Three Faces of Shoah Interpretation

Raul Hilberg was not encouraged when he approached his professor, Franz Neumann, about writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of the German civil service in the Holocaust. Neumann assented, but warned: “It’s your funeral.”
April 28, 2005


“The Destruction of the European Jews” (Third Edition) by Raul Hilberg ( Yale University Press, 2003).

“The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942” by Christopher R. Browning, with contributions by Jurgen Matthaus ( University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004).

“Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe” by Bryan Mark Rigg (Yale University Press, 2004).

Once Rejected, Now Triumphant

Raul Hilberg was not encouraged when he approached his professor, Franz Neumann, about writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of the German civil service in the Holocaust. Neumann assented, but warned: “It’s your funeral.”

Hilberg shopped around the book that resulted, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” to Columbia University Press, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, Princeton University Press and the University of Oklahoma Press. All rejected him. Quadrangle Press in Chicago finally published his work in 1961, and Hilberg quickly found himself in the heart of an ideological war not of his own making.

Hannah Arendt had used his work without appropriate acknowledgement as part of her controversial reports for the New Yorker on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official at the center of the genocide. As a result, Hilberg became associated with Arendt’s critique of Jewish leadership and also of her concept regarding the banality of evil. Indeed, for a generation, Hilberg was barred from the archives of Yad Vashem, until younger historians came to power and ended the notion that researchers had to be ideologically vetted.

One work, that magisterial book based on his dissertation, has dominated Hilberg’s life. But he’s not a one-book man. Hilberg published brilliantly on the German railway system, though that book exists only in German. There’s also his English-language publication of and commentary on “The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow,” which explores the life and desperate circumstances of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat. His “Perpetrator, Victims and Bystanders” set in stone the portraits of actors and non-actors — whose non-action became action — during the Shoah. And his recent “Sources of Holocaust Research” is a first-rate introduction to the field. If there were a Nobel Prize for Holocaust Studies, Hilberg would have won it years ago.

Yale University Press has now published the third edition of “The Destruction of the European Jews.” It’s enhanced with documentation from the newly opened archives of the former Communist bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Copies of many of these documents are available at Yad Vashem and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which have been actively microfilming and preserving these documents. Working pro bono, Hilberg gave unstintingly of his time, energy and incomparable knowledge to the U.S. museum.

In his third edition, Hilberg does not back down from his well-known critique of Jewish response, nor from his portrayal of the Holocaust as a disaster for the Jews. Suffice it to say that this work is a towering achievement, the very backbone of the field.

How Murder Became Genocide

Christopher Browning, like Hilberg, is a master of German documentation, a dominant figure among the first generation of scholars born after the Holocaust. With a contribution by Jurgen Matheus, he’s written “The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942.” Their work reshapes our understanding of the timetable of destruction. Their research contradicts the notion of a centralized decision to kill that was uniformly adopted. Instead, the authors describe regional initiatives that were “blessed” by Nazi officials and ultimately fashioned into a policy of gassing and wholesale murder.

The evolution to gassing, for example, began with the T-4 program, in which the Nazis murdered German non-Jews who were considered “life unworthy of living” — the mentally challenged, physically handicapped and emotionally disturbed Germans who belied the myth of the master race. Mobile gas vans came into use in Yugoslavia and at the Chelmno death camp. There also were thoughts of shipping Jews to Madagascar.

This book is co-published by Yad Vashem, which is now cooperating with university presses to disseminate its work to a wider audience. Browning’s research is controversial in Jerusalem. A recent standing-room-only lecture drew massive press coverage because the Jerusalem School presents a rather different interpretation of the Holocaust, which it portrays as developed policy from its inception, rather than improvised as the war dragged on.

Browning exemplifies scholarship — detailed, serious and masterly, rooted in details but presenting the broad picture of the evolution of the decision to kill the Jews. The period he grapples with is critical: At the beginning of 1942, 80 percent of the Jews who were to die in the Holocaust were alive. Fourteen months later the figures were reversed; four of five were already dead.

The Student Was Right

I first met Bryan Mark Rigg a decade ago, after giving a lecture at Yale. A young, earnest undergraduate approached me and asked if I would read his senior thesis. Rigg had that neat, fresh-cut look of a young military man; other students dressed like students. He called me “sir” and said “please” and “thank you,” words that the father of teenagers does not often hear. He was respectful, a throwback to an earlier era, before the 1960s overturned conventions on campus.

He had been writing on German soldiers who were Mischlinge — of mixed Jewish and Aryan ancestry. They continued to serve in the Wehrmacht, despite Nazi racial policy and despite what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. Rigg’s thesis was remarkable work for an undergraduate. He clearly was an “archive rat,” spending months (and later years) combing through records, ferreting out material no one else had bothered to review.

And his conclusions were startling.

A significant number of German soldiers — officers and enlisted men alike — of Jewish origin continued to serve even after their “racial background” was discovered. Hitler himself participated in the “Aryanization” of some of these fighting men. And German officers, even those who had a hand in carrying out Nazi racial policies, ignored or covered up the Jewish ancestry of these men, displaying higher loyalty to a good soldier than to their government’s edicts.

Rigg didn’t quite understand the importance of what he had found: that not all who served in the armed forces were anti-Semites, even as their service aided the killing process.

He intended to write his dissertation on this topic and sought my advice.

“Don’t do it,” I immediately responded. “There is not enough there to warrant a dissertation.”

Out of politeness, I added, “But if you do, please send it to me. I would like to read it.”

Little did I know what I was getting into. Five years later I received his dissertation, which he completed at Cambridge University, along with the draft of his first book.

I had been wrong.

Rigg had found more, much more. He’d reviewed records, interviewed soldiers and their colleagues and the results were as startling as they were disturbing. He showed how German military officials, rather than marching in lockstep with their government, would sidestep regulations to protect a man of Jewish origin whom they knew. These officials often faced a conflict between loyalty to the government — even to their oath to Hitler — and their allegiance to a comrade, a man with whom they had fought. Many men honored personal loyalty above all.

As for the Mischlinge, some saw themselves as German above all, even when the Germans were persecuting and ultimately slaughtering their parent or grandparents. Many saw themselves as army men — even if they did not support the government’s policies, they served with dedication. His conclusions differed in interesting ways from those of author Daniel Goldhagen, who portrayed the Germans as marching virtually in unison to embrace the extermination of the Jews. For Rigg, these men had multiple loyalties. Personal ties could override political convictions, at least for some German military officials. My advice to the contrary, he published “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers,” and the work created quite a stir.

One such “Jewish soldier,” Ernest Bloch, working for German intelligence under the direction of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, received a peculiar assignment in 1940: Go to Warsaw, find the Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Schneerson, and help him escape to the United States. (Schneerson was the father-in-law and predecessor of the late and widely known Lubavitcher leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson.) The Germans thought the rebbe would view Bloch as a Jew and trust him; the rebbe viewed him as a meshumad, a convert and distrusted him even more.

Once again, Rigg, in his new book “Rescued from the Reich,” has accomplished prodigious research in American and German archives, and even in the archives — if one can use that term — of the Chabad movement. He’s given us an earthly, demystified portrait of the rescue. Surely, the pious will view the rebbe’s rescue as the hand of God, with the German emissaries as angels wearing the masks of devils. But as a secular historian, Rigg has a very different story to tell — of diplomacy and intelligence work; suspicions and mortal danger; soldiers and civilians mobilized to rescue one prominent Jew and his family from the heart of German-occupied Warsaw in the midst of the Holocaust.

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