Holocaust as History

An introduction to historical scholarship about the Holocaust.

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The Holocaust had destroyed a large proportion of European Jewry and thus the demographic issue of transferring large numbers of Jews to Palestine was moot. After the war, in reality, there were numerous displaced Jews who preferred to go to Israel rather than return to the lands where they had suffered persecution. Palestine, and later Israel, offered them a safe haven and the opportunity for a new life.

Of all the connections asserted between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, the most popular is the idea that the nations of the world supported the establishment of Israel because, as collaborators or bystanders of the Holocaust, they felt guilty. Questions of guilt are part of the ongoing dialogue pertaining to the Holocaust. Who were the perpetrators of the Holocaust and who should make amends? What was the role of the bystander? How should Germany make amends for its actions during the Holocaust? What guilt should the collaborators feel and how should they make amends? Some questions hit even closer to home. Did the United States do enough? Did American Jewry do enough? What was the role of the Catholic Church and did it do enough to prevent the Holocaust?

New Scholarship

Since the mid-1980s, a new battle has been waging among historians of the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1980s in Germany during what was known as the Historikerstreit (the Historian's Debate), some German historians, such as Ernst Nolte, compared the genocide of the Holocaust to the other atrocities of World War Two in an attempt to assert that the Holocaust was not unique.

More radically, revisionist historians, such as David Irving, attempted to prove that the Holocaust did not actually occur. As a result, in the 1990s, the Holocaust went to court when David Irving sued the historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel because she wrote in her book, Denying the Holocaust, that Irving was a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt won the case.

Scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust generated new controversy when it was published in 1996. Goldhagen argued that the central causal agent of the Holocaust was German anti-semitism. In other words, according to Goldhagen, ordinary Germans murdered Jews, systematically, and without pity, because they hated them. His thesis became the subject of much passionate debate, in both public and academic forums. Academics faulted him for his ahistorical methodology, monocasual argument, and bad writing. Journalists called the book a monumental revision of Holocaust history. The public bought millions of copies of the book, intrigued with Goldhagen's straightforward explanation of something seemingly inexplicable, the destruction of European Jewry.  

Inquiries into the Holocaust and new discoveries continue. Some of the current research focuses on the role of the Catholic Church and the economic aspects of World War II. In the past decade, numerous histories and court cases in the United States have dealt with the question of whether European banks and insurance companies were unlawfully enriched by keeping the funds of Holocaust victims. Another economic debate involves the use of slave labor by German companies during World War II. The German government, in conjunction with German companies, has established a new reparations treaty to address bank account, insurance, and slave labor claims of Holocaust survivors. 

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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.