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.

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.

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.

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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