Friday, August 10, 2007


This obit from Süddeutsche Zeitung, translated in signandsight explains why Raul Hilberg was, and is, so important. His minute investigations of exactly how the Holocaust was executed set an example of empirical research just as the absence of posturing was a model of the historian's style.

This detail struck me. It shows how fine his filter had to be and how innocuous an administrative operation the death of thousands can become.

Hilberg famously interpretated a piece of writing which is familiar to everyone: the train timetable. Here the word Jew never once appears, only an ominous 'L' which signalised that the transport carriages that were so tightly packed on the outward journey would be 'leer' or empty on returning. This 'L' contains the precise amount of explicitness allowed - and guaranteed - by the bureaucratic form of expression.

This article written by Götz Aly in 2006 on the 20th anniversary of the "Historikerstreit", or "historians' dispute", also recognises the importance of Hilberg, but, more importantly, shows how the logic of the Nazi racial policies was more widespread than is usually acknowledged and was employed, not only by the totalitarian states, but also by liberal ones. With no moral equivalence implied.

A historiography that takes such facts into account should not relativize the Holocaust and the central responsibility of the Germans; distinctions must be made between specific cases: some fled to West Berlin, others were deported from the Sudetenland to Bavaria, but the Jews were murdered. Nonetheless, a historiography that takes itself seriously must recognize the patterns and pick up the threads of Europe's history of violence and progress in the first third of the twentieth century in order to localize Auschwitz in historical terms.

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