The Holocaust scholar who was hard on the Jews
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.
Indeed, some comprehensive histories of the Holocaust had been published before - by Leon Poliakov (1951), Gerald Reitlinger (1953) and Joseph Tenenbaum (1956). But Hilberg's magnum opus served as the basic introductory study for all who entered the field of Holocaust studies with an analytical and scholarly approach.
The strengths - as well as the flaws - of Hilberg's study lie in two facts: First, he approached the Holocaust from a political scientist's point of view, not as a historian; as such, he viewed the Holocaust as one clearly defined unit, stretching over the years in which the Nazis ruled Germany, 1933-1945, and tried to present a neat model. Second, he focused on the bureaucracy of the state. Hilberg, a highly analytical scholar, with an enormous body of knowledge and an outstanding memory, succeeded in depicting a very clear picture of the bureaucracy of a modern, highly-developed state, which adapted itself to the vague goals set by the leader (Hitler).
The linear path of history
In his eyes, Hitler played actually a minor role in the development, because he himself did not know at the beginning (in 1933) where to lead the movement. Anti-Semitism was not new, and racism existed also elsewhere, such as in the United States. It was the bureaucracy that made the difference. It turned into a "machinery of destruction" (the key term developed by Hilberg), which escalated the whole process - in a linear path, through clear bureaucratic stages (definition of "the Jews," expropriation, concentration, extermination) - from vague beginnings to the enormous killing project which was symbolized by Auschwitz.
From this perspective, the lesson of the Holocaust was universal and related to the dangers of the modern state, which should find ways to balance and control the almost unlimited power and ability of the bureaucracy of the centralized government.
An interesting example of the functioning of an apparently unimportant bureaucratic institution was presented in another study in the 1970s: "German Railways, Jewish Souls." In this study, Hilberg showed how Reichsbahn officials made the deportation system function smoothly and efficiently (for instance: They offered SS clients transportation rate reductions if more Jews were pushed into trains, and exempted children under 4 from payment), and thus contributed their share.
With the rapid development of Holocaust research from the second half of the 1960s, Hilberg's book became a "must" in academic courses on the topic at universities. He therefore published an expanded 3-volume version in 1985, which was translated into many languages. In 2004 he published a third revised version. In the updated and revised versions he added much new material, but never changed his basic interpretation. He also hardly related to historiographical disputes, which affected Holocaust research. Even if the focus of his research was the machinery of destruction, it was he who introduced the categorization of three "players" in the Holocaust arena, which became widely used: perpetrators, victims and bystanders.
The fate of his book in Israel was twisted. Shortly after finishing the manuscript of his book, he presented it to Yad Vashem for publication (1957), through the mediation of Philip Friedman, perhaps the most eminent Holocaust historian at the time. Yad Vashem, headed by its chairman, historian Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, and its director, Dr. Jozeph Melkman (later: Michman, father of this writer), first agreed, but later declined. The reason was not the quality of the whole work - it was evaluated as the best comprehensive study to date - but Hilberg's evaluation of Jewish behavior vis-a-vis the Nazis, especially the Judenrate (Jewish Councils), whom he saw as a cog in the destruction machine.
He had written that "if we look at the whole Jewish reaction pattern, we notice that in its two salient features it is an attempt to avert action and, failing that, automatic compliance with orders. Why is this so? Why did the Jews act in this way? They hoped that somehow the German drive would spend itself. This hope was founded on a two-thousand-year-old experience. In exile, the Jews had always been in a minority; they had always been in danger; but they had learned that they could avert danger and survive destruction by placating and appeasing their enemies. This experience was so ingrained in the Jewish consciousness as to achieve the force of law. A two-thousand-year-old lesson could not be unlearned; the Jews could not make the switch [to resistance when their leadership realized] that the modern machine-line destruction process would engulf European Jewry."
Once rejected, later embraced
Hilberg had grown up in a Zionist revisionist family and youth movement (adherents of Jabotinsky) in Vienna, and his view of Jewish behavior in the diaspora, as well as of the Jewish Councils, was in the 1950s the dominant one in Israel too.
He had hoped that the major Holocaust memorial site in the Jewish state would be the first place to accept his book.
Therefore, Hilberg could not understand the decision of the Yad Vashem historians, who thought his was an unfair generalization of Jewish behavior; he felt insulted and remained critical of Yad Vashem for many decades to come. No other Israeli publisher took it upon himself to publish the book.
Later on, a second polemic would emerge. Hilberg was a scholar of documents, mainly of German ones. He also published Adam Czerniakow's diary (together with Yad Vashem's Joseph Kermisz), but remained extremely critical of the value of survivor testimonies until his death (see his Sources of Holocaust Research, 2001).
Yad Vashem and Hebrew University historian Prof. Israel Gutman, a participant of the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto and a survivor of Auschwitz, was very much in favor of using them, although with critical examination. They directly and indirectly clashed on this on several occasions.
Nevertheless, in spite of what has recently been claimed by some, Hilberg was never "banned," neither did he sever contacts with Israeli scholars. He wrote several articles for Yad Vashem publications and used its resources, and his book was (and is) used in Holocaust education at Israeli universities.
Hilberg himself was invited to Yad Vashem several times, and participated in its international conferences on the Jewish Leadership (1977) and on the history of Holocaust historiography (2004).
On the last occasion, the hall was packed during his concluding talk, which was attended by about 500 people. Immediately after that last conference, Yad Vashem decided, together with several universities and research institutions, to finally undertake the translation of Hilberg's book, and he responded enthusiastically. While working on the manuscript, he constantly made updates and responded to questions raised by the Yad Vashem experts; the Hebrew version, which will hopefully be ready in the forthcoming year, will therefore be the most updated and precise version.
Unfortunately, he will not be present at the closing of the circle, to which he so much looked forward.
The writer is a professor of modern Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University and chief historian at Yad Vashem.