In December 2000 I had the privilege of meeting Raul Hilberg at a conference in Berlin.
The conference celebrated the 100th anniversary of Franz Neumann’s birth. Franz Neumann was at first a politically engaged legal theorist, close to the German Social Democratic Party. Forced into exile by the Nazis, he gained respect for his work Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, for his teaching at Columbia University, and for a few influential articles in political theory. I was there because I am his son. Hilberg was there because his great work, The Destruction of the European Jews, began as a doctoral thesis under my father’s supervision.
The conference consisted mainly of scholars, some young, some older and established. Among the older scholars were several well respected figures, but none had Hilberg’s reputation. There were, of course, papers presented, pretty good ones, I thought. They were supposed to be twenty minutes but often, as usual, the text was much longer than that and the talks went overtime. Nevertheless they were carefully prepared and their length was no great burden on the audience.
When Hilberg’s turn came round, he stepped up to the podium with a single scrap of paper. Oh, I said to myself, a star: one of those famous guys too good to do actual work for a little gathering like this one.
Hilberg’s talk was the most beautifully clear, the most carefully organized and the most illuminating, by far. Near the end it had a subtly dramatic flair. When American intelligence came to organize the vast store of Nazi government documents they had collected, he said, they organized them into broad categories corresponding to the fundamental areas in which the Nazi state deployed its efforts. He described the categories. Where did they come from, he asked? It turns out they came from Neumann’s Behemoth.
That, I believe, was Hilberg to a T. No fine words about Neumann’s influence or intellect, no narrowly academic disquisitions on the evolution of modern German political theory, no funny stories about his old professor, not historical footnotes, nor – my own sin – a presentation of pet ideas whose relevance to the conference remained a mystery. He paid tribute by getting right down to the business of explaining exactly how Neumann’s thought had impact on the business of the world. It was stylish, instructive, and would have been self-effacing had we not sat stunned at the intellectual power of what had been so succinctly laid before us.
Hilberg was more than brilliant; he was strong. Intellectual integrity was effortless and natural in him; it was as if he was simply incapable of sloppiness or shortcuts, much less dishonesty. Well into his seventies, he carried himself and spoke like someone half his age, telling stories more as if he were in a bar than in a rocking chair. He was himself, and unashamed, even when he told us, with not a trace of defensiveness, that he had always voted Republican. And it seemed that he could not say anything unclear, uninteresting, or disorganized. Nor did he live in his own little sphere of excellence.
When, on repeated occasions, Norman Finkelstein came under vicious attack for taking on ‘the Holocaust industry’ and the official Jewish organizations, Hilberg did more than defend an abstraction like academic freedom or bleat about ‘censorship’. He calmly placed himself directly in the line of fire. My style is not quite Finkelstein’s, he said, but I myself came to much the same conclusions. No lofty remarks could have done more to expose the dim small-mindedness of Finkelstein’s accusers.
When I think back to that conference, I think what so many academics of my acquaintance would have made of that opportunity. Hilberg was Jewish; so was my father. Their lives and work both delved into the origins and generation of what is now called, with high-school-drama-club portentousness, The Holocaust. For many in Hilberg’s position, the temptation to moralize, to play the victim, to lay guilt trips on the comically harmless German scholars would have proven irresistible. For Hilberg any such posturing was inconceivable. He did not make an effort to value the truth over anything else; he did not have to: he must have been born that way.
That’s why the title of his work is so starkly direct, why he worked with German documents, not anecdotes and horror stories, why he gathered no ammunition for sermons. The Germans had a problem, he says; what they were undertaking was unprecedented. There was no model they could follow. They had to make it up as they went along, and this is how they did it. His unsparing, unrelenting, single-minded analysis sacrifices every self-indulgent whim to the gargantuan yet almost pedestrian task of analysing the murky, bureaucratic creation of hell on earth.
Here again is strength: neither pity nor self-pity, anger nor despair, sanctimony nor opportunism are allowed to interfere with the drive to understand a process we so desperately need to understand.
Hilberg’s work is human; it has flaws. His interpretation of the huge events he tackles, though definitive for a time, will at length be superseded. But his achievement will never fail to astonish. Another conference attendee, himself a scholar of the first rank, described Hilberg’s stature with elegant simplicity: “a mind of a different order”.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.