Animal Oppression and the Holocaust Analogy: A Summary of Controversy


There is no direct analogy, it should be noted straight away, between the intense pain and suffering undergone by those nonhuman animals, living and dead, within industrialised feedlots, slaughterhouses, and laboratories, and those human animals, living and dead, who were and are victims of the Shoah. Rather, what I would suggest is their necessary interrelation or reciprocity, that is, both their absolute historical singularity and their indissociability. While not an analogy, therefore, there nonetheless remains a relation—the relation of humanism and nationalism in fact—, one which I propose to mark here with the improper phrasing “animal holocaust” (and without proper noun status).

It is this which makes permissible, if not accurate, the holocaust analogy, insofar as the animalisation of Jews in Nazi Germany has as its operative condition the machine which reproduces nonhuman animals as killable. Taking a cue once again from Derrida, this strategy could be figured as plus un “Holocaust”: more than one / no more one “Holocaust,” insofar as the term recalls always more than one (and thus) no more one community (that is, no immanent or immune body), which is what must be learned if we are to ensure no more Holocaust(s). There remains, however, considerable controversy surrounding the use of the Holocaust analogy, which will be sketched out below. On my own part, I would argue that even if the relation remains implicit, the shock of its implied comparison is nevertheless strategically important (as too is the comparison with slavery) insofar as it opens “the question of the animal” to the related concerns of shame and guilt.

Proposed most notoriously by Martin Heidegger who, whilst remaining silent as to his own complicity, in 1949 compared the death camps to “mechanised agriculture,” the Holocaust analogy is most often condemned on the basis that its equation, in reducing humans to animals, in fact repeats the movement of animalisation which served to legitimise the genocide in the first place.[1] In response, however, David Wood acutely notes that, “while the apparent comparison of the treatment of Jews with the fate of animals … may be obscene, so too is the implication that these sort of practices would call for a quite different judgment if we were ‘just’ talking about nonhuman animals” (The Step Back, 49). He then recalls the strong argument that—

the architecture and logistical organisation of the death camps … was stolen, or borrowed from the successful designs of the Chicago stockyards, also fed directly by the railway system. If the industrialisation of killing was first perfected on cattle [sic], and then applied to humans, we have not an obscene analogy, but an obscene piece of history (49).

The analogy has been put forward at its most basic level by Elisabeth Costello in J. M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name, which Donna Haraway describes as “a common, powerful, and in my view powerfully wrong approach” (When Species Meet, 336n23). This is not to say, however, and as Haraway makes clear, “that the Nazi killings of the Jews and others and mass animal slaughter in the meat industry have no relation [emphasis mine],” but only that such an “analogy culminating in equation can blunt our alertness to irreducible difference and multiplicity and their demands. Different atrocities deserve their own language” (336n23). Carol Adams too, in rare agreement with Haraway, refuses the analogy on similar grounds, claiming that it rips “experience from its history” which thus “does harm to Holocaust survivors. We must locate our ethic for animals so that it does not hurt people who are oppressed” (Neither Man Nor Beast, 83). Finally, Susan Coe in Dead Meat (1996) notes that—

My annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that the suffering I am witnessing now cannot exist on its own, it has to fall into the hierarchy of a “lesser animal suffering.” In the made-for-TV reality of American culture, the only acceptable genocide is historical. It’s comforting—it’s over. Twenty million murdered humans deserve to be more than a reference point. I am annoyed that I don’t have more power in communicating what I’ve seen apart from stuttering: “It’s like the Holocaust” (72)

The clear link between these critiques is not that the comparison is inaccurate or irrelevant, but rather that the positing of an analogical equation is inappropriate—on both sides—only insofar as it effaces the specific differences between them. However, not positing such an analogy can equally result in blindness. As Wood writes, “[i]f there is a worry that the distinctiveness of the human gets lost in such a comparison, there is an equal worry that the refusal of such analogies perpetuates our all-too-human blindness to the systematic violence we habitually inflict on other creatures” (The Step Back, 49).

In addition, such a critique of the trope of analogy in general (reasoning from parallel cases) fails to address the chance imperative of an improper metonymy holding open the place by which previously effaced singular differences actually come to make sense. It is just such a chance imperative which adds weight to Wood’s warning that the “expression may well provoke the very resistance it seeks to overcome, but the expression is not used unthinkingly, or irresponsibly” (49).

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida famously—and carefully—refers to “animal genocides” (26), with the proviso that, “concerning the figure of genocide, one should neither abuse nor acquit oneself [ni abuser ni s’acquitter] too quickly” (26, trans. modified). He then proceeds to compare the “monstrous” suffering undergone by nonhuman animals with that of the Shoah, albeit ensuring, with all he has written on the subject of the prefatory “as if,” that there can be no simple relation of identity or analogy:

As if, for example, instead of throwing a people into ovens and gas chambers [dans des fours crématoires et dans des chambers à gaz] (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organise the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being continually more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation, or extermination by gas or by fire. In the same abattoirs (26).

Here it is clear that Derrida is not proffering a simplistic, reductive analogy between the millions of Jews exterminated in the Nazi death camps and the billions of nonhuman animals slaughtered in the death camps of capitalism.

All this is, however, noted only by way of a contextualising preface. In fact, I would argue that the necessarily blunted edge of any posited comparison is neither the sole, nor even the main, cause of controversy.

To begin with, it must be understood that the term “Holocaust,” referring to the extermination of the Jews during the Nazi period (“the Shoah,” from so-ah meaning “devastation” or “catastrophe,” is the Jewish term), is itself a trope. At once analogical metaphor and euphemism (in the strong sense of a palliative), it is one which moreover remains controversial to this day. Giorgio Agamben has traced this figure, and indeed, its “essentially Christian” history, in a number of his texts, and offers a convincing argument as to the “irresponsible historiographical blindness” of its positing, a blindness and blinding concerned precisely with the question of analogy (Homo Sacer, 114). Arguing that the term “holocaust” (from the Greek holocaustos, signifying “completely burned”) is “from its inception anti-Semitic” and thus “intolerable” (Remnants, 31), Agamben notes how it marks an attempt “to establish a connection, however distant, between Auschwitz and the Biblical olah and between death in the gas chamber and the ‘complete devotion to sacred and superior motives’” (31).[2]

It is here that the figure of analogy is identified as the origin of its intolerability: “the term impl[ies] an unacceptable equation between crematoria and altars” (31). Indeed, with this “wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term ‘Holocaust’” (Homo Sacer, 114), it becomes clear that the term is if anything more appropriate as a figure for the extermination of animals for consumption, whether by gods or by men, than it is for the Shoah. And again, in terms of the meaning of the original Greek term, it is the industrialised genocide of nonhuman animals which most befits the adjective holocaustos, echoed by the industrial slaughterer’s familiar boast (a boast already worn smooth with overuse in the Chicago stockyards of the late 19th century) that they “use everything but the squeal.”

Returning to Agamben, the important and necessary desacralisation of the Shoah serves, as is well known, as the zero point—marked by the camp Muselmann—for his notion of “bare life.” Jews under Nazism, he writes, were constituted as “a flagrant case of homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed” (114). Bare life is, moreover, only actualised in its putting to death, which is “neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualisation of a mere ‘capacity to be killed’ inherent in the condition of the Jew as such” (114). There was, in other words, no “mad and giant holocaust” but rather only the actualisation, enacted only through extermination, of “mere” life, mere subsistence. That is, in being-killed “the Jew” is reconfigured as pure animal remains (“‘as lice,’ which is to say, as bare life” (114)), for which the mute Muselmann is the figure, the “staggering corpse” (Jean Améry) or “the living dead” (Wolfgang Sofsky) without the capacity to die, but only to be killed.

We can now begin to discern a more nuanced relation than a superficial equation marked by the phrasing “animal holocaust.” Under the Nazis, Jews are thus reproduced as walking dead flesh, a related, but nonetheless singular, transformation into “pure” corporeality, into bodily-shaped collections of dead zombie flesh ready to be disarticulated. Not into “meat,” however, as with so-called “food” animals, but into “mere” animal remains. In other words, by way of a structurally interrelated spectral disembodiment through mimetic displacement, we find here too the instrumentalised “walking ghosts” which reproduce a symbolic logic of oppression that ultimately serves to constitute subjugated beings who are precisely deserving of oppression. Not an analogy, therefore, but an inter- and intra-relation—a founding reciprocity.

Furthermore, the reciprocal relation of these singular historical genocides serves to highlight the specificity lacking in Agamben’s conception of “bare life.” As Andrew Benjamin clearly demonstrates, and in contrast to the “undifferentiated ontology” which founds Agamben’s “bare life,” such a reconfiguration always involves—

the violent imposition of identity. It is imposed in this way on Jews, thus underscoring the vacuity of the claim that such a position involves “bare life,” as though within such a life the particularity of being a Jew—that which prompted the figure’s work in the first place—was not itself already marked out. In being there originally, that mark would always have been retained (Of Jews and Animals, 186-7).


It is this ineffaceable mark which calls to the guilt which, according to Primo Levi, must bear upon “almost all” the Germans of the Nazi period, precisely because they failed to bear witness to what they could not not witness. The question—a related, even an analogous question—turns in a circle: Why do the majority choose not to see, to turn away and to refuse to hear, let alone to touch, taste or smell, the contemporary maltreatment of animals if not because of an unremarked sense of guilt and shame? An experience, in other words, that is the murmur of the always restrained yet retained mark of constitutive exclusion. One recalls here Elisabeth Costello, who cannot not conceive of everyone but as “participants in a crime of stupefying proportions” (Coetzee Elisabeth Costello, 114). This brings us to yet another important aspect of the holocaust analogy: in “Thinking With Cats” (2004), David Wood argues that the posited relation is nonetheless—

wholly justified even if politically divisive. The reasons for this are deep, and connected with the difficulty most of us have in coming to see that some social practices we take part in clear-headedly might be utterly contemptible. This contrasts with our shared condemnation of all Nazi genocidal activity. The attempt to connect these events produces extreme reactions (215n37, emphasis added).

Ultimately then, the impropriety of the metonymy “animal holocaust” discloses the sharing of community based upon the guilt of exclusion, and marked by a failure to witness that which cannot not be witnessed (this latter despite its euphemistic effacement in the concept of “meat,” an effacing figured by the sterile, plastic-wrapped tropes of flesh on supermarket shelves).



[1] Heidegger’s reference to the camps is quoted in the Der Spiegel interview “Only a god can save us” (23 September 1966), pub. Der Spiegel 31 May 1976. Reprinted in Gunther Neske & Emil Kettering (eds) Martin Heidegger and National Socialism (New York: Paragon House, 1996), 41-66.

[2] On this, see also Wood The Step Back, 50.

About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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