The Histories of the Holocaust

Two Historians Look to Other Disciplines for Insight Into the Incomprehensible

By Michael Berenbaum

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Germany’s War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories

By Omer Bartov

Cornell University Press, 248 pages, $18.95.

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Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective

By Dan Michman

Vallentine Mitchell, 435 pages, $29.50.

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At several Holocaust conferences in recent years, the distinguished literary scholar Lawrence Langer has murmured in frustration: “Why don’t historians read something other than history?”

He should know. A professor of literature, Langer first approached literary theory using the tools of the Holocaust. As he drew closer, he used his understanding of literature to comprehend the Holocaust. Still later, he read wider and wrote deeper, using his keen mind and insights to explore the event. He wrote of literature, but of far more than literature — of art history and the Bible, psychology and sociology, as well as history — in an effort to comprehend the world of the camps and the testimony of survivors in its aftermath.

My first impression as I began reading Omer Bartov’s impressive collection of essays, “Germany’s War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories,” was that Langer had finally met his type of scholar. Bartov is a historian who has read widely and thought deeply about the Holocaust, its impact and implications. He traverses multiple disciplines with ease and seeks understanding from history and sociology, from film and literature — even poetry — and is able to bring the insights of many disciplines to bear on the event he seeks to understand. An Israeli by birth, a German military historian by training and a scholar teaching in the United States for many years, he offers insights not only into the scholarly understanding of the Holocaust, but also into its public role in Israel, the United States and Europe — especially Germany and France. He is both an insider and an outsider, understanding enough to pick up all the nuances of the debate, but far enough removed to remain a dispassionate observer.

Bartov writes with rare understanding of the intersection of military history and Holocaust history. He probes the correlation between the two wars the Germans fought, the world war and the war against the Jews. Most German military historians write only of the world war without going near the Holocaust. Lucy Dawidowicz argued that although two wars were fought at the same time by the Germans, the Allies only perceived the world war — yet she only wrote on the war against the Jews. In contrast, Bartov writes with authority on both and on the intersection between war and genocide.

Bartov sees the racial war waged in the East as directly and operationally linked to the Holocaust. The German tactic of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, Bartov argues, was an attempt to avoid the recurrence of the static, costly and unwinnable war experienced on the Western front in World War I. As a tactic, blitzkrieg depended upon the impression it made on the enemy of confronting overwhelming force and certain defeat. Early German victories blinded Germany to the limitations of its own strategy, including the severe industrial and manpower constraints it faced that were to hamper it later in the war. Once the blitzkrieg failed in the assault on the Soviet Union, German production, industrial capacity, material and manpower resources, organization and technical skill became more important than its tactics, training and courage. Germany responded by doubling its number of tank divisions but reducing the number of tanks per army division and thus went into battle in a weakened condition.

Believing its own propaganda, Germany was late in gearing up to fight a total war. It failed to create the economic basis necessary to sustain long-term military commitment. Blitzkrieg, Bartov demonstrates, should not be seen as an alternative to total war but rather an attempt to adapt modern war to existing domestic and foreign conditions and German aims and ideology. It was an attempt to wage total war while pretending nothing important was happening. (Though Bartov’s fascinating insights into the tactic of blitzkrieg were made with regard to World War II and written years before the current war in Iraq, they make for some chilling reading in the midst of the contemporary struggle.)

The latter part of Bartov’s book will be of even greater interest to Jewish readers. Bartov properly distinguishes between the substance of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and the debate surrounding it, especially within Germany, where it became the instrument to rally those born well after the war to ask questions of their grandparents that their parents were too reticent to pose. In Germany, the Goldhagen debate was liberating, Bartov argues, because it undermined long-held prejudices and released long-suppressed emotions.

He also argues that the limited interest Goldhagen’s book generated in Israel and France reflects each country’s own national struggle with the Holocaust. For Israel, Goldhagen’s focus on antisemitism as the singular cause is just more of the same — what Israelis have heard since time immemorial. Furthermore, Goldhagen’s arguments are problematic to the right, which withdraws from Jewish victimization, and to the left, which does not like to hear that the whole world is against the Jews.

Goldhagen’s focus on the actual event of the Holocaust flies in the face of what truly interests — and divides — Israelis: the role of the Shoah in Israeli national life and international efforts and the use of the Shoah to legitimate Zionism, the extent of the Yishuv’s engagement with the fate of the Jews of Europe during the Shoah and the reception and perception of the survivors in the new state.

In France, where Holocaust scholarship is weak, attention has been so focused on the French experience of collaboration that it skewed away from the German perpetrators at the center of Goldhagen’s argument. In the United States, Bartov notes the division between the most favorable reception by the general public and the anger of Holocaust scholars, but he is not so blinded by his own scholarly anger that he fails to consider the book’s virtues — particularly the emphasis Goldhagen places on antisemitism, a necessary corrective to German scholarship, which has been dominated by functionalists who focus more on the implementation of the killing process and less on the intentions of the perpetrators and the ideology that led to the decision to kill.

Bartov’s final two chapters deal with the Jews as the last Germans by exploring the tragic situation of Victor Klemperer, whose diary made an important impact within Germany. A Jew by birth, Klemperer was married to an Aryan and thus escaped deportation, at least long enough to see his country and its values, his friends and academic colleagues renounce all that he thought was sacred and of value in German culture. His wartime chronicle is insightful, and Bartov’s review makes it come alive. Bartov quotes the most poignant of Klemperer’s insights and permits the reader in a few brief sentences to grasp the core themes of the almost endless diary. Bartov uses the diary as a vehicle to reflect upon the collapse of noble German values during the Nazi era and of the capitulation to the tyranny of the times of the academics, scholars and writers who should have maintained those values.

Finally, Bartov grapples with the dilemma of Germany, which had to deal — at least until recently — with the absence of presence and the presence of absence with regard to its Jews.

Bartov is wise when wisdom is required; hard-hitting when scholarship is inaccurate or inadequate to truly understand the Holocaust, and open to learning from each discipline. He is firmly rooted in history, but not held back by it. He is open to new ideas and new means of presenting the Holocaust — open, but certainly not uncritical. These essays solidify his growing reputation. Written over more than a decade, they have endured the test of time and set a fine standard for the collection of disparate essays into a book.

Dan Michman’s “Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective” is another fine work. Suitably modest in title, he presents a Jewish perspective, not the Jewish perspective. His work is strongest where he has full command of the original sources, especially his consideration of the Netherlands, and of religious responses to the Nazi onslaught during the Shoah, as well as in its aftermath. His book is free of polemics and examines the evidence intensely, neither seeking to vindicate a religious worldview by creating false heroes, nor reflexively apologizing for Jewish behavior. His treatment of life within the ghetto is competent and considerate of the daily behavior of ordinary men and women living

under the most extraordinary of situations. Unlike many Israeli historians who reflect back upon the Shoah to advance a contemporary agenda, Michman, a scholar at Bar-Ilan University and chief historian of Yad Vashem, presents arguments that are grounded in evidence and measured in tone and outlook.

At one point in “Germany’s War and the Holocaust,” Bartov complains that for many German historians “no amount of knowledge of the victims will tell us anything of value about the perpetrators because they dehumanized the victims.” In other words, these historians do not believe that the inner lives of the victims within the ghettos and the camps are important for our understanding of the Shoah, or even of German behavior. For them, the Holocaust is all about — indeed, only about — the perpetrators; their victims are not quite present. Michman’s work is anchored in the experience of the Jews and is an important corrective to the tendency of German historiography to disregard the victim, but this focus comes at a significant cost.

Michman is so concerned with understanding the humanity of the victims in the face of the inhumanity of their perpetrators that he fails to explore the humanity of the perpetrators’ inhumanity. A purely Jewish perspective is a necessary counterweight, but it is insufficient for understanding the Shoah, which can only be explored when considering both the victim and the perpetrator. The humanity of the dead cannot blind us to the painful issues posed by the humanity of their killers.

Last summer, I had the privilege of seeing the plans for Yad Vashem’s new permanent exhibition and of walking through its impressive building (currently under construction) with its chairman, Avner Shalev, who repeatedly stressed that the exhibition would focus on the life of the victims. This is as it should be, since the museum is situated in Jerusalem. And yet, if it does not feature the perpetrator — his life, motives and actions — it will be inadequate for presenting the Shoah. The limitations of Michman’s work should offer a word of caution to my colleagues in Jerusalem.

Like Bartov, Michman’s book is also a compilation of previously published essays over the past two decades. Some stand the test of time well; others have been overtaken by scholarly publications and new documentation. His opening essay, a lengthy review of Holocaust histories written between 1950 and 1990, is brought up-to-date by a consideration of the comprehensive works written during the past decade. It is inevitable that there is some repetition because points made in one essay merit reiteration in another. Yet throughout this 400-page work, one senses the struggles of a serious historian who is committed to his discipline and respectful of the requirements of scholarship and the need to be adequate to the task of understanding the Holocaust. The work does not dazzle, and it does not shock, but it has a solidity that is anchored in genuine learning.






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