August 6, 2007

Raul Hilberg, 81

Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg died over the weekend. I never met him, but he deeply affected my understanding of history and human cruelty. As a child raised in a American Jewish household in the 1960s and 1970s, I was exposed to the first generation of Holocaust education. (I didn't know until a few years ago that American Jews took a few decades after WW2 to start that project seriously, and the NY Times article linked above notes that Hilberg's advisor tried to discourage him from the subject as unvalued in history.) That first wave of Holocaust education hadn't yet absorbed Hilberg's ideas, and so the dominant arguments were that Hitler was evil and that we must never forget. Fortunately, I also met several survivors, including Mel Mermelstein, people whose specificity was a useful antidote to the oversimplification of early Holocaust education. (I met Mermelstein before his legal battles with the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review.) For my bar mitzvah, I looked closely at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

When I was in college, I took several classes from Jane Caplan, including a German history course. I don't remember whether I found the Hilberg volumes in my history intro class or in one of Caplan's classes; I suspect the latter. I read large chunks of his opus, though I'll readily admit I skimmed significant portions. (Someone who claims to have read every word of all three volumes as a sideline to undergraduate course requirements with a full liberal-arts college load... well, I'd be skeptical.)

Hilberg's account was meticulous, detailed, horrific, and mesmerizing. His description of the bureaucracy of genocide answered questions that had lain unformed in my mind for years. I had little understanding of historiographical dynamics, but I knew this was important. I cannot imagine that anyone who has read Hilberg could simplify the Holocaust or other genocides with any shred of historical conscience.

(p. 73/104; see prior entry for context)

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Posted in History on August 6, 2007 11:34 PM |