Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Politics of Memory by Raul Hilberg



For a number of reasons the relationship of Hanna Arendt and historian Raul Hilberg remain a matter of controversy, as exemplified in an article by Nathaniel Popper in the March 31st edition of The Nation: A Conscious Pariah: On Raul Hilberg [ http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100419/popper/single ] Here are some excerpts from Hilberg's The Politics of Memory, The Journey of a Holocaust Historian which give his side of the story.


If counter-factual stories in history are frequent enough and represent spoilage, kitsch is debasement and truly rampant. In my small collection of art books is a volume of essays, compiled by Gillo Dorfles, about the world of bad taste. The compendium is richly illustrated, and when I look at these reproductions during the late evening hour, I dissolve in laughter. In my subject, to be sure, I do not regard such examples of the aesthetic spirit as comical. The philistines in my field are everywhere. I am surrounded by the commonplace, platitudes, and cliches. Jewish resistance fighters are memorialized in the center of Warsaw by a large heroic statue in Stalinist style. In poetry I regularly encounter graves in the sky. In speeches I must listen to man's inhumanity to man. In some of my own works, the publishers have added their flourishes on jackets, covers, and title pages.

What can be said about manipulation and kitsch is that they are almost routine. Many historians can give personal examples of such experiences, my own are not exceptional. I have, however, had disturbing encounters which are distinctly less common. I have in mind the handiwork of three authors who were sufficiently inspired by the muses to think of themselves as special, one as a narrator of events, one in the role of historian, and one as a philosopher interpreting history. Each of them regarded her specific contribution as a capstone to be placed on the works of others. Each considered her work to be a summation in which everything of importance that had been missed was finally resolved, and each complicated my life in her own special way. Their names were Nora Levin, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Hanna Arendt.

Naturally I looked at Hannah Arendt's treatise on the origins of totalitarianism but when I saw that it consisted only of unoriginal essays on anti-Semitism, imperialism, and general topics associated with totalitarianism, such as the "masses," propaganda, and "total domination," I put the book aside. I never met or corresponded with her, and I heard her in public only twice. All I can recall from these two lectures is the emphatic, insistent manner in which she spoke.


The subtitle of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is A Report on the Banality of Evil. That subsidiary title has the rare distinction of being recalled more clearly than the main one. It is certainly a description of her thesis about Adolf Eichmann and, by implication, many other Eichmanns, but is it correct? In Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel in the S.S. who headed the Gestapo's section on Jews, she saw a man who was "declasse", who had led a "humdrum" life before he rose in the SS hierarchy, and who had "flaws" of character. She referred to his "self-importance," expounded on his "bragging," and spoke of his "grotesque silliness" in the hour when he was hanged, when - - having drunk a half-bottle of wine - - he said his last words.

She did not recognize the magnitude of what this man had done with a small staff, overseeing and manipulating Jewish councils in various parts of Europe, attaching some of the remaining Jewish property in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia-Moravia, preparing anti-Jewish laws in satellite states, and arranging for the transportation of Jews to shooting sites and death camps. She did not discern the pathways that Eichmann had found in the thicket of the German administrative machine for his unprecedented actions. She did not grasp the dimension of his deeds. There was no "banality" in this "evil".

The second divergence between her conceptions and mine concerned the role of the Jewish leaders in what she plainly labeled the destruction of their own people. It had been known before, she said, but now it had been exposed "in all of its pathetic and sordid detail" in what she called my "standard work". The whole truth, she said in a sentence that was quoted over and over, was that if the Jewish people had been unorganized and leaderless there would have been chaos and misery, but not between four and a half and six million dead.

In writing about the Jewish councils I emphasized the extent to which the German apparatus counted on their cooperation. The accommodation policy of the councils had ended in disaster. For me, however, the problem was deeper. The councils were not only a German tool but also an instrument of the Jewish community. Their strategy was a continuation of the adjustments and adaptations practiced by Jews for centuries, a time-honored Jewish reaction to danger.

This was not an uncommon view in Israel before the trial of Eichmann, particularly among youth, Palestinian Jews and even Yad Vahem Studies had featured an article by Benzion Dinur, in 1957, one year before they rejected my manuscript for treating the history of the Holocaust in the same way. Such questions were even raised briefly in the trial itself- "You knew these were death trains, why did you not flee or fight?"- After that the repair work was pursued methodically from Jerusalem to New York. The Jews it was said in a metronome fashion, had been heroic, had resisted, and this assessment covered leaders and followers alike. Not surprisingly, when Hannah Arendt's New Yorker articles appeared, the wrath of the Jewish establishment, as she called it, descended upon her and simultaneously upon me. Hannah Arendt and I were coupled so often I could even act as her stand-in.

I still wonder what triggered her reactions to the first chapter of my Destruction of The European Jews? Was she really aroused by my search for historical precedents, such as the roots of anti-Jewish actions from 1933 to 1941 in the canons of the Catholic Church, or the origin of the Nazi conception of the Jew in the writings of Martin Luther? To be sure she had a personal need to insulate the Nazis phenomena. She went back to Germany at every opportunity after the war, resuming contacts and relationships. With Heidegger, who had been her lover in her student days and who was a Nazis in Hitler's regime, she became friendly again, rehabilitating him. But in dismissing my ideas she also made a bid for self-respect. Who was I, after all? She, the thinker, and I, the laborer who wrote only a simple report, albeit one which was indispensable once she had exploited it: that was the natural order of her universe.

[ However, as Hilberg writes in the concluding chapters of his memoir] When I began to assemble my own cast of characters for Perpetrators Victims and Bystanders, I thought the undertaking would be relatively easy. After all, I had been gathering materials for three and a half decades. But it did not take long before I was back in the archives to search with an altogether different perspective for more court records, personnel files, and correspondences, in order that I might provide telling illustrations of different kinds of perpetrators, victims, and bystander. It was not until I had finished the work, in fact not until after its publication, that I fully realized something else.

Most often novelists, journalists, and even historians look for an unusual or bizarre occurrence in a mundane setting, but I was doing the opposite. For me, the destruction of the Jews already was the setting, the irremovable reality, and within this extraordinary outburst I looked for all that was ordinary. I had done so from the beginning, when I dealt with everyday bureaucratic procedures, and now I was pursuing the same object as I examined the lives of people. In their daily routines, these individuals, like agencies, sought stability, particularly their own private equilibrium. It did not matter whether they were perpetrators, victims, of bystanders; they all manifested a need for continuity and balance.

The craving for the familiar, the habitual, the normal, emerged as a leitmotif wherever I looked. Psychologically this clinging was aimed at self-preservation, and its manifestation runs like a thread through the upheaval. At a basic level they provide an explanation of how these groups managed to go on - the perpetrators with their ever more drastic activities, the victims with their progressive deprivations, the bystanders with the increasing ambiguity and ambivalence of ther positions. When Sigmund Freud delivered a lecture about war during the first major conflagration of the twentieth century, he said that mankind needed a passing check from the burdens of civilization. What I began to note was the reverse side of this phenomena: the adhesion to time-honored products of this civilization in the midst of unprecedented destruction....

I returned to Vienna and visited the haunts of my childhood in 1992. At the end of my trip I conducted several interviews in a coffee house at the center of the city. One of the interviewers, Evelyn Adunka, was exceptionally perceptive and insightful. She asked me about Franz Neuman, Salo Baron and my father, and she quoted from a private letter she had discovered in an archive. The letter was written on March 6, 1962, by H.G. Adler, the survivor of Theresienstadt, who was the author of a massive book about the ghetto. I had never met or corresponded with Adler, who had lived in England until his death in 1988. Reading that thirty-year-old letter, which like all his books was written in German, I felt as though Adler had peered directly into the core of my being:

"To be noted is Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jewry. Surely you have heard of this work. It is until now the most significant accomplishment in this topic area and it is not likely to be surpassed very soon, even though it is by far not yet the final portrayal. No one until now has seen and formulated the total horrible process so clearly. The number of small errors and omissions do not matter seriously, and so far as I can see, they can be extinguished in a new edition. What moves me in this book is the hopelessness of the author, who was born in 1926, and who came to the United States before the war, surely from Germany to which he returned at the end of the war with the U.S. Army. In 1948 Hilberg began his work. Therefore he already has the viewpoint of a generation, which does not feel itself affected directly, but which looked at these events from afar, bewildered, bitter and embittered, accusing and critical, not only vis - a - vis the Germans ( how else?), but also the Jews and all the nations which looked on. At the end nothing remains but despair and doubt about everything, because for Hilberg there is only recognition, perhaps also a grasp, but certainly no understanding..."

1 comment:

  1. The Politics of Memory; The Journey of A Holocaust Historian by Raul Hilberg; Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1996

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