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June/July 2002
Special 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 differently—or more often, choose not to see it at all—because 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 Zedong’s 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 race.

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 nonhuman animals.

I called this a new answer, but it has historical antecedents. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), for example—the premier philosopher of Roman Catholicism—argued 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 animals—for food, clothing, medical research, or sport—has 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 circumstances—historical, political, economic, etc. It is rather that animal slaughter makes the 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 murders 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 Haskala—the penetration of secular learning into the Jewish communities of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries—and was cut off in full flower by the Holocaust. Singer himself escaped Hitler’s 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 another—real or imaginary—to 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).”

Patterson’s 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 reader’s 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 Singer, 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 books—entertaining, useful, informative; great books—whose message reveals a fundamental truth previously unknown or overlooked; and important books—that 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 achieve neither.

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 us—perpetrators, bystanders, and victims.”

Norm Phelps is spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals. You can visit their Web site at His book, The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, is being published by Lantern Books in June.


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