“I study dead Jews”
August 7, 2007 6:59 AM   Subscribe

"So much for “never again.” So the problem has obviously not disappeared."
Raul Hilberg (1926-2007, NYT obit) explains why he added a chapter on Rwanda to the last edition of The destruction of the European Jews, a work that took him a lifetime and 3 editions to complete, meeting with indifference, then with criticism from those who didn't share his (at the beginning) functionalist view of the Holocaust. Hilberg became involved in other controversies about the Holocaust, but "The Destruction..." remains the "the closest of any work in print to being the Summa of Holocaust studies" (Christopher Browning). Also: Hilberg intervied by Claude Lanzmann in "Shoah" (YT) (previously).
posted by elgilito (41 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
That first interview is an excellent read. Sounds like he was a smart and passionate fellow.
posted by chunking express at 7:51 AM on August 7, 2007


.
posted by felix betachat at 7:54 AM on August 7, 2007


That Functionalism/Intentionalism link was thought-provoking, thanks. I'll no doubt read the rest when I have time.
posted by Leon at 8:01 AM on August 7, 2007


I'm certainly a "cumulative radicalisation" adherent, primarily because I think that excessive application of the intentionalist argument essentially places all the blame on Hitler, thereby absolving the German people. (See my comment on Der Untergang.)

I believe I read a (devastating, it seemed at the time) takedown of Hilberg in Harper's or The Atlantic around the time of Mason's essay. It may have been written by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. I'd like to revisit that article if I could identify it.
posted by dhartung at 8:14 AM on August 7, 2007


The RH book is indeed a masterpiece but it is in some respects so cold and statistical that is removes the horror of what tookplace. I am not explainin g the feel of the book in this brief comment bjut if you go to his book you wil see what I am trying to explain. RH was later working on a study of the trains used for transporting the victims and the usefulness of this approach was to indicate that what was taking place had to be known by very many Germans at the time.

As for the Finklestein book, which I have not read, I would prefer that the dark history of our century be made know than that all be silenced because that author considers studies of the Holocust an "in dustry." So, too, is a study of slavery in the
American South, with the exception that hardly anyone asking for reparations. On the other hand, if you lost your children and your home and your job etc...don't you go to court to get reparations if possible?
posted by Postroad at 8:19 AM on August 7, 2007


It’s peace, it’s the nineties, and nothing is done. So much for “never again.” So the problem has obviously not disappeared.

Of course it hasn't. Why? Because we're knife-fanged war apes--and we've been that way ever since we--as homo sapiens</em--began killing off other two-legged rivals 100,000 years ago. Fear of the other, leading to genocide, is really part of who we are. There's nothing new under the sun.
posted by John of Michigan at 8:22 AM on August 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Possibly the thing that makes me respect him the most, aside from his obvious scholarship and tenacity:
I have come to the conclusion, not once but several times, that, as far as I am concerned, I do not agree with legislation that makes it illegal to utter pronouncements claiming that there was no Holocaust. I do not want to muzzle any of this because it is a sign of weakness not of strength when you try to shut somebody up. Yes, there is always a risk. Nothing in life is without risk, but you have to make rational decisions about everything.
(From the first link)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:30 AM on August 7, 2007


>>Fear of the other, leading to genocide, is really part of who we are.

It doesn't have to be that way.
posted by SaintCynr at 8:33 AM on August 7, 2007


It doesn't have to be that way.

I know that, you know that, the population of the world knows that. But you know who doesn't know that? That nasty little reptilian center of our brains, that little id that evolved only because it mistrusted the Other, hated the Other.

Now, yes, we've got big, fat mammal brains, with muscular cortexes, and we should realize that we're all in this together, that we're all pretty much the same, anyway, and, for fuck's sake, we should just be kind to each other.

But wishing isn't going to make it happen. Go back, look at human history. We're the third branch of the chimpanzee family. Monkeys in trousers.

It doesn't have to be that way. God damn, I wish you were right.
posted by John of Michigan at 8:39 AM on August 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I took from SaintCynr's comment that (s)he meant that the fear doesn't have to lead to genocide, and I don't think it does.

Also, I thought Hilberg's comments on Finkestein's work were interesting. Did I detect a trace of generational conflict between the victims of the Holocaust and those of younger generations who are 'representing' them?
posted by athenian at 8:50 AM on August 7, 2007


John of Michigan: Of course it hasn't
Hilberg's point was not so much that genocide cannot happen again (reptilian brain and all), but that in spite of what we know, in spite of the mechanisms put in place after WW2 to prevent them (and scholars like himself took part in this by describing the "red flags" specific to genocidal situations: RH's work is somehow an exhaustive case study of a genocide considered as such), those mechanisms completely failed in the case of Rwanda. At the end of the 3rd edition of "The destruction...", he makes a clear parallel between the Rwandese genocide (that had ancient and well-known causes) and his model of the Holocaust. The last words of the 3rd edition are actually "History repeated itself".
posted by elgilito at 8:58 AM on August 7, 2007


[We must examine] those aspects of what happened which are still taboo. What is taboo is the life of a terminal Jewish community in some ghetto and the notion that some people died first, then other people died next, still other people died last [...] Example: the first to die were the poorest of the poor.
Is he suggesting that some people were thrown to the wolves, that they were less capable of surviving (fewer resources, perhaps), or that they didn't have skills that were useful to the Nazis so they weren't kept alive to work? I'm having trouble parsing.
posted by Leon at 9:08 AM on August 7, 2007


"Is he suggesting that some people were thrown to the wolves, that they were less capable of surviving (fewer resources, perhaps), or that they didn't have skills that were useful to the Nazis so they weren't kept alive to work? I'm having trouble parsing."
I don't want to put words in his mouth, but what I think he was getting at, is that it wasn't the Nazis who necessarily chose which Jews went to the camps first. There was a certain degree of self-selection (on the part of the Jews, not by individuals necessarily). Since some people will probably call that 'collaboration,' and it undermines the idea of all Jews as being equally victims of an outside enemy (the Nazis), it's understandably controversial.

But there are pretty indisputable cases of Jewish governments in the ghetto communities who were left to choose which people among them would be 'deported' next, and there's been very little study of which people they chose and why (although from Hilberg's quote, apparently -- and unsurprisingly -- the poor were the first to go). I think Hilberg is suggesting that this area is worthy of study, even if it's not particularly pleasant.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:19 AM on August 7, 2007


The genocide in Rwanda was at least as much the result of post-Hitler politics as it was otherwise.

There were two key consequences of World War II at international law: rapid decolonization, and the sanctity of sovereignty. Rwanda was decolonized without any effort to stabilize Hutu and Tutsi political and social relations, and a tremendous presumption was raised against any kind of involuntary intervention -- it was widely thought that we couldn't send troops to Rwanda unless the Rwandan government invited them, regardless of the humanitarian result. Gross massacres -- like those of Khmer Rouge -- were seen as the consequence of failing to honor those mandates fully (i.e., the unwillingness to decolonize with no strings attached, the bombing of Cambodian portions of the Ho Chi Minh trail). More recent interventions which tested these limits -- like Somalia in 1992-1993 -- were seen to validate the wisdom of the limits, as well.

Far from avoiding future Rwandas, they're considerably more likely now than they were a few years ago. While intervention in the former Yugoslavia was driven by reaction from the Rwandan situation, it never was truly validated at international law. The doleful outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has probably moved the ball entirely back to the pre-Rwanda status quo. If it's 2010 and Hillary Clinton and Gordon Brown have to choose between invading (say) Nigeria or allowing a genocidal rampage against some disfavored group there, you wouldn't be smart to bet on the invasion.
posted by MattD at 9:31 AM on August 7, 2007


I would prefer that the dark history of our century be made know than that all be silenced because that author considers studies of the Holocust an "industry."

I think part of the problem is that intellectualizing such horror is a form of desecration - by seeking to articulate, into words, what was essentially incomprehensible horror, non-participants who discuss the events of the Holocaust are, in a small, but not insignificant way, committing a crime against those who were murdered.

Lanzmann's Shoah may be the only effective and empathetic attempt to document what happened.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:56 AM on August 7, 2007


It's quite simple, people hate the other since the other doesn't share their genes. A solution is to spread the meme that memetic propogation is more important; and therefore one must make alliances with inherently winner mems like scientific memes.

Just tell people why they should care about theiy kids : memetic propogation. And why their genetic instincts are harmeful : outdate by memetic evolution.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:56 AM on August 7, 2007


I think part of the problem is that intellectualizing such horror is a form of desecration - by seeking to articulate, into words, what was essentially incomprehensible horror, non-participants who discuss the events of the Holocaust are, in a small, but not insignificant way, committing a crime against those who were murdered.

That's the same kind of nonsense as was being argued in the Uri Geller thread.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:00 AM on August 7, 2007


I think if Koku added "are felt by some to be. . ." before "committing" everything might be alright.
posted by absalom at 10:13 AM on August 7, 2007


. . . with his statement.
posted by absalom at 10:14 AM on August 7, 2007


what was essentially incomprehensible horror

Speak for yourself.
posted by dhartung at 10:16 AM on August 7, 2007


Military parades, the glorious dead. Odes to our fallen, and bloody retribution. Fear and dominance. Hate. Ego. But then... the end of slavery? (I think it's over) The end of small pox? (It's safely stored somewhere) Maybe, just maybe, the end of murder. Some revelation I can't see.

One day there will be the last murdered man. Either because of the ultimate holocaust, or because we figured something out.

I hope for the latter. There are no other options.
posted by Alex404 at 10:33 AM on August 7, 2007


I've noticed that since you can't compare anybody to the Nazis ever for any reason, that "Never Again" basically means: "Never again will Nazis kill Jews in Europe in the 1930s"
posted by empath at 10:42 AM on August 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


We can say whatever we want about the Holocaust. But why are we saying it?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:07 AM on August 7, 2007


We can say whatever we want about the Holocaust. But why are we saying it?

What's the alternative: pretending it never happened, not trying to figure out what factors contributed to it, and just crossing our fingers in hopes that it never happens again? Or should we just sensationalize it to the point that most people only half-believe it ever really even happened and then only in some far away universe not very much like ours, populated by subhuman Nazi-demons with absolutely nothing in common with good normal people like us, and the likes of which, thankfully, shall never be seen again, kind of like we have done? And this is not just a much more insidious form of holocaust denial how? What is the point of this comment?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:47 AM on August 7, 2007


I think part of the problem is that intellectualizing such horror is a form of desecration - by seeking to articulate, into words, what was essentially incomprehensible horror, non-participants who discuss the events of the Holocaust are, in a small, but not insignificant way, committing a crime against those who were murdered.

Calling the horror incomprehensible would seem to shut the door on understanding why it happened and why it shouldn't or will happen again, as if it were pointless to proceed. (Or are you roundaboutly placing fault with those who are listening, as if we are too desensitized to such horrors to really understand them?) Were I to be so brutalized, I can only imagine that I would want it discussed time and again, by participants or non-, if only as a warning of the realities of what people will do to each other. Not to mention that the participants aren't hanging around much longer, and personally, I would prefer that the generations to follow have some means to connect with this part of our history--not as a cold, isolated historical document but as something with relevance and modern context.
posted by troybob at 12:00 PM on August 7, 2007


There are a lot of genocides that are underreported. In the twentieth century: Armenia, Belgian Congo, Brazil's slaughter of Indians, Poland's slaughter of Germans after World War II.
I'm not trying to dismiss Rwanda or the Nazi holocaust, just saying mankind is an oxymoron.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:03 PM on August 7, 2007


KokoRuy: Lanzmann's Shoah may be the only effective and empathetic attempt to document what happened.

Since Hilberg was interviewed by Lanzmann for Shoah, he's himself part of that documentation process...
It is true that "The destruction..." is not empathetic. As Postroad mentioned above, it's a very cold, statistical piece of work, describing every little cog of the destruction engine. But this detachment allows an understanding of a different nature, that is at least as much necessary. A very strong point made by Raul Hilberg was that the genocide was committed not just by a handful of assassins, but by an entire bureaucratic system made up of people who were basically doing their job, not even aware (but they didn't look that hard) that the little, regular-looking piece of paper - an invoice, an order for office supplies - they forwarded up or down the bureaucratic chain in some administration or company far, far away from the battlefields, the ghettos and the death camps, had something to do with murder. There's an impressive description of how the railways were used for the genocide, for instance. This cannot be conveyed only through the testimonies of victims: only figures and hard data can show it.
posted by elgilito at 12:11 PM on August 7, 2007


There are a lot of genocides that are underreported. In the twentieth century: Armenia, Belgian Congo, Brazil's slaughter of Indians, Poland's slaughter of Germans after World War II.

good point, dances_with_sneetches. the holocaust has been sensationalized to the point we can't even imagine killing on such scale happening right under our noses, and yet, even now, as many as 900,000 Iraqis have died as a result of our military occupation. Obviously, those casualties aren't the result of a systematic campaign to kill Iraqis, but whatever else it is, it's still a catastrophic loss of human life caused by intentional violence on a massive scale. If any common causes underlie such events shouldn't we try to figure them out and cut them out at the root?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:19 PM on August 7, 2007


There was a certain degree of self-selection (on the part of the Jews, not by individuals necessarily). Since some people will probably call that 'collaboration,' and it undermines the idea of all Jews as being equally victims of an outside enemy (the Nazis), it's understandably controversial.

There has to be a better word than "collaboration" to describe people's actions in these circumstances. I'm not sure what it would be, but "collaboration" doesn't so much imply that not all Jews were equally victimized (which is indisputable and well-documented, a la Eichmann in Jerusalem) as it erroneously suggests an alliance between equals. As a concept, I don't think it's very useful in helping us understand people's choices and actions under horrific constraints, and does not really illuminate what it means to be in an impossible situation, one that offers only limited and terrible choices. Cf The Lives of Others.

the holocaust has been sensationalized to the point we can't even imagine killing on such scale happening right under our noses.

It's not the "sensationalization" of the Holocaust, which makes it sound as if it's history's equivalent of Lindsay Lohan's DUI. It's the cheap and self-righteous comfort we take in assuring ourselves "never again," which seems to function laregly as dispensation to let ourselves off the hook from trying to prevent it happening again, or address it when it is happening. Cf Darfur.

Thanks so much for one of the most thoughtful and illuminating obits I've seen on Mefi.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:54 PM on August 7, 2007


Part of what makes "The Destruction..." so important is the extent to which it highlights precisely the systematic campaign that made the Shoah so differently horrific.
posted by OmieWise at 12:56 PM on August 7, 2007


A very strong point made by Raul Hilberg was that the genocide was committed not just by a handful of assassins, but by an entire bureaucratic system made up of people who were basically doing their job, not even aware (but they didn't look that hard) that the little, regular-looking piece of paper - an invoice, an order for office supplies - they forwarded up or down the bureaucratic chain in some administration or company far, far away from the battlefields, the ghettos and the death camps, had something to do with murder.

This is indeed the most important point to come out of Hiberg and it's a very real shame that this lesson has never been taken to heart. The world was so eager to declare the Nazis as monsters and thereby contain the evil that it should be no surprise at all that the same mistakes would occur over and over. Intentionalism simply has no place in the study of politics and thus also history. Politics isn't about individuals, it's about systems. It's these systems that have littered history with so many various atrocities and in this regard the Holocaust was only the perfection of the form.

And yes, do look at Iraq today. The entire mess was predicated on the absolute ridiculous fiction that a single man was so downright terrible (the Hitler of the Week) that we needed to destroy an entire country to stop him from carrying out his dastardly plans. And now you see again the rise of a malignant system slowly consuming an entire country and yet all we ever hear about are the various villains and heroes that the media and politicians create anew each month. Perhaps one day humanity will mature enough to recognize the total failure of thinking of events as the products of individuals but until then...
posted by nixerman at 1:11 PM on August 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Go back, look at human history. We're the third branch of the chimpanzee family. Monkeys in trousers.

We're animals. Absolutely. We're animals who happen to have the capacity to learn, to record, and to pass on to the next generation much more than the contents of our germline cells. Even amid myriad setbacks, there is progress. Excruciatingly slow though the learning may be, there is learning. Perhaps we shouldn't take the trousers for granted. I find them quite useful, personally.
posted by zennie at 1:17 PM on August 7, 2007


My apartment building is sitting on land that was occupied by an indigenous tribe a couple hundred years ago that is now extinct. I took a diversity class a few months ago and the teacher told us their name; I looked them up and there were a couple of articles google-able. Alas, I have since completely forgotten the name.
posted by bukvich at 2:08 PM on August 7, 2007


The genocide in Rwanda was at least as much the result of post-Hitler politics as it was otherwise.

Good comment, but the one part you're missing is that the Belgian attitude towards Rwanda during colonial times was to specifically play up the differences between the Hutus and Tutsis, creating a situation where antagonism was not only was tolerated but actively encouraged. In this way, what happened next can be seen as a continuation of Colonial-era rule rather then simply as an anomaly or because of post WWII politics. Furthermore a parallel between western european colonialism and Hitler's racially-driven politics is not hard to see.
posted by cell divide at 2:34 PM on August 7, 2007


"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
posted by absalom at 2:41 PM on August 7, 2007


Hillberg is difficult.

He's difficult because he's not taking any shit from anybody. he's not groveling for a wide audience, he's not coating his research with easy-to-quote pop theories the way Goldhagen did, or with cynically sprinkled bits of graphic descriptions of Nazi savagery, strategically placed the way action film directors place chase scenes -- I mean, all his dry chapters about train schedules, come on, what about a gouged-out-by-Mengele eye here, a gang raped teenager there, the way so many best-selling Shoah historians do. Hilberg's the greatest enemy of the banality that gives pop historians -- all of them, not just Shoah scholars -- a reason to exist.

he's not popular also because he mercilessly demolished two huge names of pop history, Arendt and Davidowicz, and it makes many academics and especially the general readership uncomfortable, because they're user-friendly resources for general readers (Arendt even coined that tired mantra, the banality of evil, most misunderstood quote ever); he also tore to pieces a big name, Goldhagen, and took Harvard down with DJG, and that didn't help either.

he's not popular because he never was a PR man -- he never kissed Yad Vashem's ass and calmly wrote about his tense relationship with them; he skipped the facile appeals to brotherhood among men and actually boycotted Germany for many decades, and that took balls, bigger balls than actually pretending he had no beef with Germany when in fact he still felt he had one. he's not popular because even if he didn't agree with everything Finkelstein says, he agreed with some, and said so, and that made him radioactive because the general PC view is that Finkelstein is Jeffrey Dahmer -- to be safe from attacks, apparently Shoah historians, if they're Jewish, are supposed to support Israel 1,000%, or to pretend they do, but Hilberg didn't, not 1,000%, and never pretended that he did.

Hilberg also wrote the most important history book of the 20th century -- and one of the most important in the history of, well, History studies -- because he gives the entire blueprint, he explains painstakingly how it happened.

How it happened. It's all there, forever. It's impossible to say anymore that the Shoah is unexplicable -- if you say it is, you haven't read Hilberg, so shut up and go read him instead. Hilberg wrote the one dictionary/grammar book to learn the language of the extermination of the Jews. without it, you're lost. and you get all mystical, like Hitler to do what he did must have had superpowers -- he didn't. he had people around him who devised a very clear, easy-to-deploy plan that, in the end, didn't even need orders to be issued because "everybody knew what they had to do", in the Professor's unforgettable words. and they did it.

he's also the greatest enemy of the deniers -- those slimy fucks will always argue that survivor testimony is faked or exaggerated (see their attacks on even Wiesel). but when we're all dead, centuries from now, everybody will go to Hilberg and say, this is how happened, this is how Nazi Germany murdered millions of Jews.

to have future generations say "this is how it happened". it's what history is about. and no topic in the 20th century, possibly ever, deserved to have such a book.

may professor Hilberg's memory be forever blessed for this.
posted by matteo at 3:11 PM on August 7, 2007 [14 favorites]


"deserved more to have such a book.", obviously
posted by matteo at 3:16 PM on August 7, 2007


The genocide in Rwanda was at least as much the result of post-Hitler politics as it was otherwise.

I'm less favorable toward "humanitarian" forms of military intervention (largely because I view the concept as almost oxymoronic), but I think you have a strong point here. The Holocaust was on such a huge scale that we have become inured to mass humanitarian tragedies that occur on a smaller scale. It's as if we say to ourselves, "Yes, I suppose it could be genocide, but is it really a holocaust?"
posted by jonp72 at 4:01 PM on August 7, 2007


Matteo, thanks so much for that summary, analysis and tribute! I was intrigued by one of your points:

he's not popular also because he mercilessly demolished two huge names of pop history, Arendt and Davidowicz, and it makes many academics and especially the general readership uncomfortable, because they're user-friendly resources for general readers (Arendt even coined that tired mantra, the banality of evil, most misunderstood quote ever)


I haven't read Hilberg, but I have read Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, and I'm interested in how his analysis differs from hers. They both seem to emphasize the significance of bureaucracy and the ways in which people function and make choices within them, so I'd assumed there was some degree of common ground between the two books (I'm thinking of Arendt's line, which I've cribbed from Wikipedia: "He did his duty...; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.") I'd be eager to hear more on this point.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:18 PM on August 7, 2007


foxy, if you read The Politics of Memory, it's all there
Hilberg saved his more scathing critiques for Nora Levin, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Hannah Arendt. Nora Levin's The Holocaust (1968) borrowed heavily from both Gerald Reitlinger's work and Hilberg's (pp. 142-43). Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews (1975) builds "largely on secondary sources and conveying nothing whatever that could be called new." The second half of her work addressed the basic issue of Jewish resistance. Dawidowicz, according to Hilberg, included into her ranks of Jewish resisters "soup ladlers and all others in the ghettos who staved off starvation and despair." Hilberg strongly suggested that "nostalgic Jewish readers" would find here "vaguely consoling words, [which] could be easily clutched by all those who did not wish to look deeper." Recounting Henry Friedlander's contribution to the American Historical Review in 1982, Hilberg listed twenty-three key authors whose works Dawidowicz did not use in her own work. Hilberg finished Dawidowicz with the statement: "To be sure, Dawidowicz has not been taken all that seriously by historians" (pp. 145-47).

Hannah Arendt's works on totalitarianism and her accounts of the Eichmann trial were important inspirations for Hilberg. Upon reviewing her work Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), Hilberg was startled to find no footnotes and only a minor acknowledgement of her use of his work and that of Reitlinger's. Hilberg pointed out, furthermore, that Arendt's "reliance upon my book had already been noticed by several reviewers." As for Arendt's concept of the banality of evil, Hilberg stressed that Arendt never understood "the pathways that Eichmann found in the thicket of the German administrative machine for his unprecedented actions. ... There was no 'banality' in this 'evil.'" Furthermore, Arendt separated "Jewish leaders from the Jewish populace" to account for Jewish cooperation in the destruction. However, Arendt's response to Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jewry was negative. Writing to Karl Jaspers in 1964, Arendt wrote: "His book is really excellent, but only because it is a simple report. A more general, introductory chapter is beneath a singed pig" (p. 155). Hilberg does not let Arendt off the hook. Hilberg stated that Arendt reestablished ties with a lover from her days as a student, namely Martin Heidegger, and sought to rehabilitate him. Hilberg's point is obvious.
posted by matteo at 7:00 PM on August 7, 2007


Thanks, Matteo! This just makes me all the more interested in reading Hilberg.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:28 PM on August 7, 2007


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