The sheer scale of the Holocaust can make it difficult to understand, because while human history is rife with examples of oppression and genocide, never before had it been carried out in such an efficient, industrialized fashion. The methodical murder of some six million Jews, along with millions of other individuals who did not fit the parameter's of the Nazis' racial utopia, left a scar on the global consciousness and forced a dramatic reconception of social theories, which now had to account for how the Holocaust could come to happen. The old dualisms of social theory proved insufficient on their own, because the motivations, logistics, and execution of the Nazis' "Final Solution" defy easy categorization and explanation. Instead, one must examine the explanations provided by each of these theoretical schema and then attempt to formulate a broader, more eclectic explanation of the Holocaust than is provided by any individual theory. Doing so reveals that the Holocaust was "a socially constructed problem whose 'solution' involved the active participation and passive compliance of ordinary human beings, the thousands of Germans who, consciously as well as inadvertently, and for purposes that have historical antecedents as well as structural causes, contributed to the Jewish genocide" (Iverson 2003, p. 349). Ultimately, the Holocaust may be viewed as the almost inevitable result of centuries of ignorance and bigotry colliding head-on with the grim realities of Industrialization and modernization, a collision which reverberated through the German economy as well as the German consciousness.
The lasting impact of the Holocaust and its eternal threat to overwhelm is felt immediately upon beginning its examination, because one is forced to decide where to start, and in doing so attempt to encapsulate the entirety of the event. Furthermore, one must be careful when examining the Holocaust not to fall into the tempting trap of "turning to the Holocaust in search of universal moral lessons -- 'lessons' that merely confirm what we already believe," because this "risks serious distortion of the past" and does not contribute to the understanding of the phenomena, understanding that might prove crucial in preventing a repeat of this same kind of atrocities in the future (Salmons 2010, p. 57). This difficulty in determining an appropriate point of entry is part of why "Holocaust studies is difficult to define," and frequently "includes a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, sociological, literary critical, psychological" (Reitter 2000, p. 110). The rise of the Nazis and their subsequent actions included such a total dominance over every aspect of society, history, and identity that researchers attempting to understand this rise have been forced to develop eclectic approaches to the topic, but even then this runs the risk of explaining a variety of independent phenomena in German history and culture without ever being able to link them up into the "burnt whole" of the Holocaust itself (Suedfeld 2000, p. 1). Thus, perhaps the easiest place to start is actually with the Holocaust's ability to overwhelm and defy examination, because examining this issue will offer some insight into why the explanations of the Holocaust provided by the usual theoretical dualisms and schemas of social theory, among the contributions of other fields, are insufficient.
The problem of effectively conceptualizing, and, in the words of one researcher, "fathoming the Holocaust," rests in the fact that the cruelty and brutality of the Holocaust is so far beyond the scope of usual human imagination, even for those people who lived through it (Berger 2002). This is evident in Elie Weisel's account of his first night in the Auschwitz concentration camp:
I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent. No, none of this could be true.... Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night.... Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.... And turned my dreams to dust (qtd. In Berger 2002, p. 1).
More recently, this difficulty in comprehending the reality of the Holocaust has been explored more deeply and in a scientific setting, in order to determine if some of the Holocaust's overwhelming and seemingly impossible nature stems from actual cognitive biases and limitations regarding human beings ability to imagine the reality of the Holocaust.
In a paper titled "Nazi cruelties: Are they literally hard to imagine?," Rassin et al. (2005) attempted to examine the connection between individuals mental images of World War II and the degree to which they underestimated the extent of Nazi activities during the Holocaust (p. 321). The researchers found that individuals with less clear mental images of World War II, usually based on literally blurry photographs and film reels, were more likely to underestimate or even deny the extent of Nazi cruelty (pp. 328-329). The results were born out of four different experiments and actually supported two distinct yet related phenomena. Firstly, viewing blurry documentary evidence of World War II actually made individuals' mental images of World War II less distinct, and secondly, less distinct mental images were "associated with the conviction that Nazi cruelties have been exaggerated in the media and history books" (p. 329). Thus, the evidence suggests that contrary to "our common-sense notion that we are able to imagine everything," imagining, and thus explaining, the realities of the Holocaust is in some ways beyond the cognitive abilities of human beings, and especially those who did not experience it first hand (p. 329).
However, this does not mean that the attempt is futile, but rather simply that one must recognize and account for the inherent imaginative limitations one faces when confronting the realities and explanations of the Holocaust. In particular, it will be useful to remember the concept of a whole too large to fully discuss when examining the explanations of the Holocaust provided by traditional social theoretical schemas, because all of these explanations ultimately suffer from a kind of limited perspective that is unable to account for the simultaneous influence of preexisting, predetermining structures and individual mutability. This inability is all the more evident when one recognizes that for the most part, the common dualism of social theory are themselves examples of these simultaneous factors, with the only problem being that they are presented as oppositional binaries, rather than coordinated, contemporaneous phenomena.
For example, perhaps the most widely known dualism of social theory is the supposed binary between nature and nurture, meaning the degree to which inherited traits or learned behaviors and attitudes affect an individual's (and ultimately society's) actions. The so-called "nature vs. nurture" debate is particularly relevant to a study of the Holocaust, because racism, one of the more obvious motivating factors behind the Holocaust, is itself the product of both nature and nurture. On the one hand, one can find evolutionary biological underpinnings to racism, because it is easy to imagine how an in-born aversion to individuals not of one's own phenotype might prove evolutionarily beneficial. A tendency to discriminate based on race offers individuals a quick and dirty means of determining whether or not another person represents a threat, but like with so many evolutionary traits, this tendency is only useful up to a certain limit, and actually becomes actively detrimental in a society composed of organizations larger than a single village or extended family unit. Thus, one can clearly identify "nature" as a major component in racism, because from one perspective racism really is nothing more than an overreliance on an evolutionary tendency with limited applicability.
However, while this helps to explain some of the basic cognitive and behavioral sources of racism, the nature explanation cannot account for the complex system of ideology and policy that springs up in order to support and perpetuate racist beliefs. In fact, when racism is discussed, the individual act of discrimination based on race is often the least important part; instead, researchers attempt to examine racism "as a set of institutional conditions of group inequality and an ideology of racial domination, in which the latter is characterized by a set of beliefs holding that the subordinate racial group is biologically or culturally inferior to the dominant racial group" (Bobo & Fox 2003, p. 319). In this context, the important element of racism is not its evolutionary origin, but rather the social dimension that has arisen as a result of conditioning and ideological development, because it is this element that results in a notable power differential and institutionalization of racist policies (Sullivan 2005, p. 140). Furthermore, the fact that not all individuals give in to their evolutionary predisposition to judge based on racial or ethnic divisions suggests that certain non-intrinsic, social factors contribute to the emergence of racism as both an institution and an individual belief system.