Remembering Raul Hilberg

Raul Hilberg died on August 4. A refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, Hilberg was the founder of the field of Holocaust studies.

I cannot now remember when I first read Hilberg’s magnum opus The Destruction of the European Jews, but it must have been in my early youth. In fact at first I wasn’t even sure whether I did plow my way through the first edition, published in 1961 by Quadrangle Books, with its forbidding double columns of text in 10-point font but I just pulled it off the shelf, binding broken, pages loose, and sure enough it was all marked up.

I read the expanded three-volume Holmes & Meier edition published in 1985 many times. Whenever I ventured to write something on the Nazi holocaust I would again peruse all the volumes cover to cover. They provided the psychological security I needed before daring to render a judgment of my own. Wanting to stand on the firmest possible intellectual foundations I reflexively reached for Hilberg. As it happens, in preparation for a statement I was commissioned to write on the Nazi holocaust, I was just in the midst of reading the three-volume third edition published by Yale University Press in 2003 when news of his death arrived.

Hilberg was not pleased with the first edition–a vital table he pored over many weeks to get just right was botched in the cramped composition–but he couldn’t do better: no major publishing house expressed interest in his groundbreaking study, and he only managed to find any publisher due to a private benefactor who agreed to defray indirectly some of the costs. (The Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem had also rejected the manuscript and initially even barred him from its archive.)

In his often acrid memoir The Politics of Memory Hilberg tells the story that when he first proposed studying the Jewish genocide to his advisor at Columbia University, the great German-Jewish sociologist Franz Neumann (author of Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, a classic study of the organization of the Nazi state), Neumann warned him that “this will be your funeral.”

It is hard now to remember that the Nazi holocaust was once a taboo subject. During the early years of the Cold War, mention of the Nazi holocaust was seen as undermining the critical U.S.-West German alliance. It was airing the dirty laundry of the barely de-Nazified West German elites and thereby playing into the hands of the Soviet Union, which didn’t tire of remembering the crimes of the West German “revanchists.” The major American Jewish organizations rushed to make their peace with Konrad Adenauer’s government (the Anti-Defamation League took the lead) while those holding commemorations for the Jewish dead were tagged as Communists, which as a rule they were.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in the mid-1960s, Hannah Arendt could draw on only one other scholarly study apart from Hilberg’s on the Nazi holocaust in the English language. Nowadays there are enough studies to fill a good-sized library, although it is perhaps not accurate to grace all these publications with the descriptive “scholarly.”

Arendt borrowed extensively from Hilberg’s work with less-than-generous attribution. He never forgave her this oversight and–what truly is unforgivable–her condescending references to his study in private correspondence and her recommending against its publication by Princeton University Press. In his memoir Hilberg parries the insult, asserting, wrongly in my opinion, that Arendt’s study The Origins of Totalitarianism lacked originality. It is true that Arendt could be lazy about facts, which might account for Hilberg’s harsh judgment, but the first part of Origins contains many shrewd insights on the dilemmas of Jewish assimilation and paradoxes of the nation-state.

Hilberg reserved even greater contempt (and loathing) for Lucy Dawidowicz, author of the highly touted The War Against the Jews. Here it can be said that his verdict was faultless. During the heyday of the Holocaust religion in the 1970s-1980s, Dawidowicz was its designated high priestess. The problem was that, as Hilberg brutally demonstrates in his memoir, she got the most elementary facts wrong. I once asked my late mother, who survived Maidanek concentration camp, about Dawidowicz’s depiction of all the Jews in the ghettos and camps furtively staying faithful to their religion until their final steps into the gas chambers. “When I first entered my block at Maidanek, all the women inmates had dyed-blond hair,” my mother laughed. “They had been trying to pass as Gentiles.” The shocking accounts of Jewish corruption that could be found in conveniently forgotten memoirs like Bernard Goldstein’s The Stars Bear Witness were deleted in Dawidowicz’s fantasy.

Hilberg’s reputation for mastery of the primary sources was such that my former coauthor (and an authority in her own right on the Nazi holocaust) Ruth Bettina Birn feared their first meeting: no mortal being, she thought, could have stored so many Nuremberg Tribunal documents in his brain. The magnitude of Hilberg’s achievement is hard to appreciate today because the scholarly breakthrough has passed into commonplace. His sequential-chronological account of the steps pressing ineluctably from the Nazi definition of Jews to their expropriation, massacre, deportation and assembly-line extermination has been assimilated into the infrastructure of all subsequent scholarship.

Stylistically Hilberg’s study might be said to be the opposite of current Holocaust fare: a sparseness of adjectives and adverbs such that when he reaches for one it packs unusual intensity. Apart from professional discipline his terse rendering was perhaps also meant to capture the desiccated esprit of the bureaucratic–dare I say banal?–process through which millions of Jews were shoved along to their deaths.

Hilberg didn’t truck in the pieties of what became the Holocaust industry that exploited the colossal suffering of Jews for political and financial gain. He rejected the notion that the Nazi holocaust sprang uniquely from virulent anti-Semitism and concomitantly maintained that “Jews were only the first victims” of the German bureaucracy’s genocidal juggernaut, which also targeted Gypsies and Poles, among others. He reckoned Jewish resistance to be negligible but Jewish cooperation (which however he distinguished from collaboration) to be significant, while he reckoned the total number of Jewish victims at closer to 5.1 million. The third volume contains a 20-page appendix detailing his complex calculations of Jewish dead. In contrast Dawidowicz gives a figure for each country and then totals the number, as if this calculation were simply an addition problem whereas, as Hilberg notes, “the raw data are seldom self-explanatory, and their interpretation often requires the use of voluminous background materials that have to be analyzed in turn.”

It should go without saying that whether the figure is closer to five than six million is of zero moral significance–except for a moral cretin, who could utter “only five million”?–although Hilberg believed it was of historical significance. Even if it weren’t he almost certainly would still have insisted on the 5.1 million figure if his research showed it was closer to the truth. “Always in my life,” Hilberg wrote unaffectedly in his memoir, “I had wanted the truth about myself.” This was also how he approached the study of the Nazi holocaust.

His confident knowledge of the field no doubt accounted for Hilberg’s easygoing tolerance of Holocaust deniers. Those who want to suppress them do so not only in disgust at what they might say but also in dread of the inability to answer them. (The hysterical allegation of Holocaust deniers lurking in every corner is apparently also contrived to justify the endless proliferation of Holo-trash.) Hilberg recently made the provocative statement that whereas the Nazi holocaust is an irrefutable fact this was “more easily said than demonstrated.”

It is indeed easy for the non-expert to be tripped up on the details especially when on crucial matters like the gas chambers (a favorite target of the deniers), there exist, as historian Arno Mayer noted, “many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources,” none of which however “put in question the use of gas chambers in the mass murder.” On a personal note I myself vividly recall reading Arthur Butz’s Hoax of the Twentieth Century and not being able at the time to answer many of his simplest challenges. (If the figure for Jews killed was put at six million right after the war, and the total number of Jews killed at Auschwitz was then estimated at three million, how–he asked–can the figure still stand at six million if the estimate of the number killed at Auschwitz has now been scaled down by scholars to one million?) Her lawyers imposed a gag rule on Deborah Lipstadt during her trial with David Irving–she was banned not only from testifying in court but also from speaking to the press–because they knew full well that a single word from this know-nothing’s mouth would sink the ship. In her account of the trial Lipstadt can barely conceal the lawyers’ contempt for her, yet she is too thick-headed to notice the absurdity of her smug two thumbs-up after the jury announced its verdict. She had as much to do with the victory as I did with last night’s performance of the Bolshoi.

Mention of Irving’s name didn’t evoke howls of indignation or torrents of abuse from Hilberg. Instead he recognized Irving’s impressive apprehension of some of the subject matter, although qualifying it–with a touch of snobbery–as “self-taught,” and speculated that his preposterous statements sprung less from anti-Semitism than love of the spotlight. Of Holocaust denial in the Arab world Hilberg observed that “they are as confused about the West as we are about them,” while he casually dismissed the Holocaust denial conference in Teheran as “needless difficulty and trouble,” and said he was “not terribly worried about it.”

Echoing John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Hilberg even declared that Holocaust deniers served the useful purpose of posing questions that everyone else assumed were already answered. Hilberg was derisive of another of the Holocaust industry’s shibboleths, the “New anti-Semitism.” The much-ballyhooed resurgence of anti-Semitism, he said, amounted to “picking up a few pebbles from the past and throwing them at windows.” In his last interview Hilberg also sharply criticized Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinians, which, I suspect, couldn’t have been easy for him. (His daughter lives in Jerusalem.)

Although Hilberg suffered professionally because he chose to study the Nazi holocaust when it was politically imprudent and because he later resisted the orthodoxies of the Holocaust industry, those wanting truly to understand the unfolding horror have benefited from his independence of spirit. Like the best memoirs of the Nazi holocaust (many of which are out of print), his study was written before ideological exigencies deformed and debased much of the scholarship on the subject. In recent years Hilberg was given to observing that most serious scholarship on the Nazi holocaust was coming out of Germany while “there are not many Holocaust researchers worth mentioning in this country.” It is hard to conceive a more withering indictment of the Holocaust industry’s multibillion-dollar operation.

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For reasons that frankly still perplex me, Hilberg was a stalwart and vocal supporter of mine. Truth be told I was always careful to keep my distance. I didn’t feel worthy of his praise and feared alienating him. We couldn’t have been more different in academic styles and I am a person of the Left whereas he was a lifelong Republican.

When Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners was released in 1996, I approached it with an open mind. Both my late parents were of the conviction that all Germans wanted the Jews dead (my father survived Auschwitz) so I figured maybe there was something to Goldhagen’s thesis. Reading the book was quite the shock. The reasoning was bizarre, the evidence nonexistent. In debates on it I was accused of polemical overkill. It couldn’t be that bad: look at what reviewers were saying. Indeed, who can forget the endless months of breathless prose in the New York Times for the Holocaust industry’s new poster boy? It was a singular relief when I read Hilberg’s verdict: “worthless.”

After a division of Henry Holt (Metropolitan) agreed to publish my critical essay on Goldhagen (together with one by Birn), the Holocaust industry went ballistic. Its attempts to halt the book’s publication were neutralized, however, when Hilberg stepped forward to praise my contribution. But Adam Shatz, wielding the hatchet in Slate, breezily surmised that Hilberg, along with the half dozen other leading scholars who blurbed the book, hadn’t read carefully what I wrote. In light of what is known about Hilberg’s fastidiousness, this would have been strangely out of character.

When my book The Holocaust Industry could no longer be ignored in the U.S. (it had created a huge stir in Europe), the floodgates of vitriol opened wider still. New York Times reviewer Omer Bartov apparently consulted the unabridged edition of Roget’s Ad Hominems, while Peter Novick, author of The Holocaust in American Life, declared that not a word I wrote could be trusted. (Novick’s study of Holocaust commemoration in the U.S. originally elicited outrage as well but, after joining in the assault on The Holocaust Industry, he was heralded as a responsible critic in contrast to me.) Hilberg stepped forward again to support my most controversial contention in The Holocaust Industry that the campaign for Holocaust compensation was a “double shakedown” of the European states as well as the Holocaust survivors. Hilberg told me that the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Elie Wiesel relentlessly pleaded with him to retract his endorsement of my book. He refused.

Prior to publication of The Holocaust Industry Hilberg had himself denounced American Jews for resorting to the “blackmail weapon” against Europe. His disgust for the megalomaniacal Edgar Bronfman and the irredeemably vulgar Rabbi Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress, which orchestrated the shakedown, is barely disguised in the recently updated Yale edition of his study.

The charges Hilberg and I independently leveled back in 2000 have since been vindicated. The $1.5 billion extracted from the Swiss banks bore no relationship to the pittance they actually owed, while Holocaust survivors have complained of receiving only a pittance of the fully $20 billion extracted from Europe in their names.

I only met Hilberg once. I was asked to be the presenter for a documentary to be shown on British television on Holocaust compensation (“The Final Insult”), and he was one of the expert commentators.

Hilberg lived in a modestly furnished home in Burlington, Vermont. His wife worked in a hospice. He showed me the various foreign translations of his study in which he took obvious pride (in particular the Japanese edition), not least for their physical workmanship. I doubt he ever used the internet, just as it is unimaginable that a citation of an old-fashioned scholar like him would begin www.

During breaks in the filming I put to him many questions on the Nazi holocaust–the role of Nazi ideology (he was skeptical of its importance), the female block in Maidanek (he said very few survived), the Holocaust industry’s claim that millions of Jews survived (he put his index finger to his temple, made a circular motion, and said “cuckoo”), other Holocaust scholars (he was uniformly generous in his appraisals, even of those whom, he said, would “whisper the worst things about me behind my back”). What Hilberg never did was lapse into Holocaust cliché which, along with Holocaust kitsch, he detested.

Hilberg’s last statement for the camera was that next to the likes of Bronfman and Singer, even Shylock looked good. Fully aware of just how incendiary the juxtaposition was, Hilberg chuckled after the camera stopped rolling that he’d probably gotten himself into a lot of trouble. Ironically the British television station forced the producer to edit out this statement. Not even Hilberg could be allowed to utter certain truths.

When my tenure troubles at DePaul University reached a crescendo, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! rang up Hilberg for a comment. It was a sobering occasion. Ruth Conniff and Mathew Rothschild of The Progressive had denounced me as a “Holocaust minimizer” for citing Hilberg’s 5.1 million figure. Jon Wiener, writing in The Nation, another left-of-center publication, “defended” me by quoting Peter Novick’s “thoughtful” remark that Alan Dershowitz and I “deserve each other.” Yet Hilberg, the lifelong Republican, once again stinted no words on my behalf. Character not ideology, Birn once counseled me, is the better measure of a person.

Hilberg famously used the triad Perpetrators-Victims-Bystanders to catalogue the main actors in the Nazi holocaust. It is notable that he didn’t include a category for givers of succor, presumably because they were so few in number. Judging by the life he lived, my guess is that, had the tables been turned, Hilberg would have been among those few.

Primo Levi originally titled his memoir of Auschwitz If This is a Man. Of Raul Hilberg it might be said, There went a man.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN’s most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press). His web site is