Thursday, August 09, 2007

Raul Hilberg Obituary

Raul Hilberg, one of the most eminent Holocaust historians, died a few days back. An obituary from the London Times and another report from sign and sight.

Only a few months back I read an abridged version of The Destruction of European Jews and also his short autobiography The Politics of Memory. I had written about the later on the blog some time back (link here, scroll down). The holocaust book is quite tough to read even in the short abridged version and not for the obvious reason. If anyone had any doubt about history being an empirical and scientific subject one should check this book. There are charts, figures, tables galore in the book. The victims and and the victimisers both remain hidden behind the numbers. Instead what we get is a detailed account of bureaucracy, who reported to him, who gave orders to whom, the numerous time tables, how the whole mind-bogglingly complex operation was executed in even more mind-bogglingly efficient fashion. (His academic background was not history but political theory and public administration. His area of specialisation before he embarked on the project was the structure and history of the Prussian bureaucracy). It was actually the whole point. It was precisely the way real human beings lost themselves in the maze of bureaucracy that made possible their transformation into both, (often willing) victims and also oppressors. If it sounds similar to the more famous thesis of Hannah Arendt it is because she used his book as a primary source for her reportage on the Eichmann trial.

I was very surprised (and slightly disappointed too) by his autobiography. I was expecting some cathartic account of how he came to devote his whole life on one subject but instead it is a bitter account of his struggle for academic recognition. He was extremely unpopular with the Jewish establishment mainly for insisting that there were no Jewish heroes in the Holocaust and extremely critical account of zionists and jewish political figures during the war. His own academic career remained less than stellar though he belatedly came to be recognized as one of the founders of the academic discipline of holocaust studies. I was also hoping to find out his views Germany and Austria (he was born in Vienna) in his autobiography but he doesn't really elaborate on the subject though he says that he respects most of the younger generation of German historians.

Wikipedia entry with more links here. And don't miss his interviews in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah too. One clip here.


Szerelem said...

Was wonderin if you have ever read Arnost Lustig? (cttp://
his books deal with the holocaust also (all of them infact).
At one time I was readin so much about the holocaust (a few years back), now its just very depressin to go back to that theme and subject :(

Alok said...

No Haven't read him. Thanks for the link, I had only heard of his name before.

I have read a lot (okay not a lot but still) about Holocaust in the last few months. It is depressing but also fascinating in the sense that one desperately wants to understand how it all happened but still can't, even after reading so many different interpretations and analysis.

Szerelem said...

(A bit off topic).
I have been reading so much on the Middle East now (expanding from just Turkey) and I feel more stronly about the Palestinian issue than ever before. Its very strange actually to reconcile the holocaust and its impact on the creation of Israel and the pathetic treatment of Palestinians that has followed thereafter.
It makes Israel a somewhat formidable opponent because there is just so much anger but then also this horribl, horrible tragedy that the Jewish people survived and the tangible impact it had on the creation of Israel and therefore the displacement of Palestinians.
Also, I wish we had more access to the debate that goes on within Israeli society which is definitely more pluralistic than the American hashed version of Israel - Paleestine relations we get.

Alok said...

it is true, Holocaust in Israel is used to gain a moral high ground and deflect criticism. holocaust is also used as a prism through which jews see themselves -- "the whole world wants the jews to die" This is one of the sources of hostility and distrust between jews and palestinians and their arab neighbours.

there is a fantastic article i read on this subject some time back. let me find it, i will send it to you.

Alok said...

can't find the article now but Peter Novick in his book Holocaust in American Life also discusses the same things. i had written about it here

Szerelem said...

Thanks for the link...the Nation article that was linked to in your post was very good. (It raised some interesting case studies that I had done in my social psychology class in the same context)…

I actually think the fact that the holocaust has been made so untouchable in a sense – there is almost an aura so that nothing can be or has been as bad as it – is very harmful. It has been taken to such an extreme that even today if one is looking at terrible cases of ethnic cleansing – say in the Balkans or Rwanda – there’s almost an immediate wish to say but it couldn’t have been as bad as that.

I think it’s also a hampering factor in getting other countries to deal with their own violent pasts. The Armenian case for example. True the political situation in Turkey vis-à-vis the Armenians at that time was very different from the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but there is just so so so much resistance for it to be called genocide. (The Turkish government doesn’t dispute the killings or the numbers – it’s just the use of the term genocide that makes everyone squirmy).

Actually I mentioned Arnost Lustig earlier because I was reading his Lovely green Eyes a while back and I really struggled to finish it. Not because it wasn’t well written or any such and not only because it was very depressing but also because in some sense I just couldn’t take another concentration camp story.

In Munich last month I visited Dachau and it was just emotionally exhausting…apparently it took many years of severe lobbying by the Jewish community before such a memorial came up (and most of the site is still used by the army). The displays were very good because the talked about inmates from different parts of Europe – the Czechs, Poles, Russians etc. (But I think this might also have been because it was a work camp not an extermination camp). I really do think it’s important to have such memorials and to visit them. (Also visiting the killing fields in Cambodia was just…) But this extreme backlash about questioning anything about the holocaust I don’t appreciate. Like the laws in Europe that make it a criminal offence to say that it never happened. Or a similar law the French tried to pass about the Armenian issue. I also think the expat communities (the Jews and Armenians especially) are very strong and have rallied around these events with so much force it’s become the main identifying factor for their national consciousness.

Ok sorry for long pointless comment.

Alok said...

I don't like these quasi-mystical interpretations of holocaust either--that it was a singular and unique event, it can never be compared to other genocides in history. on the other hand the whole idea of comparative genocide studies sounds so morbid and so pointless too. it is also so politicised these days as you say, specially in the context of international law. so before the iraq war there was all the talk of kurdish genocide. last year or so again people were debating whether what was happening in Darfur was genocide or not. and yet despairing and frustrating that it is, it is still important in order to decide whether to intervene and if yes then when and how.

there is another very provocative point raised by Novick in his book. he says that holocaust memorialization the way it is practiced now doesn't serve any important educational or moral purpose. on the other hand it only vitiates political discussions concerning Israel. I was initially resistant to this idea but he is very persuasive.

I remember there is a section in the book where he describes an educational trip of a group of Israeli School children to Poland (to Auschwitz, Treblinka and other places) and how those kids reported that they felt threatened by and were afraid of the ordinary Poles! The kids were made to feel that they can be safe only in their home, that is Israel and the whole world is indifferent to their fate at best if not downright hostile. and these kids were just young teenagers - 14-15 years old. Novick says that this is the kind of bleak, paranoiac, pessimistic and isolationist mentality that holocaust memorialization serves to promote in young israelis. no wonder then that they see an SS guard lurking behind every Arab and every minor threat as a harbinger of another holocaust

Szerelem said...

Don’t even get me started on the whole Iraqi Kurdish genocide issue. The US actually sat and did nothing when it happened – actually then supported Iraq in the war against Iran at the time – and then suddenly it suited them to bring it up when they wanted to invade Iraq.

Actually I have heard scary things about Poland but yeah your example shows the ridiculousness of it. In Israel in fact there have been Israeli revisionist historians who have one back and questioned the foundations of the Israeli state (am reading Khalidi right now and he lists them, but I cant remember the names right now) and how there was a huge displacement of the Palestinian people themselves for the establishment of the Jewish state. What is really sad is this perpetration of atrocities against the Palestinians. Technically the people who should remember the lessons most have forgotten them so conveniently.

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