Raul Hilberg: The Holocaust scholar who was hard on the Jews

Historians in the News

Raul Hilberg, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, died on Saturday, August 4. He was certainly one of the most influential scholars in Holocaust research in the world, despite the fact that his list of publications was relatively short. But his relationship with Israeli Holocaust research was ambivalent.

Hilberg fled as a child with his parents from Vienna to the U.S. after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938). He was recruited to the U.S. army at the age of 18, toward the end of the Second World War, and took part in the last American campaign on German soil. Afterward, he started his studies at Columbia University in New York, attending courses taught by another refugee scholar, Franz Neumann. Through Neumann's mediation, Hilberg became a member of the U.S. War Documentation project, and thus encountered much German-captured documentation. He became intrigued by these documents and by the modes of functioning of the Third Reich as revealed by them, and when he had to decide on a topic for his PhD-thesis in 1950, to be supervised by Neumann, he chose to focus on the bureaucracy of Nazi Germany.

The major question propelling Holocaust research in its initial post-war years was: How could a modern state and society turn into a barbaric, though highly efficient, slaughtering machine? At that time, the term Holocaust was not yet in use (shoah was used only in the Jewish Yishuv in pre-state Palestine), and the murder of the Jews was perceived as one, although perhaps the most extreme, of many atrocities carried out by the Nazis.

Hilberg finished his thesis in 1954, and later expanded on it; the updated version, which became the masterly comprehensive study of the Holocaust, "The Destruction of the European Jews," was published in 1961....

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