Holocaust as History

An introduction to historical scholarship about the Holocaust.

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A barracks for female prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. Credit: Yad Vashem

Whether referred to as the Holocaust or the Shoah, the destruction of European Jewryhas occupied center-stage in contemporary academic and political circles. But this was not always the case. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the Holocaust became a distinctive entity separate from other Nazi atrocities and from previous Jewish persecutions. For example, currently, the term "Holocaust survivor" has a very explicit meaning: it almost always refers to a Jewish survivor of Nazi persecution. Immediately after the war, however, survivors were referred to as "displaced persons" (DPs), a term that applied to the more than 10 million displaced persons in Europe, of which only a small fraction were Jewish camp survivors.

An Inevitable Tragedy?

One of the earliest and most persistent debates among Holocaust scholars involves causality: Was the Holocaust inevitable? Was there was something particular about German history, society, and culture that allowed for the Holocaust? Immediately after the war, many historians argued that Germany's specific development and history--a Sonderweg (special path)--led to genocide.

Historians proposing this Sonderweg argument are split into two main groups. Intentionalist historians argue that Hitler's intentions are central in the process leading up to the Holocaust because of the god-like position he occupied in the regime. Structuralist or Functionalist historians concentrate on the development of German society and economy that more or less forced the Germans to take the most radical paths, and thus ideology and decisions by central authorities were not crucial. Both schools would agree that while the building blocks for the Holocaust were present throughout all of Europe (not only Germany), the Holocaust was not an inevitable occurrence.

Holocaust & Israel

Another area of interest for scholars and laypeople is the connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. The events of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel were separated by three years, and many individuals find a direct connection between the two. Zionists, proponents of Jewish nationalism, argue that the Holocaust vindicated their political program. The Holocaust demonstrated the need for a Jewish state where Jews could live freely and securely as Jews. On the other hand, some individuals argued that the destruction of European Jewry had shattered Zionism's mission: to build a Jewish state to house the large number of suffering European, especially Russian, Jews.

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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.