Steven Katz. The Holocaust and New World Slavery: A Comparative History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 2 vols. 1000 pp. $275.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-41508-8.
Reviewed by Charlton Yingling (University of Louisville) Published on H-Slavery (August, 2020) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54581
Comparing and contrasting the reasons for two of the most iconic instances of horrific brutality in human history is undeniably intriguing and commendably ambitious considering the scholarly risks associated with wading through enormous historiographies fraught with understandable cultural sensitivities. Steven Katz asserts that not only is The Holocaust and New World Slavery the first major study to address the convergences and divergences of these events, he admirably moves beyond his area of expertise, Jewish studies, to engage deeply with the extensive canon of scholarship on slavery. Commendably, Katz opens himself to criticism in the opening of the book, embracing the inherent difficulty of attempting to be a “first mover” into tense debates and with a massive, fourteen-chapter study (p. 2).
This approach might prompt scholars to consider broader, taxing questions. Should we consider comparable "big picture" projects that could be faulted as being unwieldy? Is this the very churn of new debates that our discipline or respective fields need? The tentative answer of this individual reviewer is, “Perhaps, yes.” With this ethos, the author creditably opens the door to critique in hopes of furthering both slavery and Holocaust studies. This reviewer accepts that offer. The first critique, then, is that aside from the dramatic draw of both topics, and perhaps the additive tantalization of the two combined, why we need this specific study or what its central thesis is remains uncertain. Rather, Katz clarifies that his core concerns rest with comparing structures, concepts, and material outcomes pertaining to what these systems sought to achieve. Included are contrasts of their uses of violence and selection of victims, rather than a comprehensive or chronological account of either topic.
The two volumes that comprise this book's nearly seven hundred pages result from a multidecade research project, a sampling of which first appeared in print in 1994. The two horrors analyzed, though quite disparate in impetus and time frame, nevertheless featured the superficial similarities of millions who suffered exploitation or premature death premised upon their dehumanization as a targeted, othered group. Among the many differences between these two monumental cases, Katz rightly points to pivotal distinctions, starting with observations that four hundred years of slavery produced formative diversity across the many societies in which it persisted, while the Holocaust transpired with abrupt intensity and fewer variations. Though slavery and the Holocaust might be insightful, paradigmatic case studies of human iniquity, Katz perhaps overstates the extent to which major debates in slavery studies have compared the “peculiar institution” to the Holocaust. The author is less concerned with explaining how this book explicitly avoids straining the comparative method beyond utility.
Intriguingly, from the outset, Katz diverges from the United Nations’ classification of “genocide” to expand culpability beyond primarily state agents. He also simultaneously avoids “ethnocide” classifications, a tacit impediment to understanding violence in slave societies when it appears in this analysis. By avoiding deliberate cultural destruction and forced assimilation, Katz misses grounds for perhaps additional, if not greater, comparative illumination. Katz also espouses an avoidance of any moralizing ascriptions or hierarchy of suffering between these two atrocities. He states that extant arguments about the “uniqueness” or “sacredness” of the Holocaust are perhaps counterproductive to creating knowledge. However, a major assertion to which the book regularly returns, that slavery and the Holocaust are not comparable as the supposedly “oft-made claim that both were individual instances of the more general phenomenon of genocide” rings hollow (p. 684). Few contemporary scholars of slavery claim or even engage that premise.
Among the plethora of analytical locations through which the author could open the investigation, Katz astutely suggests that the topics of women, gender, children, and families are the most productive for comparison across the very different historical canons. This observation, and the chapters that develop this line of inquiry, prove to be the most challenging and original of the entire study. Katz also asserts that other categories that seem unparalleled, such as manumission, slave law, and interracial sex, may illuminate more profound divergences. By contrast to slavery in the Americas, Nazi Germany underexploited potential Jewish forced labor in camps. They eschewed maximizing profit while instead pursuing extermination of that population. Foundational distinctions that Katz illuminates include that African enslavement in the Americas revolved around extraction of labor and classification of “blackness” as socially and legally disadvantaged. Katz asserts that this relationship was “not fundamentally one of life versus death” as was the case with the violently anti-Jewish era of Nazi Germany. However, Katz’s assertion that explaining “why the Holocaust happened is a more complex undertaking than explaining why black slavery came to exist” will strike most scholars of the intricacies of Atlantic slavery as misguided (p. 27). This conflicts with his acknowledgment that the “multifaceted demographic record” of the enslaved was “far more complex than the population history of European Jewry” (p. 129). Perhaps this conclusion derives from bypassing the rich studies on the many contingencies and exchanges of racial formation across the multiple African ethnicities and European empires within the early Atlantic.
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are commendably detailed on the structure of the Middle Passage, the rise of slavery as an economic force, and demography. They draw upon important, though often less than current scholarship (including reliance upon work that precedes the past two decades and stretches back to Stanley Elkins). Restricting the analytical lens on slavery to profiteering for comparisons to antisemitism elides a deeper reckoning with the myriad cultural forces at play and bypasses acknowledging how the agency of many victims also caused the system to react. Although Katz does offer specific attention to how enslaved women attempted to manage reproduction. Katz’s major point that many mechanisms of enslavement were “non-exterminatory” by design is well argued, as is his assertion that, compared to some Holocaust efforts, the violence against captives on slave ships was somewhat random and less totalizing given profit motives sometimes incentivizing the behavior of crews. Aside from connections to the Holocaust, these chapters on the slave trade, population statistics, and Caribbean, Brazilian, and North American slave societies offer a strong primer on mortality and revenue under slavery.
Starting decidedly in chapter 4, attention to gender, family, and genealogy does prove important sites for comparison and contrast of slavery and the Holocaust. In this significant section, Katz explores reproduction, miscegenation, and divergences between what he sees as Nazi eradication of Jews versus slave societies’ interests in permitting and promoting progeny. This latter point is an overstated generalization, given that many apex plantation societies in the Caribbean and Brazil featured high mortality rates, decreasing slave populations, low fertility or no natural rate of replenishment, deliberate sex ratio disparities, and lack of evidence showing planters’ overt intent to prioritize their slaves’ reproduction. However, Katz's connection to natural increase and domestic slave trade of enslaved populations of the antebellum US South, though being more the outliers in the Americas, is applicable. Limiting assertions to the value of new generations of slaves, rather than generalities about pro-natal positions in Anglophone contexts that comprise the majority of the chapter anyway, would have sufficed. Coverage on Franco-, Hispano-, and Lusophone contexts, though scant, does show greater rates of accepted miscegenation. This is another divergence between those slave societies and the Holocaust, which had followed Nazi Rassenschande, or prohibitions on sexual relations between Jews and Germans. Elements of these concerns extend into chapter 5, which compares reproduction under slavery and the Holocaust, another case study in which the author presents North America as normative. Katz’s framing that evidence of encouraged reproduction refutes presentations of slavery as genocide seems a strawman argument as scholarship on slavery rarely even considers such terminologies. Rather, many studies consider ethnocide in slave societies, though this is a term and concept that Katz avoids explicitly.
In assessing the conditions of enslavement and Jewish labor, chapters 6 and 7 reveal additional points for consideration. Namely, that though the enslaved and Jews suffered forced labor, malnutrition, physical coercion, and forced segregation, the Holocaust was more “ideological” in causation while slavery was more “instrumental” (p. 336). Katz’s regular return to slavery as almost solely a “pursuit of financial gain” here and elsewhere verges on reductionism (p. 610). Enslaved families were regularly afflicted by separation from sale, violence, and sexual predation, while Jewish families in ghettos were often subjected to execution and forced termination of pregnancy. Experientially, the distinction between ideological and instrumental forces may have been lost on any of these victims. In highlighting Judaism as a distinct form of resilience and also a target that attracted attack, Katz pivots only to discuss Christianity as a comparable reservoir among enslaved communities, rather than exploring the plethora of African diasporic religions that were founts of solidarity across the Americas. In contrasting the Jews’ physical resistance as a fight against extermination, Katz overlooks that many forms of physical resistance by the enslaved also resulted in extermination. Perhaps he overstates the differences on this point, particularly considering the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of those who self-liberated from slavery and perished in seismic, empire-shaking uprisings in the Caribbean, rather than possibly perish in plantation fields or under punishment, events that garner less attention in this study.
Volume 1 closes with chapter 8, structured around an argument that manumission avenues for the enslaved allowed a release from their legally and socially constructed state as property, whereas, in Katz’s opinion, Jews were locked by genealogy into a pejorative status under Nazi Germany. To open volume 2, Katz focuses chapter 9 on how slave society “attempted to ameliorate and otherwise modify and constrain its immorality,” as slaves in the United States at least supposedly benefited from laws and jurisprudential decisions that conceded elements of personhood, whereas Nazi German contexts denied the humanity of all Jews (p. 460). Katz presumes that evidence of statutes on the books against cruelty, such as physical violence or the use of slaves in medical experiments, equated implementation. It did not, nor was the United States ever representative of slavery writ large.
Chapter 10, in many ways a continuation of chapter 4, returns to key questions of women and reproduction by highlighting the horrors of sterilization, Josef Mengele, and requisite infanticide for Jews under Hitler. Katz states that these systemic evils were not replicated under slavery, again insisting that the “lives of slave women and slave children were governed by pragmatic outcomes …defined by considerations of profit and loss” (p. 513). However, this element of divergence between the two cases is better illustrated in chapter 11, where Katz explores how Nazi Germany, by refusing to rely on Jewish forced labor in favor of exterminating millions of possible workers, undercut its own possibilities to build the war effort or make profit due to “uncompromising genocidal ideology” (p. 559). The use of Russian prisoners of war, the working of many Jewish laborers to death, and the aforementioned mass executions he explores in chapter 12 bolster this argument. Chapter 13, tied closely to chapters 4 and 10, reviews the sexual exploitation of Jewish women in Nazi Germany with passing contrasts to slave societies, namely noting that sexual assaults by Nazis came with the perverse understanding that their victims would likely soon die, and that Nazis were more preoccupied with avoiding offspring with victims than assaulters in slave societies. In his final full section, chapter 14, Katz demonstrates that the widespread eradication of Jewish children did not have parallels in slave societies.
Katz’s final, binding argument that the “morphology and character of the two phenomena are radically dissimilar” is supported by evidence in the book, even if few scholars have asserted that they were all that similar, a premise that this study claims. Also, beyond materialism a more serious consideration of manifold racial ideologies in the Americas, greater attention to the majority of slaveholding contexts which were outside of North America, and greater attention to cultural history might have yielded both additional nuance and further grounds for contrasts and comparisons with slavery.
Though falling into generalities about slavery, typically by implicitly presuming North American contexts were normative, Katz suggests that to understand the Holocaust requires detailed attention to varieties of antisemitism, such that a “knowledge of the complicated and distinctive character of each local history during the war is accordingly required” (p. 29). Absorbing more information about multifaceted “Judeophobia,” conspiratorial paranoia, professional self-interest, motivation of common Germans to participate in the “Final Solution,” and the eight key Nazi decisions that implemented this policy that Katz defines was a welcome learning opportunity for this reviewer, as it will likely be for other scholars of slavery. All fourteen chapters are highly organized with well-demarcated subsections that follow specific elements of a debate, allowing for targeted readings of topics that might most interest various specialists.
While Katz attempts to speak to both fields, it is less clear whom he intends as his audience. If one of the two key readerships is scholars of slavery, it is unfortunate that the author assumes the entire audience might be familiar with many German terms that are not always defined. Perhaps due to an understandably cautious approach, some of the writing dedicated to framing is interspersed with passive voice, belabored, multiclausal sentences, and even first-person statements. The last matter is partly because Katz weighs into long-standing debates or perceived misinterpretations of his own work within the field of Holocaust studies, which does not seem to move forward the overarching themes of the project nor include readers from slavery studies. Though this topic might immediately attract general curiosity, or serve as a provocative premise for an undergraduate world or global history text, these issues and the book’s density will more likely interest serious scholars of either slavery or the Holocaust.
In conclusion, these two volumes are certainly worth attention from the field of slavery studies, particularly for readers who want to think broadly and provocatively about our topics of scholarship within a chronology and context of human experiences that extend beyond our fields. Katz’s comparative work, firstly on women, gender, and reproduction, and secondly on labor systems, will likely stand as the greatest contribution of this project. This reviewer sincerely hopes that such ambitious study, and the acceptance of authors to take those risks, will initiate ideas and conversations rather than foreclose them.
Citation: Charlton Yingling. Review of Katz, Steven, The Holocaust and New World Slavery: A Comparative History. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54581This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.