Holocaust History

Geoff Eley

‘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.

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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.