It appears that no word, no expression, is exempt these days from political and ideological manipulation. I would have thought the definition of 'The Holocaust' with a capital 'H' was pretty well established by now, through usage, through popular culture, through common understanding. But as long as someone, somewhere, has a stake in diluting and obfuscating that meaning, it's just not to be.
The U.S. Holocaust Museum has published what I believe to be a fairly comprehensive, annotated explanation of the term, its origins and its evolution. This is an exerpt:
By the late 1940s, however, a shift was underway. Holocaust (with either a lowercase or capital H) became a more specific term due to its use in Israeli translations of the word sho'ah. This Hebrew word had been used throughout Jewish history to refer to assaults upon Jews, but by the 1940s it was frequently being applied to the Nazis' murder of the Jews of Europe. (Yiddish-speaking Jews used the term churbn, a Yiddish translation of sho'ah.) The equation of holocaust with sho'ah was seen most prominently in the official English translation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, in the translated publications of Yad Vashem throughout the 1950s, and in the journalistic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961.
Such usage strongly influenced the adoption of holocaust as the primary English-language referent to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, but the word's connection to the "Final Solution" did not firmly take hold for another two decades. The April 1978 broadcast of the TV movie, Holocaust, based on Gerald Green's book of the same name, and the very prominent use of the term in President Carter's creation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust later that same year, cemented its meaning in the English-speaking world. These events, coupled with the development and creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through the 1980s and 1990s, established the term Holocaust (with a capital H) as the standard referent to the systematic annihilation of European Jewry by Germany's Nazi regime.
But, no. The Wikipedia entry on The Holocaust begins as follows*:
The Holocaust, also known as Ha-Shoah (Hebrew: השואה), Khurbn (Yiddish: חורבן or Halokaust, האלאקאוסט), Porajmos (Romani, also Samudaripen), Całopalenie or Zagłada (both Polish), is the name applied to the genocide of minority groups of Europe and North Africa during World War II by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
The footnote helpfully explains that there is a "debate among scholars" as to whether "The Holocaust" refers to the systematic annihilation of European Jews or to the Nazi campaign against all minorities. Wikipedia has chosen, it explains, to use "a wide definition." What it doesn't explain is that the "wide definition" is deliberately calculated to dilute the term, to strip it of its meaning, with obvious political and ideological consequences. Color me unsurprised to discover Wikipedia in that corner.*
And consider this. In this letter, published in The New York Review of Books, 100 Iranians (none of them, of course, currently living in Iran) make the hopeful gesture of publicly condemning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "Holocaust Conference." In these terms:
To the Editors:
We the undersigned Iranians,
Notwithstanding our diverse views on the Israeliâ€“Palestinian conflict;
Considering that the Nazis' coldly planned "Final Solution" and their ensuing campaign of genocide against Jews and other minorities during World War II constitute undeniable historical facts;
Deploring that the denial of these unspeakable crimes has become a propaganda tool that the Islamic Republic of Iran is using to further its own agendas;
Noting that the new brand of anti-Semitism prevalent in the Middle East today is rooted in European ideological doctrines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and has no precedent in Iran's history;
Emphasizing that this is not the first time that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has resorted to the denial and distortion of historical facts;
Recalling that this government has refused to acknowledge, among other things, its mass execution of its own citizens in 1988, when thousands of political prisoners, previously sentenced to prison terms, were secretly executed because of their beliefs;
Strongly condemn the Holocaust Conference sponsored by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tehran on December 11â€“12, 2006, and its attempt to falsify history;
Pay homage to the memory of the millions of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and express our empathy for the survivors of this immense tragedy as well as all other victims of crimes against humanity across the world.
At least 20 of the signatories describe themselves as "Human Rights Advocates," several more as "Women's Rights Advocates" and many of them have put their lives on the line for the cause of improving human rights in Iran. Their efforts in stepping forward in this manner today are much appreciated, but in the end, somewhat self-defeating. Admadinejad's conference in no way tried to negate the suffering of the non-Jewish victims of the Nazis. It wasn't focused on questioning the suffering of the "other minorities." To the contrary. The conference was specifically directed against the Jewish experience of The Holocaust and its goal was to dilute and obsure the connection between the common understanding of that term and the suffering of the Jews in as many minds as possible. By refusing to recognize the uniquely Jewish connotations of The Holocaust, these signatories are (most likely inadvertently) furthering that goal.
*Update: Less than one week later, I see Wikipedia's entry has been changed. It now reads:
The Holocaust, also known as Ha-Shoah (Hebrew: השואה), Khurbn (Yiddish: חורבן or Halokaust, האלאקאוסט, is the term generally used to describe the killing of approximately six million European Jews during World War II, as part of a program of deliberate extermination planned and executed by the National Socialist regime in Germany led by Adolf Hitler.
How about that?