Raul Hilberg: As memorialized by Norman Finkelstein

Historians in the News

[Norman Finkelstein's most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press). His web site is www.NormanFinkelstein.com.]

Raul Hilberg died on August 4. A refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, Hilberg was the founder of the field of Holocaust studies.

I cannot now remember when I first read Hilberg's magnum opus The Destruction of the European Jews, but it must have been in my early youth. In fact at first I wasn't even sure whether I did plow my way through the first edition, published in 1961 by Quadrangle Books, with its forbidding double columns of text in 10-point font but I just pulled it off the shelf, binding broken, pages loose, and sure enough it was all marked up.

I read the expanded three-volume Holmes & Meier edition published in 1985 many times. Whenever I ventured to write something on the Nazi holocaust I would again peruse all the volumes cover to cover. They provided the psychological security I needed before daring to render a judgment of my own. Wanting to stand on the firmest possible intellectual foundations I reflexively reached for Hilberg. As it happens, in preparation for a statement I was commissioned to write on the Nazi holocaust, I was just in the midst of reading the three-volume third edition published by Yale University Press in 2003 when news of his death arrived.

Hilberg was not pleased with the first edition--a vital table he pored over many weeks to get just right was botched in the cramped composition--but he couldn't do better: no major publishing house expressed interest in his groundbreaking study, and he only managed to find any publisher due to a private benefactor who agreed to defray indirectly some of the costs. (The Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem had also rejected the manuscript and initially even barred him from its archive.)

In his often acrid memoir The Politics of Memory Hilberg tells the story that when he first proposed studying the Jewish genocide to his advisor at Columbia University, the great German-Jewish sociologist Franz Neumann (author of Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, a classic study of the organization of the Nazi state), Neumann warned him that "this will be your funeral."

It is hard now to remember that the Nazi holocaust was once a taboo subject. During the early years of the Cold War, mention of the Nazi holocaust was seen as undermining the critical U.S.-West German alliance. It was airing the dirty laundry of the barely de-Nazified West German elites and thereby playing into the hands of the Soviet Union, which didn't tire of remembering the crimes of the West German "revanchists." The major American Jewish organizations rushed to make their peace with Konrad Adenauer's government (the Anti-Defamation League took the lead) while those holding commemorations for the Jewish dead were tagged as Communists, which as a rule they were.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in the mid-1960s, Hannah Arendt could draw on only one other scholarly study apart from Hilberg's on the Nazi holocaust in the English language. Nowadays there are enough studies to fill a good-sized library, although it is perhaps not accurate to grace all these publications with the descriptive "scholarly."

Arendt borrowed extensively from Hilberg's work with less-than-generous attribution. He never forgave her this oversight and--what truly is unforgivable--her condescending references to his study in private correspondence and her recommending against its publication by Princeton University Press. In his memoir Hilberg parries the insult, asserting, wrongly in my opinion, that Arendt's study The Origins of Totalitarianism lacked originality. It is true that Arendt could be lazy about facts, which might account for Hilberg's harsh judgment, but the first part of Origins contains many shrewd insights on the dilemmas of Jewish assimilation and paradoxes of the nation-state.

Hilberg reserved even greater contempt (and loathing) for Lucy Dawidowicz, author of the highly touted The War Against the Jews. Here it can be said that his verdict was faultless. During the heyday of the Holocaust religion in the 1970s-1980s, Dawidowicz was its designated high priestess. The problem was that, as Hilberg brutally demonstrates in his memoir, she got the most elementary facts wrong. I once asked my late mother, who survived Maidanek concentration camp, about Dawidowicz's depiction of all the Jews in the ghettos and camps furtively staying faithful to their religion until their final steps into the gas chambers. "When I first entered my block at Maidanek, all the women inmates had dyed-blond hair," my mother laughed. "They had been trying to pass as Gentiles." The shocking accounts of Jewish corruption that could be found in conveniently forgotten memoirs like Bernard Goldstein's The Stars Bear Witness were deleted in Dawidowicz's fantasy.

Hilberg's reputation for mastery of the primary sources was such that my former coauthor (and an authority in her own right on the Nazi holocaust) Ruth Bettina Birn feared their first meeting: no mortal being, she thought, could have stored so many Nuremberg Tribunal documents in his brain. The magnitude of Hilberg's achievement is hard to appreciate today because the scholarly breakthrough has passed into commonplace. His sequential-chronological account of the steps pressing ineluctably from the Nazi definition of Jews to their expropriation, massacre, deportation and assembly-line extermination has been assimilated into the infrastructure of all subsequent scholarship.

Stylistically Hilberg's study might be said to be the opposite of current Holocaust fare: a sparseness of adjectives and adverbs such that when he reaches for one it packs unusual intensity. Apart from professional discipline his terse rendering was perhaps also meant to capture the desiccated esprit of the bureaucratic--dare I say banal?--process through which millions of Jews were shoved along to their deaths....

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