A Great Divide, Forever Divided

"Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker" by Nicolas Berg, Wallstein, 768 pages, 46 euros.

Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker, by Nicolas Berg, Wallstein, 768 pages, 46 euros

In "Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker," Nicolas Berg presents an indictment. In a double move, while attacking German historians specializing in the study of the Holocaust, he also tries to restore the respect that was once enjoyed by the Jewish "history of memory" and to strengthen it in its determined struggle against the guild of German historians.

The book meticulously describes how, since 1945, German historiography deliberately refused to understand the Holocaust and systematically rejected attempts by Jewish historians to provide a scientific context for their personal experiences and horrors. As Berg shows his readers, H.G. Adler, Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg, Leon Poliakov and Josef Wulf were all expected to prove to German historians that they were capable of discussing the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust in a sober-minded, objective manner. In effect, German historians believed that they were the only ones able to engage in such a discussion. After all, were not they the ones who developed theories, according to which no one bore guilt for anything?

Thus, for example, Martin Broszat, former director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, stubbornly argued, in an exchange of correspondence with historian Shaul Friedlander, that the German scholarly, theoretical perspective came very close to meeting the criteria of objective research, whereas Jewish scholarship sought the asylum of "memory and bereavement" or - to use Broszat's term - "the mythic memories of the victims."

The imagined tension between Jewish "emotionalism" and German "objectivity" lies at the heart of Berg's perception and research work. His book goes beyond merely an exchange of letters between a German historian and a Jewish one, and instead presents a dialogue (which apparently never really took place) between German and Jewish historians. As Berg demonstrates, it was German historians (Friedrich Meinecke, Gerhard Ritter, Hans Mommsen and many others) who denied that the Jews were capable of truly understanding the Holocaust.

For further reading:

Another take on the Eichmann Trial
Holocaust Studies / A picture worth six million names
Shoah, then and now

Claiming that they were meeting their professional obligations as historians in conducting a "historicization" of the period of the Holocaust, German historians were actually bent on"normalizing" the Holocaust, reducing its dimensions, and turning it into a brief 12-year episode in a magnificent German history spanning several millennia. In bypassing these 12 years, they hoped to enable their era - namely, that of postwar Western Germany - to return to the track of history. The presence of Jewish historians who attempted to participate in the German historiographic discourse and the lens they trained on this historical "episode" were sabotaging the normalization process.

One of these Jewish historians, Josef Wulf, the book's chief protagonist, paid for his efforts with his life. Wulf, a historian and Holocaust survivor who single-handedly established a unique documentation center, committed suicide in 1974 after years of vainly trying to obtain the Institute for Contemporary History's professional recognition and financial support. It was Wulf who, together with Poliakov, wrote the first books on the Holocaust published in Germany in the late 1950s, such as, for example, "Das Dritte Reich und die Juden: Documente und Aufsatze" and "Das Dritte Reich und seine Denker." In their books, Wulf and Poliakov turned the Holocaust's perpetrators into human beings: They became flesh-and-blood individuals and were not referred to merely as anonymous bureaucrats in a nontransparent organization. Wulf even referred to them specifically by name. Interested readers who want to peruse the detailed indexes in his books will find there the creme de la creme of the new West German elite, involved up to their necks in Nazi war crimes. But what would be the use of such a perusal since, in any case, the Jews have always been considered victims who never forget and never forgive their victimizers?

Target of criticism

In this context, Berg also discusses Germany's appropriation of Arendt. Totally divested of her original intention, Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" became one of the fundamental texts of the functionalist school of the Holocaust, a school of thought that explains the Holocaust within the context of the "cumulative radicalization" model (Hans Mommsen) of bureaucratic mechanisms competing with one another. According to this explanation, the mass-murder machine was not driven by the force of passions. The "banality of evil," the well-known term coined by Arendt, was taken completely out of context and became a catchword for this structuralist concept, which has recently become the subject of controversy. Mommsen treated with contempt the criticism voiced by Jewish historians regarding the functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust, and considered that criticism to be the expression of a Zionist perspective.

Berg, who today finds himself the target of criticism from these historians and their students, exposes this strategy as typical of a certain breed of German historians, who do not want Jewish historians "to rob them of the Holocaust." In a primitive act accompanied by a reversal of roles, the former victims were accused of preventing objective historical research and depiction of the process of their extermination. Berg succeeds in brilliantly uncovering the true character of the German historiographic discourse - as a discourse seeking to blur both the perpetrators' motives and the victims' identity while, at the same time, criticizing the inadequacy of memory as a historical tool.

Berg's presentation is impressive. He clarifies that, in modernity, the difference between the perpetrator's memory and that of the victim is an important and central aspect of the mutual absence of understanding. The memory of the Holocaust can develop along national lines, but it can also coalesce on the basis of the personal outlooks of the victims. However, this was not the issue that German historians were concerned with. In their eyes, the Holocaust would always be "Die deutsche Katastrophe" (Meinecke) - an exclusively German calamity. For Jews, the central issue in the study of the Jewish tragedy was different: As victims, they sought to preserve their right never to forget, never to forgive. The victims who survived believed that it was their mission to preserve that right. However, that does not mean that there is no possibility of conciliation, although one must ask what would be the borders of this conciliation. The political context in that question is of central interest.

Berg, a researcher at the University of Leipzig's Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture, rejected the illusion of the possible emergence of an objective joint German-Jewish narrative of the Holocaust. In his breath-taking description of the clash between German and Jewish history, Berg exposes the impossibility of a bridge between the two narratives. All that remains is the memory of a common history that will continue to be divided.

It is possible to argue that Berg attaches too much importance to the historian's capacity for determining the significance of historical events. Had he studied popular culture, Berg would have discovered that film directors like Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski have, for a considerable period of time, focused on the dialectics between emotionalism and objectivity - a dialectics with which Berg is deeply concerned. It is possible that in their attempts to determine the significance of historical events, historians lose their own significance. The many perspectives - Jewish, non-Jewish, secular and religious - compete for the use of collective memories and undermine the positions of the experts.

When one reads Nicolas Berg's book, it is difficult to regret that fact, especially when the positions being undermined are those of German historiography.

Prof. Natan Sznaider teaches at the Academic College of Tel Aviv.