In the annals of comparative martyrology, [Toni Morrison] appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.
My commentators are unhappy with this statement, which launched my attack on Beloved. One protests that “Sixty million and more”—Morrison’s dedication—is an “accurate and probably sparing estimate of slavery-related deaths.” “If Morrison ‘suggested’ this she was not incorrect,” another said. “The real problem is that you even feel compelled to compare the two.”
But is Morrison correct? And is the compulsion to compare mine or hers?
In a volume of papers on “comparative genocide,” the historian Seymour Drescher summarizes the research on “slavery-related deaths”:
As early as 1945, the figure of six million became established as the official count of European Jews murdered by the German Nazis. The figure first appeared in a New York Times report on the United Nations plan to bring war criminals to justice. The British jurist Robert Alderson Wright (known by legal scholars as Lord Wright) chaired the UN Commission on War Crimes. He charged that a “policy of race extermination was carried out ruthlessly against the Jews according to a plan which can be traced back to Hitler and those members of his Government who were in his immediate circle.” He described the gas chambers and crematoria in concentration camps like Birkenau:
By the end of the year, the figure had become a commonplace in Jewish discourse. Rabbi Louis I. Newman said in his Yom Kippur sermon that “Six million Jews have died as martyrs and their blood cries up from the ground.” The American Zionist Emergency Committee, jointly chaired by rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise, in an open letter urging British prime minister Clement Attlee to open Mandate Palestine to Jewish immigration, held that “the responsibility for the extinction of six million Jews in Europe was not Hitler’s alone.” The figure no longer needed to be calculated; it could be taken for granted as the premise to a different appeal altogether. Indeed, a December editorial “In Memory of Six Million Dead” in an American Jewish magazine complained of an already growing callousness toward “the tales of Nazi atrocities.”
The exact number will never be known. In an Appendix to her magisterial War Against the Jews (1975), the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz estimated the total Jewish population annihilated at 5,933,900.
But in dedicating her novel to “Sixty Million or more,” Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested in being “accurate and probably sparing.” If she had been she would have written To the twenty-one million captured in Africa and sold into slavery. Or perhaps: To the four million who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement.
Instead, she appropriated the Jewish commonplace of six million and trumped it by a factor of ten. While it is obviously true that slavery was, as an anonymous commentator called it, “a historical event that predates [the Holocaust] by hundreds of years,” it follows neither that the literature of the Holocaust is not the proper “framework for assessing the success or failure of Beloved” nor that it is not the “primary tradition in which Ms. Morrison writes.”
Slavery predates the Holocaust, but Holocaust literature predates Beloved. And the very conception of slavery as “a historical event,” in my commentator’s words—a single, unbroken, coherent event—derives from Holocaust literature.
What is now called the Holocaust is the German campaign to exterminate European Jewry, but told from the perspective of its victims. From the outset Jewish thinking detached the European Jewish experience from everything else that was happening in the world between the years 1939 to 1945. Experiences that were disparate in kind and widely removed in space and time—not only legal persecution, rounding up, ghettoization, deportation, and mass murder, but also hiding, flight, exile, “passing,” rescue, military and spiritual resistance, cultural activity, the response of Jewish communities outside Europe, the anguish of onlookers, the world’s silence, survival, DP camps after the war—all came to be read as chapters of the Holocaust. Unless the Holocaust is presupposed, however, there is no connection between any single fact, not even the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and the Holocaust.
Although the events that comprise it occurred within history, its coherence—the combining of these manifold events into a relentless Holocaust—does not belong to history, but to literature: that is, the human effort to leave a unified account, to raise up a dominating image, of experience. The Holocaust is not an event as such but a meaning, which ineluctably alters any attempt to discuss the historical occurrence. What is now called the Holocaust is the Jewish meaning of the historical event. It is an interpretive paradigm, a bold collective effort to create meaning out of history.
By the time that Toni Morrison came to write Beloved, Jewish writers had firmly implanted the paradigm in the Western literary mind. The classics of Holocaust literature had all been written and canonized. Sophie’s Choice (1979), the immediate predecessor of Morrison’s novel, belongs not to Holocaust literature but to the élite backlash against the Holocaust paradigm, which culminated in Norman Finkelstein’s attack on The Holocaust Industry (2000).
Beloved follows William Styron’s lead in revolting against the Holocaust paradigm, which includes the claims that the destruction of European Jewry was the worst that had ever happened in human history and that it was therefore unique. Where Styron faults the paradigmatic Jewish accounts for failing to make more than “fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews . . . who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps,” Morrison adopts a different strategy. She accepts the Holocaust paradigm—a coherent historical event that binds together widely divergent experiences in widely separated places at widely different times, because they are unified by the victims’ point of view—and she puts it to a similar end.
The end was described shortly after the war by a Jewish writer:
The adoption of the Holocaust paradigm accounts for what I pointed to as a significant flaw in Beloved—namely, Morrison’s failure to devise the fiction by which Beloved, a slave girl born in nineteenth-century Kentucky and murdered as an infant, could possibly know the horrifying details of the Middle Passage. My anonymous commentator is contemptuous: “You mean apart from writing a novel?” Yeah, that’s what I mean.
When Philip Roth introduces the incredible possibility that Amy Bellette, the fetching young woman whom Nathan Zuckerman meets at E. I. Lonoff’s house, is really Anne Frank, still alive and living under an alias, he does not rely upon the mere fact of The Ghost Writer’s being a novel to see him through. Zuckerman eavesdrops on a lovers’ conversation between Lonoff and Amy, and reflects: “Oh, if only I could have imagined the scene I’d overheard! If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life!” He proceeds immediately to the presumptuous invention of Anne Frank’s survival and postwar life in America. The next morning he can no longer think of her as Amy Bellette. Instead he finds himself “continually drawn back into the fiction that [he] had evolved about her. . . .”
Morrison does nothing of the sort. Her presumptuous invention, the fiction she evolves, is treated as self-explanatory. As indeed it is—if you recognize that Beloved embodies the Holocaust paradigm, adapted to the purpose of commemorating for future generations the horror of slavery.
 Seymour Drescher, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust,” in Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996), pp. 66–67. Drescher cites work by Paul E. Lovejoy (he is the first historian quoted above), Patrick Manning, Philip D. Curtin, David Eltis, J. D. Fage, David Richardson, and Stephen Behrendt.
 Lord Wright, “That the Guilty Shall Not Escape,” New York Times (May 13, 1945): SM4.
 Quoted in “Day of Atonement Observed by Jews,” New York Times (Sept. 17, 1945): 8.
 “An Open Letter to Prime Minister Attlee” [advertisement], Chicago Tribune (Oct. 8, 1945): 14, and Los Angeles Times (Oct. 8, 1945): A2.
 “In Memory of Six Million Dead,” Reconstructionist 11 (December 14, 1945): 3-4.
 Jacob Lestschinsky, “For a Survey of the Jewish Tragedy,” Chicago Jewish Forum 4 (1945–46): 160.
 Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979), pp. 121, 157.