Conscious Pariahs: Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt
April 6, 2010 3:07 PM   Subscribe

From The Nation, a 7400-word discussion of Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, and Hannah Arendt, author of Eichmann in Jerusalem, their relationships to each others' scholarship as well as to their complicated Jewish identities.
posted by cgc373 (20 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Hilberg's book is way better researched.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:26 PM on April 6, 2010

Wow. That's important. Thanks.
posted by No Robots at 3:54 PM on April 6, 2010

Hilberg's book is way better researched.

That's an understatement:

As Hilberg read Arendt's articles about Eichmann, he noticed a number of striking similarities to his own research. He tallied them on an accounting spreadsheet stored in the accordion folder with the New Yorker issues. At the bottom of the spreadsheet he divided the instances into "cert." and "prob." and penciled hash marks next to each category. Among the flagged passages is Arendt's account of the plight of Bernard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest in Berlin who was condemned to a concentration camp after speaking out against the deportation of the Jews. Hilberg noted the page on which Arendt's version appeared and next to it wrote, in red ink, "verbatim."
posted by KokuRyu at 3:56 PM on April 6, 2010

Despite his derision, Hilberg declined to publicly air his grievances. As a result, the scale of Arendt's debt to him has remained largely unknown.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:58 PM on April 6, 2010

Wow, that is really a great article; I tried to whip through it, but it wouldn't let me.

Just as well, every sentence is worth pondering.
posted by jamjam at 4:00 PM on April 6, 2010

Sorry one more thing:

It is often forgotten that Arendt folded Eichmann's story into a more general account of the Holocaust--the table of contents of Eichmann in Jerusalem resembles a timeline of the event--and that this broader context introduced innumerable readers to the idea of the Holocaust. Arendt does not appear to have done research in archives with German documents, and given how little had been written on the subject she had few options when she looked for published sources of background material. There was, of course, one source that contained it all: The Destruction of the European Jews.

Excellent article, thanks for this post!
posted by KokuRyu at 4:10 PM on April 6, 2010

Yes, I'm very grateful for this post.

Long ago I struggled through Hilberg's Destruction but I have never got around to reading Arendt, and know her only second-hand.

I get the feeling that Ironmouth's comment is a bit unfair, in that it appears that Arendt was not originally aiming for a scholarly work in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but began it as a journalist, not a historian. I'm not sure whether it's appropriate to hold her to the same standard.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:12 PM on April 6, 2010

complicated Jewish identities.

This phrase is full of redundancies.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:15 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Terrific article--thanks for posting.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:25 PM on April 6, 2010

I got something from both works, but I've always seen Arendt's as a more philosophical work, with the details of Eichmann's 'career' and trial as nothing more than the basic fodder for a pretty compelling set of ideas. So I agree with i_am_joe's_spleen - I don't think she was aiming for the same thing as Hilberg at all, and I see some of this dispute as irrelevant to reality. But I was glad to learn a bit about the development of Holocaust studies and Hilberg's crucial role in it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:43 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is just not sensible, as noted above, to compare two works that in no way attempt to do the same thing. It has been many years since I read both works, but if Arendt has lifted heavily from Hilberg, that is simply another mark against her--she has in the last few years been linked romantically with Heidegger. Her thesis was at the time very provocative and had many writers arguing both for and against her position. Hilberg, with immense scholarship (he later revised his book and added to it; I am unsure but he was working, i believe on another book about the trains used to transport Jews to show that there had to be an awareness among average Germans of what was going on. As I recall his book lacks all emotion (that is ok) and is a carefully researched statistical account of who did what, where, when...The Why of it all is left out.

Rather than diss one in favor of the other, we might perhaps gain more by embracing both books. Arendt, if she has taken materials without acknowledgement, still has a point worth considering, and clearly she is neither the first nor will she be the last to borrow from others and unconsciously or otherwise weave it into her own work.
posted by Postroad at 5:35 PM on April 6, 2010

I studied the Holocaust as part of my history degree in the early 90s and this article is fascinating - as the whole "functionalism (or structuralism) versus intentionalism" debate was not much more than 20 years old when I was in school, and I guess can be traced back to these two folks.

Once again, great post.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:43 PM on April 6, 2010

Really great, especially in the context of the Arendt articles that have been coming out lately, particulalry those accusing her of anti-semitism. All a complicated mash.
posted by klangklangston at 7:04 PM on April 6, 2010

This is fascinating.
posted by Partario at 8:46 PM on April 6, 2010

Oh, gosh. That seemed a bit sarcastic, but I was being serious. This is great.
posted by Partario at 8:49 PM on April 6, 2010

Serious question: should I read Hilberg if I have only a casual interest in knowing about the Holocaust generally?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:56 PM on April 6, 2010

Joe in Australia, the answer is, No, you should not. Hilberg recounts the entire history of the social order in Germany that allowed and then performed the orderly extermination of the Jews in Europe. It's exhaustive and overwhelming, and a casual interest does not justify the effort it takes to appreciate Hilberg's immense book. Instead I'd suggest (as I have before) Richard L. Rubenstein's book The Cunning of History. It's how I learned about Hilberg's work in the first place, and provides an intense but brief survey of the same material.
posted by cgc373 at 11:06 PM on April 6, 2010

Thank you very much.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:46 PM on April 6, 2010

Great read. Just finished teaching the Holocaust this week and I'm glad to have had some quality professors in college who made me read aware of both of the authors, their ideas and insight into understanding this difficult subject. Thanks for sharing.
posted by dealing away at 12:13 AM on April 7, 2010

Great article, great post. I own Hilberg's book (and not Arendt's), but knew very little about him, and I'm grateful to have that remedied.
posted by languagehat at 1:38 PM on April 7, 2010

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