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Is it possible to compare the Holocaust to other genocides?

In this video our Senior Communications Officer, Farayi Mungazi, speaks to Professor Dan Stone about how and when it is appropriate to draw comparisons between the Holocaust and other genocides. Professor Stone is a British historian, Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Director of its Holocaust Research Institute.


Professor Dan Stone specialises in 20th-century European history, genocide, and fascism. He is the author/editor of several works on Holocaust historiography, including Concentration Camps: A Short History (2017), Histories of the Holocaust (2010), The Historiography of the Holocaust (2004). Dan is also a member of our Experts’ Reference Group, which advise us on historical and contemporary questions related to the Holocaust, the genocides that followed, the nature of genocide, historical memory and commemoration.

Film transcript:

A question that a lot of people ask is: Is it possible to compare the Holocaust to other genocides?

‘I think the answer is, it’s not only possible; it’s actually impossible not to. Whatever your conclusion, you can’t say anything about the uniqueness or the unprecedentedness, or the significance of the Holocaust without knowing something about other genocides. I think this is just natural; we compare in life, everything that we do is in some ways comparative; you can’t say that’s the best holiday I ever had without knowing something about the other holidays that you’ve had. In the same way you can’t say that the Holocaust is unique unless you know something about other cases of genocide; otherwise it’s not a logical statement.

The point is not to prejudge the issue and to say the Holocaust is no different from any other cases of genocide, nor is it to say the Holocaust is so unique that it cannot be compared with other genocides, but I think that as a starting point, we have to compare because anything else renders the Holocaust outside of the ordinary realms of human existence. And however extraordinary and horrific it was, it was carried out by human beings and, therefore, we have to be able to talk about it in the context of other human actions.

For some people it’s a question of numbers; they look at the Holocaust and say six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. And in other genocides, Rwanda, for instance, around eight hundred thousand people; is it a question of number as far as you’re concerned?

No, I don’t think it is. The numbers are horrific; of course, there’s no doubt about it. But if we talk about cases of mass murder, not necessarily genocide in the strict legal sense, well, Mao’s China killed many more people than were killed in the Holocaust. I don’t think numbers on their own are really sufficient to explain what makes the Holocaust different from other cases of genocide.

So, how can one compare the Holocaust to other genocides without offending people’s experiences, without appearing to diminish their memories?

It’s obviously very difficult; it’s a highly emotional subject and it’s politically and culturally extremely sensitive. I think the question here is whether comparison is undertaken in good or bad faith. If your starting point is to show that the Holocaust is unique, then, in a sense that sort of comparative approach is undertaken in bad faith because it’s not really undertaken with serious interest in other cases of genocide; you’ve already decided that the Holocaust is unique before addressing the question. If, however, your interest is in discovering what the similarities and differences are in the Holocaust and other cases of genocide – and this is what good comparative history and good comparative social science is about – then I think that sort of comparison is undertaken in good faith. The comparative approach is not designed to say that everything is the same; when you compare something, it doesn’t mean to say that things are the same. It’s about establishing what the differences and similarities are between two or more things; but the comparison only makes sense if you’re comparing things that have enough in common to make the comparison meaningful.

It’s about whether you’re comparing oranges and oranges or oranges and apples; and so, with the case of genocide the question is: do these different phenomena we call genocide have enough in common to make the comparison meaningful and worthwhile? And that’s a question I think that arises because we want to understand genocide as a phenomenon. We don’t want just to say how do we understand the Rwandan genocide or how do we understand what happened in Cambodia or how do we understand the Holocaust; we want to understand why genocide as a phenomenon occurs in the modern world and if you want address that question, then you have to look at more than one case. By doing that, you’re not saying that all these cases are the same because, of course, they are all different in many respects, but you’re saying there’s enough in common to make the comparison worth doing. And I don’t think that’s offensive in any way. I really fail to see how comparing the Holocaust, let’s say to Rwanda, is offensive. We’re not talking about comparing the Holocaust with something pleasant; what happened in Rwanda is horrific. I don’t see how making that comparison is offensive if your conclusion is that there are important differences between those two cases of genocide. And, of course, there are, geographically, culturally, politically, the military context, all sorts of things are different but there is something meaningful about the comparison as well, I think.

I suppose the one thing about which there is no dispute is the fact that genocides, wherever they happen, whatever the number of people killed, they’re a terrible stain on humanity.

Yes, of course, and I think that where the context of genocide is philosophically quite important and why it’s not a simple question of numbers is that the legal definition of genocide according to the UN, this ‘intent to destroy a racial, ethnic, or religious or national group in whole or in part as such’, is designed to be different from other cases of crimes against humanity insofar as what the perpetrators of genocide are seeking to do is to create a world in which it looks as though the victim group had never existed. So, there is an existential dimension to genocide, it’s about removing from the earth, from the planet as a whole, a particular group of people; to destroy that group of people such that the world looks as though those people had never existed. That is why genocide is a stain on humanity, it’s about breaking up the anthropological unity of the human species and saying this group of people does not deserve to exist.

What is genocide?

What is genocide?

A Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, first devised the concept of genocide in response to atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.

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Holocaust Memorial Day is a day of commemoration and action to challenge the language of division, fear and prejudice that is all too common today.

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