I don’t see this comparison made nearly as much as I used to, but it remains a contentious topic. It comes from an understandable place, because there are obvious similarities between the treatment of farmed animals and victims of the holocaust, both in terms of methods used for murder and attitudes towards those who suffered, particularly with regards to Jewish victims of the holocaust. I will outline here some of the facts and myths which form the basis for some of those comparisons, but also explain why I don’t think that these sorts of comparisons are appropriate for animal rights advocates to use.
Firstly, it is often stated that the Nazis drew their inspiration from slaughterhouses when figuring out how to mass murder so many millions of people, but no one has ever been able to supply me with a credible source to back this up. It most likely comes from Henry Ford’s comment that slaughterhouse kill floors were what inspired him to make cars on an assembly line, and the fact Henry Ford in turn influenced the Third Reich and their creation of concentration camps, but this link is tenuous it best. It seems far more likely, as has been remarked by the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer John Toland, that Hitler was in fact inspired by the US Indian Reservation system, and the Armenian genocide is often cited as another inspiration. As for the actual method, the effectiveness of Zyklon B was discovered when it was first used upon Soviet prisoner’s of war, not on animals, and the creation of concentration camps in the form they eventually took was built around this.
The other comparisons which are made generally involve how animals are transported, how they are treated during the slaughter process in factory farms and the use of gas as a method of slaughter, which is still common. More than this, I think it comes from trying to find any human atrocity which even comes close to the sheer scale of animal slaughter in terms of numbers and organisation, and the holocaust is unfortunately an obvious example to use of this. Every single death from the holocaust and the battles of world war 2 combined still doesn’t even come close to the numbers of animals killed per year, but the comparison is often used in the context of slaughtering a large number of individuals all at once, and how those who died in concentration camps were certainly treated no better than we treat farmed animals now, and similarly were viewed as objects, as less than human.
I explain these things so the context in which these comparisons are drawn but I vehemently oppose their use, because they are both offensive and unhelpful when trying to advocate for animals. While all oppression is linked, what we are talking about when we discuss the holocaust is the shared experience of millions of people in a specific time and a specific place, with specific cultural ramifications still felt today, which unless you are Jewish yourself are impossible to understand. Unless you are a holocaust survivor or are in someway emotionally and culturally involved in that event it is simply not your comparison to make. Most Jews still eat meat, and while I think that’s wrong, I don’t think that makes it okay to tell them that they are taking part in the same thing that was done to their ancestors, because drawing on that pain and using it as a way to provoke guilt is manipulative in the extreme. This is all these comparisons ever really do, they don’t sway them to our cause; more often than not they just end up hurting people, and often they are used to do exactly that.
It is inappropriate to compare animal agriculture and the holocaust not because what animals experience is any less horrific but because animals are the victims of an entirely different system of oppression, with very different causes and consequences. The holocaust is unique in all of history. It is not comparable to the Rwandan genocide, it is not comparable to ethnic cleansing Darfur, it is not comparable to the mass slavery of black men and women in Europe and the Americas. Even if this comparison were philosophically appropriate it still wouldn’t be appropriate for advocacy regardless; all it does is isolate and further distance people from the animal rights movement; it makes us sound like extremists. We can advocate for our own movement and talk about animal suffering without being insensitive to the suffering of others, or hijacking someone else’s cause and using it for our own ends.
Most of the time when these comparisons are used they are used simply to make a point about animal rights, they aren’t exploring the interlinked nature of oppression, they aren’t empathising with the suffering of humans, they are essentially just using victims to further our own agenda, and that is wrong regardless of what our intentions are. If a holocaust survivor or someone deeply involved in that event wants to compare animal suffering to what they or those they loved suffered through, like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ellie Wiesel did, then that is their decision to make, but it is not ours, however similar the means of murder used for holocaust victims and farmed animals alike may be.
The mass slaughter of animals is uniquely and profoundly immoral in a way that has no comparison in all of human history. We don’t need to rely on comparisons which offend and isolate because what is happening to animals is horrific enough by itself. These comparisons may be understandable, and I’m sure they grab people’s attention, but it is exactly the wrong sort of attention for our movement. These comparisons are offensive, inappropriate, and the fact of the matter is that they just don’t work. If we want to be taken seriously as a movement then our advocacy has to be better than that.