Holocaust as History

An introduction to historical scholarship about the Holocaust.


Remembering the Holocaust is a central theme in modern Jewish life. New Holocaust memorials, exhibits, courses, and movies appear frequently. Just as representations of the Holocaust change over time in art and film, depending on the experiences and attitudes of the artist, so too are representations of the Holocaust in history transformed according to the historians’ interests and the research materials available to them. The following article is an introduction to some of the major trends in thinking and research about the Holocaust that have developed since 1950.
modern history
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and attempted annihilation of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were unworthy of living.

Although the Jews were the primary targets of Nazi racial policy, the Nazis also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma (Gypsies), the handicapped, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups, including Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, were persecuted on the basis of their political affiliations and behavior.

The “Recent Jewish Catastrophe”

The atrocities of World War II have produced a specialized nomenclature. By now, the term “Holocaust” has become the designation of choice to describe the Nazi campaign of genocide against the Jews. Those Jews who suffered in the ghettos and camps of Nazi-occupied Europe, however, did not think of themselves as victims of the “Holocaust.” In the immediate post-war years, the events of the Nazi era were referred to as the “recent Jewish catastrophe.” It was not until the mid-1950s that the term “Holocaust” gained currency to describe the Nazi assault against the Jews.

Although “Holocaust” entered common parlance, this choice of term was not without critics. The word “Holocaust” is problematic for some individuals because of its religious origins. In ancient times, the priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem offered animal sacrifices to God translated in Greek as holokauston, which means, “wholly burned.” Thus, historically, the term “holocaust” referred to a sacrifice made to God. From this vantage point, the Jews, during World War II, became a sacrifice offered up to God by the Nazis. This religious connotation is unacceptable to some, and as a result, the Hebrew word Shoah (meaning “ruin” or “destruction”) is preferred.

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Susan D. Glazer is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative History at Brandeis University. She is writing a dissertation about the activities of a German-Italian insurance organization during World War II.

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