Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Words and Meaning

One of my correspondents in the language world wrote about a shift underway in the meaning of "Holocaust," in reference to a specific historical event, and to the resistance against that.

The gist of the change is in this short definition:

Today, the term refers to the systematic planned extermination of about six million European Jews and millions of others by the Nazis between 1933-1945.

The longer version is in this "teachers guide" produced by University of South Florida:

Approximately 11 million people were killed because of Nazi genocidal policy. It was the explicit aim of Hitler's regime to create a European world both dominated and populated by the "Aryan" race. The Nazi machinery was dedicated to eradicating millions of people it deemed undesirable. Some people were undesirable by Nazi standards because of who they were,their genetic or cultural origins, or health conditions. These included Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other Slavs, and people with physical or mental disabilities. Others were Nazi victims because of what they did. These victims of the Nazi regime included Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, the dissenting clergy, Communists, Socialists, asocials, and other political enemies.

There's some virtue in inclusiveness. I never knew, until I read that site, about this:

When the Nazis came to power there were hundreds of African-German children living in the Rhineland. They were the offspring of German mothers and African soldiers brought in during the French occupation. In Mein Kampf,Hitler claimed these children were part of a Jewish plot to begin "bastardizing the European continent at its core." Under the Nazi regime, African-German children were labeled "Rhineland Bastards" and forcibly sterilized.

But it seems to me the specific campaign against the Jews by the Nazis deserves some special designation, and had elements that set it apart from the general racial purity policies of the Third Reich. And, as with any debate involving the Holocaust, there is an agenda, or a suspicious smell of one, all around. See here for some of the pushback.

The word is fragmenting, and if this keeps up "Holocaust" in a few years will end up meaning something slightly different to different interested parties and groups, and something vaguely undefined to everyone else (sort of like "torture"), which would be unfortunate but not uncommon. At that point we might have to go back to the original Hebrew Shoah or the German Endlösung to describe the specific campaign to exterminate the Jews.

One of the places you can see this played out is the Wikipedia talk forums, where the editors of that work debate the information to be included in it. I think ultimately these debate archives will be as valuable to historians as the encyclopedia itself, as priceless windows into the certainties and uncertainties of our times. Here's a sample from the debate thread on the definition of the Holocaust:

I'm not getting what is going on here. The lead of the article clearly states, The Holocaust is the term generally used to describe the killing of approximately six million European Jews during World War II. Yet the article, with what appears to be some POV-warrioring from editors, has just become a huge recounting of Nazi atrocities, with some added crap about what the Soviets have done. There are lots of things I'm beginning to hate about Wikipedia. But this article is disgusting. The Holocaust is simply the murdering of 6 million Jews. As horrible as what the Nazis did to numerous other racial and ethnic groups, they belong in very specific articles about those specific atrocities. What this article has become is just a discussion about what Nazis did to everyone, which is not the Holocaust. That does not follow the academic definition of the Holocaust, and, in fact, I contend can be used by Holocaust Deniers in a whole-hot of unethical ways.

I generally agree with this post. But with the caveat that I don't think decisions of this sort ought to be made with any reference to how someone vile might use the word.