"I wanted to know how this deed was done" : Raul Hilberg, the Holocaust and History

University dissertation from Stockholm : Bokförlaget Faethon

Abstract: Raul Hilberg was a pioneer of Holocaust studies and for many decades the Holocaust scholar par excellence. He embarked upon the study of the Nazi genocide after the war, and established the understanding of the Holocaust as a bureaucratically administered “destruction process,” carried out by men who were not different from the German population in general. The present study analyzes and contextualizes his understanding of the Nazi genocide and the Jewish victims’ response to it, as well as the reception of Hilberg’s magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, in relation to scholarly, political and personal contexts. It shows that Hilberg’s major work was far more favorably received than previously believed and that the negative reactions to his thesis on Jewish reactions was a response to the positive reception of his book, as well as an expression of a wider shift in scholarly and popular perceptions of the behavior of Jewish victims during the Holocaust.Hilberg’s interest in bureaucracy allowed him to depart from the focus on the Nazi leadership and the interpretation of the Holocaust as a premeditated and centrally organized genocide. The connection to modernity made him interpret it as a form of ominous progress, carrying implications for modern societies in general, as opposed to the interpretation of Nazism and the Holocaust as a form of atavistic aberration. However, Hilberg’s emphasis on the modern character of the genocide also led to a form of veneration of its efficiency.Hilberg has been much criticized for his argument that the Jewish victims contributed to their own demise by repeating an outdated and historically conditioned reaction to persecution, which assisted the perpetrators. This study explores his thesis regarding the “Jewish reaction pattern,” as an integral part of his work, which he used as a contrast to what he regarded as the successful and future oriented destruction process. It moreover advances a novel interpretation of this controversial part of Hilberg’s research, seeing it as a call for political action emptied of its positive di­mension, and a form of negative historiographical empowerment of the victims.

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