massacre
of the Armenians. (For those who believe, as I do, that the Armenian
genocide must be remembered, it is commemorated annually on April 24.)
From 1924 to 1953, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had between 25 and 40
million people butchered, not counting those who died in World War II,
while in the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1964-1975), seven million
were killed under Mao Zedongs rule. In 1975, Khmer Rouge leader
Pol Pot adopted mass murder as governmental policy and killed two million
of his fellow Cambodians before the Vietnamese overthrew him in 1979.
In just three months in 1994, the Hutus of Rwanda killed 800,000 of
their Tutsi neighbors. And the list goes on. The Holocaust was a horror,
but it was not unique. It was more like business as usual for the human
How can that be? How can members of a species equipped with so great
a capacity for empathy massacre each other with such depressing regularity?
A new answer to this question is starting to emerge from what might
seem an unlikely source: the animal rights movement. We are able to
systematically exploit and murder other human beings, according to animal
advocates like Charles Patterson, because we have desensitized ourselves
to the suffering and death of others by systematically abusing and murdering
I called this a new answer, but it has historical antecedents. Saint
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), for examplethe premier philosopher
of Roman Catholicismargued that cruelty to animals predisposes
us to cruelty to other human beings. His argument was taken up by pioneers
of the animal welfare movement like Henry Bergh (1813-1888), who brought
forth the first successful suits in the U.S. for both animal cruelty
and child abuse.
What is new is a focus on the systematic nature of our exploitation
and murder of animals; we commit our crimes against them rationally,
deliberately, as a matter of conscious social policy, not as explosions
of anger for which we later feel remorse, or lapses into greed that
in retrospect we recognize were wrong. It is this that our mass murder
of animalsfor food, clothing, medical research, or sporthas
in common with the litany of mass murders by public policy that I recited
in the first paragraph. The organized slaughter of animals conditions
us to accept the organized slaughter of human beings.
The claim is not that animal slaughter causes the mass murder of humans.
Outbreaks of mass murder are triggered by specific circumstanceshistorical,
political, economic, etc. It is rather that animal slaughter makes
mass murder of humans possible by instilling in us the habit of denying
our empathy, compassion, and respect to those whom we define as other.
The moral barrier that mass murderers of human beings place between
themselves and their victims was originally erected to permit the mass
murder of animals. If this barrier were not securely in place, the
could not occur; our natural empathy would not permit it. A society
that practices the mass murder of animals may not always practice the
mass murder of human beings, but it is always on the verge of doing
so. All that is needed is the right catalyst.
This new understanding of the connection between animal slaughter and
human slaughter grew out of the Holocaust. Its prophet was Isaac Bashevis
Singer, winner of the Nobel prize for literature (1978), ethical vegetarian,
and one of the last in the line of great Yiddish writers which began
with the Haskalathe penetration of secular learning into the Jewish
communities of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuriesand was cut
off in full flower by the Holocaust. Singer himself escaped Hitlers
Europe in 1935 and lost his mother and a brother to the Nazi death machine.
In the Foreword to Vegetarianism: A Way of Life by Dudley Giehl (1979),
Singer wrote There is only one little step from killing animals
to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin.
Charles Patterson is a noted Holocaust historian, author of Anti-Semitism:
The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond. Taking his title and his theme
from the compassionate vision of Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Dr. Patterson sets out to document the connection between our
treatment of animals and the Holocaust. With the precision of
a professional historian and a gift for narrative and language that
few historians possess, Patterson traces the various strands that the
20th century wove into a terrible tapestry of destruction and murder.
He begins by showing us how human exploitation of animals led us to
create a great divide between human and animal, a seemingly
impregnable wall that excluded nonhumans from moral consideration; we
were we, and they were other. We could eat their flesh, wear their skins,
enslave them for forced labor, treat them any way we wished simply because
they were not human and, therefore, not entitled to empathy, sympathy,
or respect. Once this was done, it was an easy thing when any group
of human beings became annoying for one reason or anotherreal
or imaginaryto push them outside the wall by comparing them to
animals. Calling people animals is always an ominous sign,
he tells us, because it sets them up for humiliation, exploitation,
and murder. It is significant, for example, that in the years leading
up to the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Turks referred to Armenians
as rajah (cattle).
Pattersons descriptions of the Holocaust and its ties to our abuse
of animals, especially livestock, are gripping in a horrifying sort
of way (although Patterson never sensationalizes; in fact, the restraint
of his prose only works to heighten the readers sense of horror).
But for me, the most moving passages in Eternal Treblinka were those
that tell of Holocaust survivors, and the descendants and family members
of Holocaust victims, who were influenced by that catastrophe to take
up the cause of animals. The list includes many of the most visionary
and inspirational leaders in the animal protection movement: Peter
Henry Spira, Alex Hershaft, Barbara Stagno, Erik Marcus, Anne Muller,
and others. Alongside these portraits, Patterson paints others of Germans
who lived through the Nazi terror and from it learned that defending
the defenseless is the highest moral imperative. This, too, is a distinguished
list that includes American activists like Dietrich von Haugwitz, Peter
Muller, and Liesel Appel, along with German animal advocates like Lutheran
minister Christa Blanke and philosopher Helmut Kaplan.
There are good booksentertaining, useful, informative; great bookswhose
message reveals a fundamental truth previously unknown or overlooked;
and important booksthat can save lives and ameliorate suffering:
Eternal Treblinka is all three. It will also be a controversial book.
Some will say that to compare the Holocaust to animal slaughter trivializes
a terrible tragedy and shows disrespect to its victims. If those who
raise this objection are victims of the Holocaust, either personally
or by having lost family or friends, I respect the pain that gives rise
to their view. But with all deference, I cannot agree. We best honor
the victims of the Holocaust by acting to prevent all holocausts. And
to accomplish this, we must eradicate the notion that there exist in
the world groups of sentient beings who are not entitled to our compassion
and respect. As Dr. Patterson chillingly shows us, what we will do to
one group, we will do to another. What we will do to animals, we will
do to human beings. There is a slogan that is often chanted at animal
rights demonstrations: One struggle, one fight. Human freedom,
animal rights. We will achieve both of these goals or we will
Charles Patterson takes further the slogan that says, If you want
peace, work for justice, by telling us that if we want peace and
justice for ourselves, we must work for peace and justice for the animals
as well. How long, he asks, will we allow this socially
condoned mass slaughter [of animals] to continue without raising our
voices in protest? By way of conclusion, I say the sooner we put an
end to our cruel and violent way of life, the better it will be for
all of usperpetrators, bystanders, and victims.
Norm Phelps is spiritual outreach director of The Fund for
Animals. You can visit their Web site at www.fund.org.
His book, The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible,
is being published by Lantern Books in June.