As people around the world mark Yom ha-Shoah (see this post by Balashon regarding the name itself), I wanted to say a few things about scholarly research of the Shoah. Many of us are familiar with the classic work by Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945. In recent years there have been a number of other books which people should be aware of. First there are two books by the recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Saul Friedländer. They are Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 and The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. In addition there is Christopher Browning’s The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. Another author whose work I have found challenging and informative is that of Omer Bartov. Bartov’s work isn’t limited to examining the events of 1933-1945, rather he also writes about the historiography of the Shoah, its memory, and the role that its commemoration and history has played in numerous countries. I am currently reading his book Germany’s War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories and I wanted to bring a few excerpts from the book which discuss numerous aspects of the Shoah.
The first selection describes the two main schools of historical research of the Shoah.
The two most influential schools of interpretation of Nazism and the Holocaust have been labeled “intentionalism” and “functionalism.” The former stresses the centrality of Hitler and views the destruction of the Jews as a long-term project planned well in advance; the latter dwells on the structural characteristics of the Third Reich and presents the Holocaust as the outcome of intra-governmental rivalries and self-imposed logistical constraints. Intentionalists insist on ideological imperatives and the realization of a genocidal program; functionalists dismiss Hitler’s role and emphasize the logic of modern bureaucratic norms and procedures, while relegating abstract tenets to the level of empty rhetoric. (80)
While recognizing the millions of non-Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, Bartov stresses that the genocidal campaign against the Jews was unique.
It was only in the case of the Jews that there was a determination to seek out every baby hidden in a haystack, every family living in a bunker in the forest, every woman trying to pass herself off as a Gentile. It was only in the case of the Jews that vast factories were constructed and managed with the sole purpose of killing trainload after trainload of people. It was only in the case of the Jews that huge, open-air, public massacres of tens of thousands of people were conducted on a daily basis throughout Eastern Europe. (107)
Lastly, with regard to German society and how it acquired for itself a genocidal mission,
Never before, or after, has a state decided to devote so many of its technological, organizational, and intellectual resources to the sole purpose of murdering every single member of a certain category of people in a process that combined the knowledge acquired in mass industrial production with the experience of waging total war. This was a novel phenomenon: striving to produce corpses with the same methods employed to produce goods. In this case, however, destruction was the goal of production, not its opposite.
In circumstances of mass murder, sadism flourishes; but sadism is not unique to the Holocaust. Antisemitism is a pernicious phenomenon with long historical roots, but the question remains as to how was it employed in creating and legitimating death camps rather than expressed in savage pogroms. We need to probe much deeper into the culture that produced genocide in the heart of European civilization. (135-6)