‘A sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering ... A complete sacrifice or offering ... A sacrifice on a large scale ... Complete consumption by fire, or that which is so consumed; complete destruction, esp. of a large number of persons; a great slaughter or massacre’: such is the OED’s definition of the word ‘holocaust’. As always, the etymology discloses a finer nuance of meaning. In their excellent compilation, The Jew in the Modern World (1980), Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz point out that the term’s origin is theological. More specifically, it ‘derives from the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scripture into Greek from the third century BC, in which holokaustos (“totally burnt”) is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew olah, the burnt sacrificial offering dedicated exclusively to God’. The progression of meanings in the OED reflects a secularisation of usage, so that by the 19th century it denotes simply any example of vast devastation, particularly by fire. A term, in other words, of no particular political or cultural charge.
How did the present more specific usage develop? The term was applied in the Fifties to the Jewish experience of the Second World War, but without a capital ‘h’, and without the stronger proprietorial claims now well-established. Philip Friedman, pioneer of Jewish history under the Nazis, used it: but only as a descriptive equivalent with several others, and he seems to have preferred the expression ‘the Jewish Catastrophe’. At this stage ‘holocaust’ may have been more commonly attached to the prospect of nuclear war. The shift undoubtedly came in 1963 with the controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which set in motion an intense public interrogation of Jewish conduct during the Nazi persecution. Imperceptibly, a chillingly apt but descriptively neutral term coined during the war itself – ‘genocide’ – gave way to an expression which is more subtly partisan. In effect, the theological etymology was reappropriated. But the circumstances were now different. The Jewish cultural presence evinced a self-confidence, an institutional weight and a recognised legitimacy that permitted both the Jewish and the universal importance of the genocidal experience to be more aggressively affirmed. This was assisted by a recession of anti-semitism in the West, driven underground by the shocking revelations of the Final Solution. Though by no means dead, the old animosities against the Jews were fast subsiding before fresh demarcations (against Blacks, Asians, Chicanos, Turks and other Mediterranean peoples, contemporary analogues of the Ostjuden), while the ‘ghetto’ (a psycho-cultural more than a physical phenomenon, an internalised syndrome of religious particularism, political accommodation and furtive assimilation) was disappearing into the new conventions of ethno-cultural pluralism. These days there is a certain harmony (or lack of friction) between the theological and secular expressions of Jewish identity – between Judaism and Jewishness – which the ideological passions of the pre-Nazi epoch had always disturbed. In other words, it became possible to theorise the Nazi experience into an ontological statement about the Jewish predicament without surrendering to an orthodox religious vision.
This was not unconnected with the existence of a territorial Jewish state, whose consolidation as a result of its successes against the Arabs provided additional ideological momentum. But whatever the reasons, genocide became ‘The Holocaust’, and the drive for a Nazi New Order became ‘the War against the Jews’. A certain mystification, an insistence on the uniquely Jewish character of the experience, is an inescapable aspect of this process. Lucy Dawidowicz describes the ‘Holocaust’ as ‘another link in the historic chain of Jewish suffering’, for ‘once again in their history the Jews are victims, sacrifices.’ At one level this has the ring of terrible, disquieting truth. But a sacral tone easily follows. Here is Emil Fackenheim, at a conference in Jerusalem in 1970: ‘A Jew knows about memory and uniqueness. He knows that the unique crime of the Nazi Holocaust must never be forgotten – and, above all, that the rescuing for memory of even a single innocent tear is a holy task.’ Some of the best and best-known writings on the subject have been evocative and metaphorical, exploring its symbolic and mythical dimensions, from the best-selling fiction of Elie Wiesel to George Steiner’s ruminations in In Bluebeard’s Castle and Richard Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History. But to insist on the uniqueness of the event is a short step to insisting on the exclusiveness of interpretation which asserts an empathetic privilege and even a Jewish proprietorship in the subject. Seven years later, at another conference, this time in San José, Fackenheim attacked those who disagreed with his idea of the Holocaust’s uniqueness for ‘insulting’ and ‘betraying’ the dead. As Yehuda Bauer, one of the most thoughtful of the Israeli specialists, says: ‘if what happened to the Jews was unique, then it took place outside of history, and it becomes a mysterious event, an upside-down miracle, so to speak, an event of religious significance in the sense that it is not man-made as that term is normally understood.’
By the late Sixties the term ‘Holocaust’ was appearing regularly in the titles of essays and books, freshly equipped with both a capital letter and the definite article. By the time the relevant volume of the Encyclopaedia Judaica was published in 1972, it was firmly in place as the authoritative epithet, in Jacob Robinson’s excellent entry. In retrospect, this was linked to a number of underlying processes. One was the stabilisation of a Jewish cultural presence within Western society – more self-assured, more integrated, more legitimate. What Irving Howe calls in his new autobiography ‘the reconquest of Jewishness’, or ‘the gradual process of Jewish self-acceptance’, had taken place. Another was the re-emergence of a new ‘Jewish question’ – namely, the attitude to be taken by the different populations of the Diaspora towards the expansionism of the Israeli state after 1967. Yet another was the flourishing of Israeli historical scholarship, which finally made Jerusalem and Tel Aviv into the centres of the relevant research rather than, say, Warsaw, Paris and New York. The 1968 Yad Vashem conference, whose fascinating proceedings were published in English as Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust was a watershed in this regard. Not only did the Jews re-emerge as historical subjects, whose reactions to Nazi persecution embraced all the complexities of accommodation and resistance which many earlier accounts had ignored, and some had even denied. But the proceedings also marked the transition, one might say, from testimony to scholarship. I wouldn’t want to deny either the necessity or the value of the ‘survivor’ literature, but there is clearly a point at which the ‘mere’ bearing of witness becomes an insufficient response to the experience. In the papers and discussions of the 1968 conference we can see that point being reached. There had always been efforts to establish protocols for scholarly discussion, by distinguishing sociologically, culturally and politically amongst the European Jewish populations, by recognising the variations in Nazi policy and practice, by acknowledging the ambiguities in Jewish behaviour, and by drawing up rules for the use of evidence – Philip Friedman was a glowing example of this, as were the pages of Yad Vashem Studies in general. But it was only now that an agenda of historical questions in the fullest sense was generated.
Today we stand before a growing mountain of literature. Each of the processes mentioned above has come to maturity. To some extent this reflects the normal logic of scholarly inquiry. Not only are new primary sources available (e.g. for studying the Allies’ policies towards the Jews), but the accumulation of research has defined a tighter field of investigation, and the general growth of the historical profession between the early Sixties and the mid-Seventies (in Israel no less than in Western Europe and North America) has greatly boosted the production of monographs, dissertations and scholarly articles. ‘Holocaust Studies’ have entered the curriculum of North American schools and colleges, and in the United States the subject is endlessly discussed in books, television programmes, plays and films. Sinister developments – a limited but unmistakable resurgence of anti-semitism – have contributed to this level of activity, which has itself created a sizable constituency of interest – not to say, enthusiasm. At the University of Michigan enrolments for courses of Jewish History and the Holocaust run higher than for the freshman survey in Modern European History, and in the local bookstore Jewish history covers more space than the whole of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and East European history combined. Memoirs, anthologies, coffee-table books, novels and textbooks run thickly from the presses. The high point was reached in the President’s Commission on the Holocaust appointed by Jimmy Carter in November 1978, which reported a year later. Chaired by Elie Wiesel, it recommended the erection of a National Holocaust Memorial/Museum, the creation of an Educational Foundation, and the appointment of a Committee on Conscience to monitor outbreaks of genocide in the world.
Given all this, it comes as a surprise to read in Lucy Dawidowicz’s new book, The Holocaust and the Historians, that the subject has been neglected by historians, even suppressed. Dawidowicz’s discussion of European history textbooks certainly reveals an extensive failure to address the experience, to do its significance justice, or even to mention it at all. Moreover, college courses on the Second World War clearly go for the military and strategic aspects, for the technology and military hardware, and for the blood-and-guts heroism which so many (male) American students seem to prefer. It is also clear that some of the older literature on Nazism tends to skirt the issue, though the reasons are probably far more complex than Dawidowicz seems to allow. In further chapters she shows that Soviet and (more ambiguously) Polish historiography has actively suppressed the specifically Jewish or anti-semitic dimensions of the Nazi programme in the East. Finally, the book has some unexceptional things to say about the character of Jewish historiography itself, which (it says) has been constructed so far mainly by and from the accounts of survivors, with all the partialities of perspective (some fruitful, some not) which this entails.
As a serious exercise in historiographical critique, however, the book leaves much to be desired. On the evidence of its contents, the author’s knowledge of recent German historiography is terribly flawed. Her sensitivity to the complexities of presenting 20th-century history, or even the history of the Second World War, in textbook form, is not much better, and her injunctions regarding the thematic centrality of ‘The Holocaust’ are less than helpful. The treatment of British, American and German writing about Nazism is little short of a disgrace. British work is characterised by reference to Alan Bullock’s biography of Hitler, Taylor’s idiosyncratic Origins of the Second World War and Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler. In the chapter on West German historians, the most recent reference is to Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The German Dictatorship (originally published in 1969). In neither case is the remarkable flourishing of scholarship since the Sixties taken into account. These omissions do contemporary historians an injustice which is all the more serious in the context of Dawidowicz’s polemic against the profession for its neglect of the Jewish experience. It is entirely symptomatic that she should devote disproportionate space to the work of David Irving, which has little credibility amongst scholars, and which was authoritatively disposed of in a major essay by Martin Broszat, one of many current historians whom Dawidowicz implicitly belittles.
In all these ways the discussion of the literature is selective, impressionistic and extremely unreliable. It encourages little confidence in the author’s judgment. She descends on historians of Germany like an avenging angel, wielding emotional rhetoric like a cudgel. There are, of course, reasons for this. In the Fifties and part of the Sixties there probably was little attempt in the United States to address the fate of the Jews, either imaginatively or historically. But then there was probably little appreciation of just how catastrophically Nazi aggression uprooted European society as a whole – of the socio-economic, cultural and demographic consequences of the war. For the vast majority of Americans the war was a matter of military heroics, of victory and liberation, of will and ingenuity, of triumphal emergence into the now accustomed world role. The continental European nightmare had very little tangible meaning in America. Subsequent representations of the war, particularly in popular culture, faithfully reflected this experience.
In other words, fifteen years ago an American Jewish intellectual may have had good grounds for voicing Lucy Dawidowicz’s kind of complaint. There was (and still is) in the United States widespread ignorance about what the war meant for the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Netherlands, and, in a different way, for Italy. Central to this ignorance was a refusal to think about the Nazi genocide. But this was not true (at least in the Fifties and Sixties) of Britain and other parts of Europe, including parts of the East (such as the GDR). Since then, things have changed. Consciousness in Europe has receded as awareness in America has improved. But these differences give Dawidowicz’s polemic an oddly provincial appearance, firmly locked in the cultural moment of Sixties America. This narrowness of vision, combined with an irritating disregard for entire countries and historiographies and an unacceptable spottiness in the coverage of the literature in English, German, Hebrew and the East European languages, which is often confined to an apparently arbitrary selection of works, casts some of Dawidowicz’s more extreme language in an ironic light. She charges non-Jewish historians not only with a ‘narrow range of historical imagination’ and ‘a lapse from professional standards’, but with crass indifference to ‘a subject that has, in other intellectual circles, raised fundamental questions about Western civilisation and Christian morality’. Her book is written in a tone of moral censoriousness, which is not above the occasional (undocumented) imputation of anti-semitism.
Even so, and however infelicitously, she raises some important problems. How much weight is the war against the Jews to be given – in the discussion of Nazism, in the treatment of the Second World War, and in the presentation of 20th-century European history? Dawidowicz comes close to implying that it deserves a primary and even exclusive claim on our priorities, but few would accept such an absolute and prescriptive judgment. More disturbing is the suggestion that the suffering of non-Jews during the Second World War was somehow insignificant in the scales of world history; and that to draw attention, say, to the Soviet civilians (between seven and 11 million of them), to the 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war, or to the three million or so non-Jewish citizens of Poland who were murdered by the Nazis, is somehow to show ‘an underlying contempt for the Jews’, by diminishing the uniqueness of the Jewish catastrophe. Surely we can acknowledge the centrality of anti-semitism to Nazi ideology, the Jews’ leading place in the intended hierarchy of victims, and the irrevocable destruction of East European Ashkenazy culture, without abandoning the effort to see the anti-Jewish programme as an integral part of a larger racist design. The very centrality of the anti-semitic project compels us to seek out these connections. To do otherwise is to succumb to a crass particularism which denies the elementary disciplines of historical context, consecrating the experience rather than making it available for analysis and understanding. Despite Dawidowicz’s fulminations, there were other categories of people – homosexuals, mental defectives, Gypsies, Polish intellectuals, Soviet prisoners of war, ‘political commissars’, and so on – whom the Nazis’ racist vision marked down for extermination, whether by summary execution, death by starvation or forced labour, or processing through the camps. Not to admit this is both morally and imaginatively obtuse.
The danger of books like this is that they make it impossible to dispute the terms of discussion without convicting oneself of the very charges which provide the motivating passion of their publication – of being indifferent to the Jewish predicament, of ignoring the terrible importance of the Jewish fate, of suppressing unpalatable realities, of being anti-Semitic. On this argument, relativising ‘the Holocaust’ into a specific historical experience different from but comparable to others is ‘to deprive the Jews ... of their terrible unique experience as a people marked for annihilation’; to ‘blur the distinctiveness of the Jewish fate’; and therefore to suppress the problem of taking responsibility for anti-semitism. Now it is true, there has been a great deal of loose and self-serving misappropriation of the term ‘Holocaust’ by, amongst others, the critics of the Indochinese War and the opponents of abortion. But this is a consequence of the very success of Jewish publicists in popularising the usage. This is very clear in the proceedings of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, where the short-term political victory of the ‘uniqueness’ lobby was immediately brought into question by the legitimate claims of other genocidal experiences, of which the most important is the Armenian fate at the hands of the Turks.
One solution to this problem, suggested by Yehuda Bauer, is to distinguish between ‘genocide’ (‘forcible, even murderous, denationalisation’ of a people) and ‘holocaust’ (‘wholesale, total murder of every one of the members of a community’). As Bauer says, ‘Holocaust-related events would then include the Armenian massacres.’ This is not a bad idea. But whereas ‘genocide’ can be applied to any attempt to destroy a substantial human population defined by its ethnic or national characteristics, whether the killing affects the entirety of the community or just a significant portion, I am not sure that ‘Holocaust’ can be divested of the religio-cultural specificity of the usage which is now established. The Jews had the particular misfortune of being a permanent and dispersed minority within territorial states dominated by others: quite apart from the historical basis of gentile hostility and the special force of Nazi racism, which singled them out for primary attention, this made it possible to imagine their total extermination. By this ultimate criterion, the Poles, Russians and other Slav nationalities (though not, it should be said, the Gypsies, a smaller, even more dispersed and less ‘cultured’ people) got off more lightly. But when the absolute numbers are so great – three million or so Jewish, three million non-Jewish citizens of Poland – it becomes a little ridiculous, not to say demeaning, to haggle about percentages. There is an element of special pleading about even the most thoughtful of the attempts to distinguish the theoretical as opposed to the mythical status of the term ‘Holocaust’, as if the memory of the six million might somehow be compromised by being compared with the many other millions of victims of Nazism. In Bauer’s words: ‘Not only were the six million Jews murdered by their enemies; they now stand in danger of having their unique martyrdom obliterated by their friends ... One does not have to confuse Holocaust with genocide in order to oppose the latter – or any other evil, for that matter.’ But to call the Holocaust the only example of absolute evil in human history (as Emil Fackenheim does) is not particularly helpful to the historian, whatever other purposes, emotional, mythical, religious, it may perform.
One way out of these difficulties is to historicise the ‘Holocaust consciousness’ by relating it to the new sense of Jewish identity which emerged after the Liberation. One of the most interesting moulders of this new identity, the youthful poet Abba Kovner, leader of the Vilna Ghetto rebellion and Jewish partisan, insisted that Nazi persecution had forged a new unity of the Jewish people: ‘In the ghettos the murderers made no difference between Jews and Jews. This is the reason that we found amongst ourselves a common language in the ghetto and forest. This mutual understanding we want to bring to all Jewish communities.’ In Flight and Rescue: Brichah, Yehuda Bauer described how the splintered fragments of East European Jewry were painfully reassembled into political networks in 1944-45, not as the basis for communal reconstruction, but for a remarkable feat of political migration to Palestine. As the survivors dragged themselves into DP camps or back to their former homes, only to find devastation and, very often, popular hostility, it became obvious to many that the past and the future had gone – ‘ashes strewn all over the Polish earth’, as Bauer puts it. The Zionist youth movements remained – Hashomer Hatzair, of which Kovner was a leading member, Dror and Betar – and many left-wing Jews from the pre-war Bundist and Communist traditions (of whom Hanna Lévy-Hass is an impressive example) became involved in the Communist People’s Democracies. But otherwise virtually nothing was left of the social, cultural and political life of Jewish Eastern Europe.
This was Nazism’s permanent and dreadful achievement. The machinery of terror was the ultimate leveller, not only reducing the Jewish population of an entire continent to a common fate, but leaving the survivors in a shared existential limbo, defined by the overpowering experience of the persecution, their culture and social identities apparently all but obliterated. But the effects of this process should not be allowed to become retroactive, obscuring the diversity of the Jewish response. The classic accounts, Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution and Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, were perhaps too impressed by the homogenising impact of the Nazi programme, and came in for a good deal of criticism in the Sixties and Seventies on this ground. Based mainly on documents left by the Germans themselves (together with the evidence assembled for the various war-crimes trials), they took an essentially bureaucratic representation of the process at face value, exaggerating its efficiency and presuming the passivity of Jewish reactions. This approach entered the realm of bitter public controversy after the Eichmann trial, when Hannah Arendt argued that the Jews had colluded in their own destruction, especially through the medium of the Jewish Councils whom Arendt accused of outright collaboration.
The Arendt controversy seems to have focused a good deal of the subsequent scholarship. Much effort has been expended in demonstrating the existence of Jewish resistance in occupied Europe and exploring its complex modalities. The 1968 Yad Vashem Conference marked an important stage in this process, and the pages of Yad Vashem Studies around that time provided ample evidence that much new work was afoot. A first fruit was Isaiah Trunk’s Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation, preceded ten years earlier by his as yet untranslated Lodzer Geto, which, with H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945, was until recently the only scholarly monograph on a specific ghetto. Also worth mentioning are Reuben Ainsztein’s more journalistic but remarkable compilation Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe, which contains excellent narratives of Jewish partisan activity, the major ghetto revolts and the rebellions in the camps, and Lucy Dawidowicz’s study of the Jews in Poland and Lithuania, The War Against the Jews 1933-1945. More recently, we have had Yitzhak Arad’s account of Vilna, Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews of Vilna and Yisrael Gutman’s cognate history of The Jews of Warsaw. Together these works go some way towards meeting Philip Friedman’s call in 1957 for a ‘Judeo-centric’ as opposed to a ‘Nazi-centric’ approach to Jewish history during the war, which would study the Jewish people ‘not only as the victim of a tragedy, but also as the bearer of a communal existence’.
One of the first myths to be laid by this work is that of the fatalistic East European Jews who, in the well-worn phrase, went ‘like sheep to the slaughter’. This was never much more than another version of the Ostjuden stereotype, and it may be no accident that two of its more important exponents – Hannah Arendt and Bruno Bettelheim – were representatives of the German-speaking as opposed to the Yiddish sector of Jewish intellectual culture. Of course, there was an important strain of quietism within the Jewish religion (as there is in most religions), normally but not exclusively associated with the Hasidic piety of backward Galicia. Yisrael Gutman reports a meeting of political representatives in the Warsaw Ghetto at the beginning of the great deportation of July-September 1942, and the words of Zisha Frydman, the spokesman for the conservative Agudat Yisrael: ‘I believe in God and in miracles. God will not allow his people, Israel, to be destroyed. We must wait, and the miracle will happen. Resistance is hopeless.’ This soon proved to be a minority position, at least among the politically active, and was quickly outpaced by the awful rush of events. Faced with the Ghetto’s impending liquidation, the incipient resistance followed a pattern replicated in most of the other major ghettos of the East: right and left-wing Zionists (and occasionally the Revisionists) converged with Bundist socialists and Communists for a final act of rebellion, which had as much to do with self-respect and the transmission of a legacy to future generations as with any real chances of success.
There can no longer be any excuse for simplistic generalisations about ‘fatalism’, ‘collaboration’ or lack of resistance. Gutman’s study of the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, is admirably attuned to the appalling complexities of the new Nazi-made environment. While the narrative is obviously geared to the emergence of the underground and the climactic expiation of the revolt itself, it also reports many other forms of activity which, under the circumstances, were necessarily oppositional. Practical subversion could be either material (smuggling, bribery, theft) or cultural (religious observance, educational provision, and sometimes quite elaborate forms of welfare activity), but in both cases, given the Nazi programme of demoralisation, morale-sustaining activities were understood to be vital. Record-keeping, as in the Oneg Shabbat Archive assembled under the inspiration of Emmanuel Ringelblum, acquired a special significance as a necessary commitment to posterity. If the ghetto’s ultimate destruction could not be deflected, the story at least would survive to be told.
In a sense, the entire organised activity of the Jews under the Nazi tyranny amounted to what Gutman aptly attributes to the youth movement in particular: namely, the creation of ‘a kind of existential enclave’. The Jews of Warsaw demonstrated extraordinary resourcefulness, whether in organising the comprehensive network of House Committees (which functioned as the Ghetto’s real associational fabric, beneath the level of the Judenrat’s official governance and the larger public sector grouped around the Jewish Social Assistance), sustaining the astonishing achievement of the underground press (evidence remains of 47 separate newspapers in the Warsaw Ghetto between early 1940 and summer 1942, from all parts of the political spectrum), or constructing the elaborate system of bunkers which temporarily frustrated the Nazis during the Ghetto’s final dissolution in May 1943. As Gutman and others have pointed out, it was the youth movements that provided most of the wartime energy, overcoming the paralysis of the older political generations while driving for resistance and some vision of the future. As Gutman says, the political culture of the underground delivered ‘a consolidated and reliable nucleus’ both for the Jewish Fighting Organisation and for the rallying of the ‘remnants’ after the Liberation. The youth movements ‘played a decisive role in the struggle by keeping together a united cadre of people who maintained and cultivated social norms and values during a desperate time’. Their achievement, in maintaining communications between the various ghettos, particularly Warsaw and Vilna, the twin centres of Jewish culture between the wars, in securing arms and other supplies, in performing acts of sabotage, and in continuously regenerating political consciousness, was extraordinary.
Gutman paints a fascinating picture of the Ghetto’s political organisation. A good part of Israeli political culture originated along the Warsaw-Vilna axis before and during the war, and, together with the first instalment of Ezra Mendelsohn’s authoritative history of Zionism in Poland, Gutman’s study provides an invaluable guide to these antecedents. He also gives us an appropriately nuanced account of the Judenrat under the honourable Adam Czerniakow. We now know from Trunk and others what should never really have been in doubt: that there were immense variations in the Councils’ behaviour in Eastern Europe. While Council leaders directly sponsored armed resistance or flight in only a minority of cases (of which the one in Minsk was the most important), outright ‘collaboration’ in the full sense of the term was still rarer, and there was a huge category of available responses in between. Czerniakow’s regime fell into this intermediate zone. Eschewing the deliberate strategy of ‘productivity’ (making the ghetto into an economic resource for the German war effort) pursued by several of the other Councils (Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz, Jacob Gens in Vilna, Ephraim Barash in Bialystok), he tried to create a buffer between the Nazis and the internal life of the Ghetto, preserving a limited autonomy by meeting some German demands.
This brings us right to the centre of the resistance issue. It may well be, as Bauer suggests in his contribution to The Holocaust as Historical Experience, that the Jewish predicament was so extraordinary as to shatter the conventional categories of the resistance/collaboration dichotomy. As the history of black slavery should have taught us, the most unpromising situations afford some space for negotiation, and the guilt-laden compromises of the Judenräte were no exception. But each of the decisions taken – to meet Nazi demands in order to modify them, to select certain categories of people for deportation over others, to distribute welfare to the ghetto poor rather than radically collectivising resources – involved a heavy moral expenditure. The most useful of the leadership’s protective devices (like the assignment of work papers, or the inflation of the ghetto’s public employment) involved discriminating against some in order to benefit others. Nor were the ghetto’s ordinary inhabitants untouched by these dilemmas. The constraints on consistent observance of a tolerant and liberal social morality were simply unimaginable. The very act of resistance penalised one’s fellows rather than helping them. The chances of success were minimal and collective reprisals ferocious.
Hanna Lévy-Hass was a teacher in Montenegro, active in Communist underground circles, when the war broke out. When the Germans moved into the former Italian occupation zone in autumn 1943, she found herself in the village of Cetinje among some thirty other Jews. She had decided to rejoin the partisans in the mountains, when a deputation of three young Jews came to see her. ‘Can your conscience,’ they asked, ‘bear the thought that in order to go and join the partisans, you will be sacrificing thirty other people? If you go, we shall all be shot.’ She stayed, was imprisoned with the rest, and in the summer of 1944 was deported to Bergen-Belsen, where she wrote the remarkable diary now published in English translation.
The global administrative history of the Final Solution has probably now been worked to exhaustion. Reference has already been made to the classic works by Reitlinger and Hilberg, and to them should be added the collaborative work of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte produced for the 1963-65 Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt and published in English as Anatomy of the SS State, and Uwe Adam’s Judenpolitik im Dritten Reich. Michael Marrus’s and Robert Paxton’s study of Vichy France now fills one important gap, while Randolph Braham’s new two-volume work on The Holocaust in Hungary, massively detailed, covering every aspect of the subject, and based on a lifetime of erudition, represents the apotheosis of the essentially administrative approach. In addition, detailed listings of deportations and of the fate of discrete Jewish communities have been published in Hebrew. There are numerous studies of individual communities, mainly in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. With the opening of the British, American and other records, the international dimension has now been treated in works by Bernard Wasserstein, Walter Laqueur and Martin Gilbert.
Some areas still require further research. In response partly to the outrageous claims made by David Irving, there has recently been some discussion of the exact timing and authorship of the specific decisions to exterminate the Jews. The strongest view (held by, among others, Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat and Christian Streit) now seems to be that the original mass-murder decisions of March-May 1941 were confined to broad categories of Soviet Jews, and that the general extermination programme took shape during the course of the Russian campaign itself. Helmut Krausnick’s and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm’s study of the Einsatzgruppen adds much weight to this view. It also establishes beyond any doubt that, whereas ultimate responsibility lay with Hitler, the planning and execution of the genocide evolved from a complex dynamic of decision-making which involved, not only Himmler, the SS and the various civil administrations, but also the Army, at all levels of its command.
Some regions of Europe still lack detailed accounts in English, the most important being the Soviet Union, Greece, Rumania and Yugoslavia. Despite an enormous literature on the camps (among which Eberhard Kolb’s unjustly neglected monograph on Bergen-Belsen still stands out), we still lack a comprehensive study which distinguishes the different types of installation and their variegated functions in the Nazi system of domination: Konnilyn Feig’s Hitler’s Death Camps provides a useful but impressionistic description of 19 major camps, and in the meantime we must be content with Henry Friedlander’s excellent conspectus in Human Responses to the Holocaust. Despite these gaps, however, the general picture is now fairly clear. It is rendered admirably accessible in two other new publications, Yehuda Bauer’s college textbook, A History of the Holocaust, and Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Holocaust. The latter, a model of careful and detailed representation, makes the mechanics of destruction and deportation clearer than I have ever seen them.
What possibilities are there for future work? One answer is to shift the focus from administrative to social history, and Jewish historians, exploiting Yiddish and Hebrew sources unused by other scholars, have moved in this direction. Here priority must be given to exploring the internal stratification and cultural cleavages of the various Jewish populations, including the forms of inequality generated by the makeshift political economies and social structures of the new East European ghettos. Another priority is to examine the impact of the forced population movements, which heaped Jews from all over Europe into a few densely confined urban locations during 1939-41 and thence into the camps. The new polyglot societies may have had a very brief and unstable existence, but the forms of solidarity and antagonism they produced are none the less interesting for that. We also need to know more about the variable historical context of anti-semitism in the different parts of Europe, plotted, not against the political and intellectual history of the period (which is quite well-known), but against the specific social settings which promoted anti-Jewish feeling. This played a key part in determining the differential harshness of indigenous support for Nazi policies.
The Jewish predicament in European society was not timeless and universal, but linked to specific historical conjunctures. In this sense, the epoch of modern anti-semitism begins with the pogroms and East European emigration of the 1880s and beyond, imposingly dealt with in Jonathan Frankel’s Prophecy and Politics. The territorial settlement and associated revolutionary upheavals of 1917-21, Soviet collectivisation and industrialisation drives in the Thirties, and the partial reconstitution of the Greater Russian imperium during the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939-41, further agitated the volatile ethno-cultural configuration of Eastern Europe, with profound repercussions for the security of the Jewish presence. Moreover, while the events originated in the East, their effects were displaced onto the West by the processes of Jewish migration, which in France effectively reversed the pro-Jewish trend of the Twenties. Gilbert’s Atlas shows the extraordinary diversity in the origins of the Jews deported from France to Auschwitz.
We might say that the Jewish and other peoples’ reactions to the Nazi war of annihilation only fully make sense as part of the complex historical geography of the nationalities question of Central and Eastern Europe. More specifically, they belong to the old contradiction between the dominant and the smaller nationalities. It is no accident that the nations with the worst records of active anti-semitism during and after the war were precisely the ones with a strong ‘historic’ sense of their own ‘right’ to a greater territorial nationhood: Poland, Hungary, Rumania and, in a slightly different way, France. The casualties of such claims, of course, were the smaller peoples with a history of social and political subordination and the least viable claim to any ‘historic’ territorial sovereignty, real or imagined: Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Belorussians, and so on. Other nationalities with a recent sense of frustrated statehood (Croatians, Lithuanians, to a great extent the Ukrainians) generated a nationalist cadre which also included a virulent anti-semitic and racialist strain. As the permanent universal minority of Central and Eastern Europe, geographically dispersed but city-concentrated, readily identifiable with a dominant and exploitative culture by a succession of mainly peasant peoples, the Jews were peculiarly vulnerable. In this slightly distorted sense, they were the last of the ‘history-less’ peoples.
The foregoing paragraphs are really an argument for setting ‘the Holocaust’ in context, not as a way of dissolving the special features of the Jewish experience as some Jewish historians fear, but to bring that specificity properly into focus. Ultimately, the Jews fell victim to the most vicious of the 20th-century attempts to mobilise ethnic contradictions for radically counter-revolutionary purposes, and to that extent their fate belongs to the inadequately understood history of Nazi plans for a New European Order. This is where we badly need some new work. There are good introductions in some of the general literature which do a good job of integrating the Jewish genocide into a larger analysis (and incidentally give the lie to the position maintained by Lucy Dawidowicz in The Holocaust and Historians). Moreover, there is enough evidence in the important collection of papers edited by Waclaw Dlugoborski, Zweiter Weltkrieg und Sozialer Wandel, to suggest that in Germany and Poland at least these matters are beginning to be addressed. There are also specific gains for the Jewish historian in dealing with the larger context, for as Christian Streit’s excellent book on the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, Keine Kameraden, has shown, some of the anti-Jewish measures were first tried out on other victims. So the limits of the ‘Judeo-centric’ history called for by Philip Friedman may already have been reached, and with them the true testing-point for the emergent Jewish historiography. When Jewish historians can also write about the impact of the Nazi occupation on Polish society, or on the character of, say, Polish-Ukrainian relations in the Thirties and Forties and the attitude of Jewish contemporaries to the Polish pacification of Ukrainian villages, or on the social basis of the anti-Nazi resistance in Belorussia, then the historiography of ‘the Holocaust’ will truly have entered its maturity.
Despite the sensationalism of the ‘Holocaust industry’, the emotional defensiveness of much public discussion, and the technical shoddiness of much of the published literature, the historical scholarship shows strong signs of good health. The need to confront the Nazi war of annihilation openly and conscientiously remains as vital as it ever was, and for the first time we may be approaching the point where a well-rounded understanding has become possible.
The following recent books on the Holocaust are referred to in this review:
The Holocaust and the Historians by Lucy Dawidowicz. Harvard University Press, 187 pp., £12, October 1981, 0 674 40566 8.
The Holocaust as Historical Experience, edited by Yehuda Bauer and Nathan Rotenstreich. Holmes and Meier, 288 pp., $24.50 and $12.50, 1981, 0 8419 0635 1.
Human Responses to the Holocaust: Perpetrators and Victims, Bystanders and Resisters, edited by Michael Ryan. Edwin Mellen Press, 278 pp., $34.95, 1981, 0 88946 976 8.
The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt by Yisrael Gutman, translated by Ina Friedman. Harvester, 487 pp., 30 September 1982, 0 7108 0411 3.
Zionism in Poland: The Formative Years, 1915-1926 by Ezra Mendelsohn. Yale University Press, 373 pp., £30, 22 April 1982, 0 300 02448 7.
Inside Belsen by Hanna Lévy-Hass, translated by Ronald Taylor. Harvester, 134 pp., £9.95, 30 September 1982, 0 7108 0355 9.
Vichy France and the Jews by Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton. Basic Books, 432 pp., $20.95, 1981, 0 465 09005 2.
The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, two vols, by Randolph Braham. Columbia University Press, 1,269 pp., $80, 1981, 0 231 04496 8.
Hitler’s Death Camps by Konnilyn Reig. Holmes and Meier, 576 pp., $39.50 and $19.50, 1981, 0 8419 0675 0.
Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges: Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD 1938-1942 by Helmut Krausnick and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 420 pp., 1981.
A History of the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer. Franklin Watts, 398 pp., $12.95, 1982, 0 531 09862 1.
Atlas of the Holocaust by Martin Gilbert. Michael Joseph, 256 pp., £9.95, 4 October 1982, 0 7181 21600.
Zweiter Weltkrieg und Sozialer Wandel: Achsenmächte und Besetzte Länder, edited by Waclaw Dlugoborski. Vandenhoeck und Rupprecht, 388 pp., DM69, 1982, 3 525 35705 2.