Gray zone, schmay zone
February 25, 2012 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Almost immediately upon my arrival in my first teaching job, I became the go-to guy for the Holocaust. Of course, this was partly due to my dissertation, but in larger part, I suspect, because of my Jewishness. This was fine with me for a number of reasons. First, as a junior faculty member, this identification, though merely professional, could only help in my quest for tenure. An expert on the Holocaust carried infinitely greater weight, I thought, than an expert on ministerial instability during the French Third Republic.

Dissolution: My life as an accidental Holocaust expert—and why I decided to quit
posted by timshel (13 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is that historians are expected to take the same mystical and theological approach to explaining the Holocaust that someone like Primo Levi has understandably adopted. The solution is that brief reference to Hilberg. One of the best Internet comments I have ever read was posted by matteo in the Metafilter obit thread for Raul Hilberg. Matteo said:

"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.
posted by jonp72 at 9:59 AM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Having once been honored with an invitation to join an opportunity to hear from Auschwitz survivors on a memorial day, as a foreigner, and as someone who'd accidently been introduced to many of the books at a very early age (starting with Babi Yar at age 9) - I am glad you found and posted this link here for me to read, Timshel. Thank you.
posted by infini at 10:11 AM on February 25, 2012

Despite the fullness of the Hilberg book (one came later by him), the focus is nearly always upon the "machinery" of the extermination and thus almost or seldom upon the victims, their feelings, their attempts to survive etc and so the work leaves one with a feeling of a detached clinician ...that needs what can be found elsewhere.

I could tell you first-hand accounts from survivors I had known that would bring tears to your eyes instantly; but you will not be so moved in reading Hilberg, as important as his work is.
posted by Postroad at 10:26 AM on February 25, 2012

The focus on the machinery seems to be a focus on the perpetrators, which is useful. How can you recognize a new holocaust in its early stages of development, if you don’t adequately study the process of the big one? I’d never heard the term “functionalism” before in this context, but I like it—it helps to illuminate how large scale, awful things can happen even when there seems to be no localized or visible intent. Thinking in particular about the n+1 prison thread from a week or so ago.
posted by migurski at 10:41 AM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

The problem facing historians is that the Holocaust is - for many people - as much a part of the present as it is part of the past. Few Israelis - or Palestinians for that matter - would say the Holocaust is history when they live with the consequences every day.
posted by three blind mice at 11:03 AM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow. Thank you for posting this.
posted by MissySedai at 1:48 PM on February 25, 2012

An individual participant in an historical event presents something of a problem for an historian. If the historian has done his/her duty correctly, he/she has read the writings of many participants (in the case of the Holocaust: victims, perpetrators, Allied soldiers, ordinary Germans and Poles, politicians on both sides, etc etc), written before and after and at the time of the event. Primary sources. He/she may have personally viewed relevant geographical places. The historian has also read chroniclers' works aggregating the above, viewed images of places, watched contemporary media, etc etc.

And now here is this person, who was there at the time, in one place, who says "you have it all wrong, it was nothing like how you say". For them, it's true, it wasn't. Their experience may be somewhat tinged by self-serving bias (and self-excoriating guilt); it may be faded by memory and that memory may itself be affected by PTSD and selection bias; however their experience is true for that individual. Yet the historian knows, if he/she has done the job correctly, that this individual's experience is an outlier.

Or conversely, the individual's experience may not be an outlier but the historian's topic concerns outlier behavior: "My unit didn't napalm any civilians and neither did any of my friend's units, so it couldn't have happened! You insult the army!"

Most people, especially in an agitated state, don't really get objectivity and certainly don't want to apply it to themselves or those they identify with. That's not how human beings naturally think. You can say to the guy, "You speak for yourself and those you interacted with. My research here is not something I personally made up. It included interviews with hundreds of people, and reading their writings and the writings of interviewers of thousands of people, and by saying I am wrong, you are saying that they are wrong," but it's a sure bet that this will just be interpreted as a status display thing and you'll lose the crowd anyway, because the crowd are humans and "testimony of someone who was there" and "loudly shouted statements" are massively overrated by the human brain (as are "expert credentials" and "standing on a high stage", FWIW).

So the best you can do is thank the gentleman and offer to talk to him afterwards. And maybe that offer is genuine; in the case at hand, it really should be. However what he has to say is not necessarily, from a historian's viewpoint, useful, and that is going to be hard to explain to him and to other non-historians there. Not because it's a difficult concept to grasp, they all probably use it in other areas of their lives, but because it will be emotionally confronting to grasp it. (Lawyers have the same problem with witnesses.)

Perhaps you may wish that you'd stuck with the French Revolution, where the odds of someone jumping up with "We only executed three nobles out of thirty we captured, we let the rest go!" or "I ensured that every family of serfs on all of my estates had good food and shelter, before I took any profit for myself!" are pretty slim.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:58 PM on February 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

The disparity between many peoples' awareness of the Holocaust as an emblem of evil, and their actual historical knowledge of it, is rather large. I can't recall how many times that I've heard an American say that their grandfather liberated Auschwitz. Unless they defected to the Soviet Union and joined the Red Army, this is, of course, impossible. Probably their Grandfather was in a unit that liberated one of the countless forced labor camps in Germany, or even Dachau. But, to many people, it seems that Holocaust = Auschwitz. There are even deniers who think that it's in any way germane to argue that it is impossible that 6 million people were killed in Auschwitz, ignorant of the millions of Jews killed in places like Sobibor, or shot at the edge of some ditch in the USSR.
posted by thelonius at 4:23 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a bit in Maus that stays with me. The narrator is talking about his complicated attitude to his father. He feels he can't criticise his father because he is a hero: he survived the Nazi's extermination program. The narrator's therapist asks, "So what about the people who died?"

That's the problem - we try to find some moral in the Holocaust, something praiseworthy in resistance or survival or whatever. But most Holocaust stories ended with "and then they were hustled down a corridor and killed". My grandfather survived because he was on Train A. His family died because they were on Train B. Where's the moral? He was sent to a farm as slave labor. He survived because conditions were not entirely horrible. But his brother in law was sent to a city, and caught typhus, and died. Where's the moral? My grandfather was brave and clever and engaging, and his survival undoubtedly had something to do with that - but many people with those qualities never had the chance to exhibit them before their lives were snuffed out. Creating a narrative in which he was special, in which he deserved to live, is just a discredit to the ones who were killed.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:45 PM on February 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Despite the fullness of the Hilberg book (one came later by him), the focus is nearly always upon the "machinery" of the extermination and thus almost or seldom upon the victims, their feelings, their attempts to survive etc and so the work leaves one with a feeling of a detached clinician ...

For me, that's a good thing, because that means I can actually read his books without getting all tangled up in the anger and fear and sadness of more emotional Holocaust books.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:01 AM on February 26, 2012

From the article:

The following night I settled in front of the TV and encountered a different kind of shock and awe. From that hourlong interview, 59 minutes had ended up on the editing room floor. In the 60 seconds that remained, I’d noted that the real Oskar Schindler was an alcoholic and a womanizer, adding that had it not been for the Holocaust, he would never have amounted to anything. But the news editor was not through with me. Sandwiched between my observations was an interview with another elderly survivor. He wasn’t Siggie, but no matter: Old and kindly looking, he rightly sang Schindler’s praises. No need to go on, I think. The bell for the first round had scarcely rung, and I was already down for the count, floored by the one-two combo of my own vanity and the modern news-cycle.

Now to me this does not sound like deciding to quit, but more like having three big nasty guys beat you up badly.
posted by bukvich at 7:20 AM on February 26, 2012

Excellent and admirably readable essay; I love this bit:
In my lectures on Levi or Frank, Borowski or Delbo, the metaphysical and, well, melodramatic undertow always pulled me away from the strictly historical and textual. I ignored dry-eyed and serious historians like Raul Hilberg and instead steeped in the theological ruminations of Emil Fackenheim. Looking back, I now believe my membership in the American Historical Association should have been revoked.
Incidentally, the best novel I know about the Holocaust is Grossman's Life and Fate, which I wrote about here.
posted by languagehat at 10:06 AM on February 26, 2012

This is fantastic reading, especially for anyone who's read up on Holocaust literature and knows the writers he's talking about (and perhaps Finkelstein as well). Thank you for this great post.
posted by shii at 7:50 PM on February 26, 2012

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