What the Holocaust Does Not Teach
“World Jewry has a special responsibility.” This hectoring call blared forth from the midst of a New York Times op-ed piece by Flora Lewis entitled “Save Lives in Bosnia” (November 9, 1992). Jews, she argued, have acquired their special responsibility because of the Holocaust; having experienced so much persecution, now they have both the opportunity and the obligation “to show that concentration camps provoke the solidarity of victims of persecution.” She went on to give specific instructions to Jews to offer refuge in Israel to Bosnian Muslims, in order to demonstrate “that the Jewish state does indeed want to get on in peace with its Muslim neighbors.”
If this seems a peculiarly perverse lesson to extract from the Holocaust—its unstated corollary (as Conor Cruise O’Brien once pointed out in a different context) is that the descendants of people who have not been persecuted have no special responsibility to behave particularly well—it is sobriety itself when compared with some that have been expounded by even more nimble interpreters than Flora Lewis. In Israel, one of the few places in the world where the “special responsibility” of Jews is discussed more frequently than in the editorial pages of the New York Times, the new Minister of Education, Shulamit Aloni, has taken it upon herself to reverse the direction of that country’s study and commemoration of the Holocaust.
A generation ago, Israel’s most eminent writers, from Uri Zvi Greenberg on the Right to Abba Kovner on the Left, exhorted their countrymen to reflect upon the Nazi murder of European Jewry and the callous indifference of the nations of the world to the Jewish catastrophe, and to consider their responsibility to redeem the dead. The great historian of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, justified choosing the Star of David for the Israeli flag precisely because
under this sign [the Jews] were murdered, [and] the sign which . . . has been sanctified by suffering and dread has become worthy of illuminating the path to life and reconstruction.
But Mrs. Aloni has deplored the stress upon the Holocaust as regressive and nationalistic. “I do not take pictures of the backside of history,” she declared on Israel Radio. Even before her elevation to office, Mrs. Aloni had frequently denounced Holocaust education in Israel because it taught children that “the Nazis did this to the Jews instead of the message that people did this to people.” If Mrs. Aloni has her way, the Nazi murder of the Jews of Europe, a crime of terrifying clarity and distinctness, will become for young Israelis a blurred, amorphous agony, an indeterminate part of man’s inhumanity to man.
What do we learn from the Holocaust? In her posthumously published collection of essays, What Is the Use of Jewish History?1 (gathered from the last decade of her life, and many of them first published in COMMENTARY), the distinguished historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz returns frequently to this question, most notably in “How They Teach the Holocaust” and “Could America Have Rescued Europe’s Jews?”
The former, an analysis of Holocaust curricula, shows that some American secondary schools have already achieved the condition to which Shulamit Aloni would have Israeli schools aspire. Thus, one curriculum uses excerpts from Mein Kampf not just to suggest, misleadingly, that “racist hatred extends to all groups that are ‘others,’ ” but to give the impression that blacks and not Jews were Hitler’s primary targets. The most pervasive failure of these curricula, Mrs. Dawidowicz writes, is their omission of the long history of anti-Semitism, with the term itself generally subsumed under the generic “racism” or “prejudice.”
Mrs. Dawidowicz never doubted that we study the murder of the European Jews not only to mourn and remember, but to try to understand and learn. Yet the past cannot instruct those who ask the wrong questions. The sharpness of her attack on the historian David Wyman, who in The Abandonment of the Jews asked why America failed to rescue the European Jews, arose not so much from a desire to defend President Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Jewry from allegations of complicity in the Holocaust as from a flinty political realism. Not for her the imagined “otherwise” of what she derisively labeled “preaching history,” the making of moral judgments on the basis of the ought rather than the is of history.
The real question to ask, Mrs. Dawidowicz insisted, was not “Could America Have Rescued Europe’s Jews?” but how the country called Nazi Germany so quickly gained dominion over Europe and readily enlisted both its own citizens and other peoples to participate in the mass murder of Jews. A judicious examination of this question, she asserted, would suggest the true lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. The first such lesson was the infectious power of anti-Semitism, especially when embodied in the state. The second was the importance of a strong countervailing military force—for if the pacifists, appeasers, and isolationists of the 1920’s and 1930’s had not had their way in England and America, Hitler would not have had his way in Europe. The third, “one which every Jewish child now knows,” was the necessity of Jewish political power and a Jewish state for Jewish survival.
Those who reject these lessons have a vested interest in opposing the study of the Holocaust or in distorting its history. Given Shulamit Aloni’s insistence that it was not the Nazis who murdered the Jews but “people [who] did this to people,” it would not have surprised Mrs. Dawidowicz (or, for that matter, Gershom Scholem) to learn that Aloni has also blamed Jews for arousing anti-Semitism in present-day Poland by displaying the flag of the Jewish state at Auschwitz and for other Holocaust-related activities “which create the feeling that we were victims and that we have to be strong.” Apparently, the wisdom Mrs. Dawidowicz attributed to every Jewish child has not yet reached every Jewish adult.
In the high-school Holocaust curricula she studied, Mrs. Dawidowicz observed that one frequently-taught lesson centers on the theme of moral choice: obedience to authority vs. following the dictates of one’s own conscience. Exhorting students to beware the consequences of the former, the curricula invoke the examples of Adolf Eichmann, who pleaded “superior orders” at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, and Lt. William L. Calley, who did the same at his court-martial for the killing of unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. Mrs. Dawidowicz is properly critical of the glib dichotomization suggested by this choice, and especially of the idea that following the dictates of one’s conscience, without reference to morality or justice, is always and everywhere to be preferred to obedience to authority. In any case, she points out, in the Holocaust the issue was not obedience to authority but obedience to specific orders.
Nazi criminals claimed after the war that they could not disobey such orders without risking the penalty of execution or imprisonment. Now the historian Christopher R. Browning in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland2 has definitively demonstrated the meretriciousness of such claims. He writes:
In the past 45 years, no defense attorney or defendant in any of the hundreds of postwar trials has been able to document a single case in which refusal to obey an order to kill unarmed civilians resulted in the allegedly inevitable dire punishment.
Browning’s luminously intelligent and finely written book is based on the investigation and prosecution—conducted between 1962 and 1972 by the office of the state prosecutor in Hamburg—of 210 of the nearly 500 men in Reserve Police Battalion 101. This unit had been sent to Poland in June 1942 to murder Jews living in cities smaller than Warsaw or Lodz. Its members, too old for the German army, were middle-aged family men of working- and lower-middle-class background from the city of Hamburg. They were also “ordinary” in that few had had prior military service, only five were members of the Nazi party, and none was an SS member. Ranging in age between thirty-three and forty-eight, all had been molded in the pre-Nazi era, and all were from a social milieu which, according to Browning, had been anti-Nazi in its political culture.
Despite all this, however, these “ordinary men,” who “would not seem to have been a very promising group from which to recruit mass murderers on behalf of the Nazi vision of a racial utopia free of Jews,” did very well indeed in their extraordinary task. Before they were finished, in May 1943, they had murdered at least 38,000 Jews and sent another 45,000 to their deaths in Treblinka.
They began their work in July 1942 in the Polish village of Jozefow, about 30 kilometers south and east of Bilgoraj. There they were ordered to round up 1,800 Jews and, after separating the males of working age for shipment to a camp, to murder all women, children, and elderly people. To help them accomplish this task, the battalion’s doctor gave medical instruction in how to administer a clean or surgical “neck shot” to the victims. Before the police embarked on their work, however, their commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, “made an extraordinary offer: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out.”
Only twelve members of Battalion 101 availed themselves of the opportunity to drop out of the firing squad at once. Others, who found shooting helpless Jews a nasty, unbearable piece of work—having failed to master the technique of the “neck shot,” they spattered themselves with the blood and brains of their victims—quit early in the slaughter; still others, after they had murdered ten or twenty Jews. Ultimately, or so Browning concludes from the (no doubt self-serving) postwar testimony of the policemen, between 10 and 20 percent of those assigned to the firing squads sought release or evaded the shooting by more surreptitious methods.
After the Jozefow massacre, Major Trapp faced the problem of widespread demoralization both in his willing killers and in his shirkers and evaders. Therefore, two changes were introduced in most (but not all) of the battalion’s subsequent operations. Henceforth, they would involve ghetto clearing and deportation rather than outright murder; and deportations would be undertaken jointly by Battalion 101 and the Trawnikis, the SS-trained auxiliaries from the Soviet territories. This division of labor proved an effective psychological anodyne. Most killing was removed to the death camps, with the worst “on the spot” murders done by the Trawnikis.
At every stage, Browning stresses, the police had a considerable degree of choice about joining the killing squads. To some extent, this latitude was a function of the eagerness with which many Germans participated in hunting down and killing Jews. One policeman recalled how “often there were so many volunteers that some of them had to be turned away.” Another policeman remembered that musicians and performers in a visiting entertainment unit of Berlin police “asked, indeed even emphatically begged, to be allowed to participate in the execution of the Jews.” This surfeit of killers may explain why even Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, while extolling obedience in general, could (in a notorious speech of 1943 stressing that “the Jews shall . . . one day disappear in accordance with the wish of the Fuehrer”) express leniency toward the individual SS man “whose nerves are finished, one who is weak. Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”
What, then, given the relative ease with which one could evade this duty, led some of the policemen to cease shooting, and what led the rest to continue? Browning notes that even 20 or 25 years after the events of 1942-43, those who opted out of the firing squads were still citing sheer physical revulsion as their prime motive, “but did not express any ethical or political principles behind this revulsion.” In Browning’s view, this does not mean that such principles had atrophied: “Given the educational level of these reserve policemen, one should not expect a sophisticated articulation of abstract principles.”
It is possible, however, that Browning is being too charitable here: everyone, after all, can know the difference between a just and a wicked action without reference to “a sophisticated articulation of abstract principles.” If Browning is willing to believe the testimony of the policemen who evaded the shooting, why should he doubt them when they cite nausea or nerves or colitis as their reason? Most of the evidence he presents suggests that diseases of the liver had more sway than the terrors of conscience over the small number of non-“shooters.”
And what moved the great majority of battalion members who did continue with their shooting in the months after Jozefow? Why did the most ordinary of the ordinary men of Battalion 101, the 80 to 90 percent who continued to shoot Jews when they could have chosen not to, behave as they did? In his final chapter, Browning considers a variety of explanations, ranging from theories of obedience, to the persuasiveness of anti-Semitic propaganda, to the pressure to conform.
Of all the explanations summoned by Browning, that of the late Italian novelist Primo Levi—a survivor of Auschwitz—is by far the most astute. Yet Browning somewhat skews Levi’s idea of a “gray zone” of ambiguity encompassing both criminals and victims in regimes of terror. Browning says that Levi “dared to suggest that this zone encompassed perpetrators as well.” That is technically true, but Levi’s whole emphasis in his essay, “The Gray Zone,” was on the distinction between the Jews and their killers.
In that essay Levi recalls how, in July 1944, 400 Jews from Corfu refused without exception to serve in the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, “and were immediately gassed to death.” By contrast, the alleged state of compulsion invoked after the war by Nazis brought to trial, Levi writes,
could have been resolved (actually often was resolved) by some maneuver, some slowdown in career, moderate punishment, or, in the worst of cases, the objector’s transfer to the front.
Although Browning is hardly one of those inclined to spray forgiveness indiscriminately in every direction but the Jewish one, the lessons that Levi drew from the Holocaust nevertheless fit Browning’s own evidence better than Browning’s conclusions do.
Finally, in Browning’s view, the compliance of the great majority of Battalion 101 with instructions to murder can best be explained by the urge to conform, which set “the norms of the battalion” in opposition to “the demands of the conscience.” Yet as he is unable to produce convincing evidence that conscience was at work in the dissenters, how can we believe it put up much of a struggle in the conformists? Perhaps, as Saul Bellow’s protagonist argues in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, “Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.” Since the Nazi regime had done precisely that, the absence of conscience in individual policemen of the regime was indeed “ordinary.” That such ordinariness can be terrible is not a modern discovery.
Browning’s book is very much a product of what in Holocaust studies might be called the school of Hilberg. This is not only because Raul Hilberg (to whom Ordinary Men is dedicated) was, in 1982, the first person to call attention to the central role of the reserve police in the Final Solution, but because Browning’s book, like Hilberg’s massive The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), is based almost entirely on German archival sources and is not about the Jews—who are entirely silent in this account, which includes no testimony from survivors—but about their destroyers, upon whom it wholly relies for its picture of Jozefow and other abattoirs in Poland.
Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews was justly recognized on its appearance as the definitive history of the process and the machinery of Nazi destruction. It was the first study based upon the entire unindexed collection of Nuremberg documents. Its incisive analysis embraced, in addition to those who killed their victims “personally” (like the Einsatzgruppen and the reserve police), the huge network of desk-killers in the German administrative bureaucracy. And not the least of the book’s virtues was that Hilberg wrote of the most appalling events in a detached and understated, even ironic, style.
But not everybody was satisfied. The destruction process was presented by Hilberg from the point of view (in the technical sense) of the destroyers, not the victims. The victims, moreover, were described as having “plunged themselves physically and psychologically into catastrophe.” Perhaps the harshest of Hilberg’s critics was Lucy Dawidowicz, who accused the eminent political scientist of “profound ignorance of Jewish history.”
Now Hilberg has brought out a collection of discrete, self-contained essays, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders.3 Much of the first third of the book amplifies (and may depend upon one’s awareness of) the pervasive lesson elaborated in his seminal study of 1961: that, although decentralized, the Nazi campaign against the Jews was a vast interlocking organism involving the ministerial bureaucracy, the armed forces, industry, and the Nazi party, and embracing every component of German life, every stratum of society. Some of the representative chapters tell how old bureaucrats, new bureaucrats, physicians, and lawyers were absorbed into this organism.
Both the amount and the nature of the attention given to the Jewish victims in the book’s second section may serve to blunt some of the criticism of Hilberg’s past views on this subject. His treatment of Jewish leaders, for example, is now measured and relatively sympathetic and “understanding,” closer to that of Isaiah Trunk than to the denunciations of Hannah Arendt. Thus, in a chapter entitled “The Unadjusted,” Hilberg notes that Jews often had to pass up opportunities to escape because of their responsibility to family members who would be left behind. On the other hand, the “old” Hilberg is still present in certain criticisms of the Jewish Councils in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, or in such observations as this: “The rhythm of compliant behavior, practiced over the centuries, was not about to break at the sight of a ditch.”
Hilberg says that the chapters of his book are “modules” that may be read “in any number and any order.” That is to say, the book is a small encyclopedia of the Holocaust, but with its departments of knowledge unorganized either by the anti-philosophical principle of the alphabet or by a dominant idea or closely-knit argument. Readers will find in Hilberg a reliable and shrewd guide to the main topics of Holocaust research, and one still capable of the cold contempt for the killers and their protectors that has always characterized his work. But his book does not offer a comprehensive, unified interpretation; for that one would do better to turn back to Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, either in its original version or the 1985 revision; to the Israeli scholar Leni Yahil’s magisterial and meticulously integrated The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-19454; or to Lucy Dawidowicz’s own The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (1975, second edition 1985).
In reading Hilberg’s new book, we get a sense, once again, of the Holocaust as historical actuality, moral quagmire, theological stumbling block. But for a sense of the Holocaust as the seething cauldron of unedifying controversy it has now become, we must turn back to Lucy Dawidowicz. The majority of the essays in What Is the Use of Jewish History? deal with the Holocaust, and their titles alone often indicate their embattled nature: “Lies About the Holocaust,” “The True History of Babi Yar,” “History as Ideology” (originally “Perversions of the Holocaust”), “Indicting American Jews.”
More than any other professional historian in America, Lucy Dawidowicz was willing, in her work, to dirty her hands in combat with the vast underworld of charlatans who now hold forth on the subject of the Holocaust: the outright deniers and their influential friends; the “functionalist” explainers-away of Nazi intentions; the Germanophiles; the relativists; the universalizers; the “appropriators” who cannot permit the Jews to monopolize all that beautiful suffering for themselves; and the legions of Israel-haters who see the Holocaust as what Hitler called Zionism itself—a way to “slyly dupe the dumb goyim.”
Scholars generally prefer to deal with controversies that involve the fruitful if often noisy conflict of half-truths. Lucy Dawidowicz set herself the more onerous, Sisyphean labor of rolling back the onslaught of malicious calumny. She did this partly out of a sense of obligation to her profession, whose derelictions of responsibility she documented in The Holocaust and the Historians (1981). There she pointed out that the first “revisionist” work on World War II had been written by the reputable English historian A.J.P. Taylor, whose argument—that Hitler had not planned a general war at all—“soon became the banner under which a swarm of Nazi apologists, cranks, and anti-Semites rallied.”
Her fellow historians, by averting their eyes and noses from the fever swamps of neo-Nazism or the cesspools of left-wing opinion journalism, may have thought they could escape the defilement. But they were wrong. In 1980, the American Historical Review, the journal of the American Historical Association, published a respectful review of a book inspired by Holocaust “revisionism”; and the Organization of American Historians, after selling its membership list to the Journal of Historical Review, the publication of the American Holocaust deniers, was at a loss to understand what it had done wrong. Still later, Lucy Dawidowicz found the foul unwholesomeness seeping into books published by university presses.5
Lucy Dawidowicz liked to quote Cicero’s laws for historians: “The first . . . is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he suppress nothing that is true.” But finally it was something more than her loyalty to the historian’s ideal that moved her to smite hard and throw back the liars. It was, rather, her sense of obligation to the murdered Jews of Europe—the very personal lesson she had learned from the Holocaust. Once, when she and I were discussing these matters, she opined that nobody could write genuine Jewish history without ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, and promised to send me a copy of her lecture on this subject. Illness prevented her doing so, but the lecture is now the title essay of What Is the Use of Jewish History? Its central message is this:
Some people think that the professional historian’s personal commitments—to his people, his country, his religion, his language—undermine his professional objectivity. Not so. Not so, as long as historians respect the integrity of their sources and adhere strictly to the principles of sound scholarship.
These monitory words still serve as a guide to learning the very particular and the very universal lessons the Holocaust never ceases to teach us.
1 Edited and with an Introduction by Neal Kozodoy, Schocken, 278 pp., $27.50.
2 HarperCollins, 231 pp., $22.00.
3 The subtitle is “The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945.” Aaron Asher/HarperCollins, 340 pp., $25.00.
4 Oxford University Press (1990), translated from the Hebrew by Ina Friedman and Haya Galai.
5 Hilberg too has entered into combat with the deniers by serving as a prosecution expert at the trials in Canada of Ernst Zundel, a publisher and Hitler idolator. Still, one wonders if revisionist distortion might even have found its way into a tiny corner of his new book. He calls Hitler “the supreme architect of the Jewish catastrophe,” but says that “he appears to have vetoed the killing of a thousand Jews on a transport . . . from Berlin to Riga on November 30, 1941.” His source for this is none other than David Irving, the notorious Hitler apologist. But Lucy Dawidowicz, in 1981, demonstrated beyond any possibility of contradiction that one had only to examine all four lines of the telephone message from which Irving “interpreted” just two to recognize that it had nothing to do with Hitler trying to stop a transport.