The Destruction of the European Jews

The Destruction of the European Jews
The Jews in Central Europe (1881)

The Destruction of the European Jews is a book published in 1961 by historian Raul Hilberg. Hilberg revised his work in 1985, and it appeared in a new three-volume edition. It is largely held to be the first comprehensive historical study of the Holocaust. According to Holocaust historian, Michael R. Marrus (The Holocaust in History), until the book appeared, little information about the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany had "reached the wider public" in both the West and the East, and even in pertinent scholarly studies it was "scarcely mentioned or only in passing as one more atrocity in a particularly cruel war."

Hilberg's "landmark synthesis, based on a masterful reading of German documents", soon led to a massive array of writings and debates, both scholarly and popular, on the Jewish Holocaust. Two works which preceded Hilberg's by a decade, but remained little known in their time, were Léon Poliakov's Bréviaire de la haine (Devotional of hate) published in 1951, and Gerald Reitlinger's The Final Solution, published in 1953.[1]

No literature could serve me as an example. The destruction of the Jews was an unprecedented occurrence, a primordial act that had not been imagined before it burst forth. The Germans had no model for their deed, and I did not have one for my narrative. -- Raul Hilberg[2]
Cover of the 2005 edition of The Destruction of the European Jews


Written with support, published with difficulties

Professor Raul Hilberg

Hilberg began his study of the Holocaust leading to The Destruction while stationed in Munich in 1948 for the U.S. Army's War Documentation Project. He proposed the idea for the work as a PhD. dissertation and was supported in this by his doctoral advisor, Columbia University professor Franz Neumann.

While the dissertation won a prize, Columbia University Press, Princeton University Press, Oklahoma University Press, as well as Yad Vashem all declined to publish it. It was eventually published by a small publishing company (Quadrangle Books). This first edition was published in an unusually small type. Much of the page count increase of later versions is due to being published in a conventional type size. This was not the end of Hilberg's publishing woes. It was not translated until 1982, when Ulf Wolter of the small leftist publishers Olle & Wolter in Berlin published a German translation. For this purpose the work was enlarged by about 15%, so that Hilberg spoke of a "second edition", "solid enough for the next century".

Opposition from Hannah Arendt

In his autobiography, Hilberg reveals learning that Hannah Arendt advised Princeton University Press against publishing The Destruction on the grounds that it was not a sufficiently important contribution to the subject. She did, however, base her account of the Final Solution (in Eichmann in Jerusalem) on Hilberg's history, as well as sharing his controversial characterisation of the Judenrat. Hilberg strongly criticized Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis which appeared shortly after The Destruction, to be published with her articles for the New Yorker with respect to Adolf Eichmann's trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem). He still defended Arendt's right to have her views aired upon being condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. In fact, David Cesarani writes that Hilberg 'defended [Arendt's] several arguments at a bitter debate organised by Dissent magazine which drew an audience of hundreds.'[3] In a letter to the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, Arendt went on to write that:

[Hilberg] is pretty stupid and crazy. He babbles now about a 'death wish' of the Jews. His book is really excellent, but only because it is a simple report. A more general, introductory chapter is beneath a singed pig.[4]

Hilberg also goes on to claim that Nora Levin heavily borrowed from The Destruction without acknowledgment in her 1968 The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, and that historian Lucy Davidowicz not only ignored The Destruction's findings in her 1975 The War against the Jews, 1933–1945 but also went on to exclude mention of him in her 1981 historiographic work, The Holocaust and the Historians. "She wanted preeminence," Hilberg writes.

Opposition from Yad Vashem

Hilberg's work received hostile reception from Yad Vashem. The Destruction was reviewed only six years after it was published, and the title of the brief, thirty-odd page review was Historical Research or Slander. The following year, Hilberg claims he was barred access to the institute's archives in Jerusalem and had to resort to sneaking into the centre with the aid of a sympathetic employee.

Against overstating heroism of Jewish victims

A key reason as to why notable Jews and organizations were hostile to Hilberg's work was that The Destruction relied most of all on German documents, whereas Jewish accounts and sources were featured far less prominently. This, argued Hilberg's opponents, trivialized the suffering Jews endured under Nazism. For his part, Hilberg maintains that these sources simply could not have been central to a systematic, social-scientific reconstruction of the destruction process.

Another important factor for this hostility by many in the Jewish community (including some Holocaust survivors) is that Hilberg refused to view the vast majority of Jewish victims' "passivity" as a form of heroism or resistance (in contrast to those Jews who actively resisted, waging armed struggle against the Nazis). Equally controversially, he provided an analysis for this passivity in the context of Jewish history. The Jews, Hilberg argued, were convinced "the persecutor would not destroy what he could economically exploit." Hilberg calculated the economic value of Jewish slave labor to the Nazis as being several times the entire value of confiscated Jewish assets and used this as evidence that the Nazis valued killing Jews above all economic considerations. Additionally, Hilberg estimated the total number of Germans killed by Jews during World War II as less than 300, an estimate that is not conducive to an image of heroic struggle.

Hilberg, therefore, disagreed with what he termed a "campaign of exaltation", explains historian Mitchell Hart, and with Holocaust historians such as Martin Gilbert who argued that "[e]ven passivity was a form of resistance[,] to die with dignity was a form of resistance." According to Hilberg, his own approach was crucial for grasping the Nazi genocide of Jews as a process. Hart adds that:

This sort of "inflation of resistance" is dangerous because it suggests that the Jews truly did present the Nazis with some sort of "opposition" that was not just a horrible figment of their antisemitic imaginations.[5]

The Holocaust as a historically explicable event

This problem underscores a more fundamental question: whether the Holocaust can (or to what extent it should) be made explicable through a social-scientific, historical account. Speaking against what he terms "quasi mystical association," historian Nicolas Kinloch writes that "with the publication of Raul Hilberg’s monumental book," the subject had risen to be considered "an event requiring more, rather than less, stringent historical analysis."[6] Citing Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer's statement that "if the Holocaust was caused by humans, then it is as understandable as any other human event," Kinloch finally concludes that this "will itself help to make any repetition of the Nazi genocide less likely."[7]

One danger, however, from this attempt to "demystify", argues Arno Lustiger, can lead to another mystification proffering "clichés about the behaviour of the doomed Jews [which depict] their alleged cowardliness, compliance, submission, collaboration and lack of passive or armed resistance." He goes on to echo the early critics of (the no longer marginalized) Hilberg, stating that: "it is about time to publish researched testimonies of the victims and survivors [as opposed to those] documentations and books, based solely on German documents."[8]

An altogether different argument challenged that since the Nazis destroyed massive sets of sensitive documents pertaining to the Holocaust upon the arrival of Soviet and Western Ally troops, no truly comprehensive, verifiable historical reconstruction could be achieved. This, however, argues Hilberg, demonstrates an ignorance as to the structure and scope of the Nazi bureaucracy. While it is true that many sensitive documents were destroyed, the bureaucracy nonetheless was so immense and so dispersed, that most pertinent materials could be reconstructed either from copies or from a vast array of more peripheral ones.

From these documents, The Destruction proceeds to outline the treatment of the Jews by the Nazi State through a succession of very different stages, each one more extreme, more dehumanizing than that which preceded it, eventually leading to the final stage: the physical destruction of the European Jews.

Stages leading to the destruction process

In The Destruction, Hilberg established what today has become orthodoxy in Holocaust historiography: the increasingly intensifying historical stages leading to genocide. Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews, Hilberg argued, began relatively mildly through political-legal discrimination and the appropriation of Jewish assets (1933–39). Ghettoization followed: the isolation of Jews in and their confinement to Ghettoes (1939–41). The final stage, Hilberg concluded, was the destruction itself, the continental annihilation of European Jews (1941–45).

In the early stages, Nazi policies targeting Jews (whether directly or through aryanization) treated them as sub-human, but with a right to live under such conditions that this status affords. In the later stages, policy was formulated to define the Jews as anti-human, with extermination being viewed an increasingly urgent necessity. The growing Nazi momentum of destruction, began with the murdering of Jews in German and German-annexed and occupied countries, and then intensified into a search for Jews to either exterminate or use as forced labour from countries allied with Nazi Germany as well as neutral countries.

The more sophisticated and organized, less clandestine part of the Nazi machinery of destruction tended to murder Jews not fit for intense manual labour immediately; later in the destruction process, more and more Jews initially labelled productive were also murdered. Eventually, Nazi compulsion for the eradication of the Jews became total and absolute, with any potentially available Jews being actively sought solely for the purpose of destruction.

The seamless transformation from yet inextricable distinction between these stages, could be realized only through and put into practice by this very compounding process of an ever-growing dehumanization. As demonized as the Jews were, it seems highly unlikely that the destruction process of the later stage could take place during the time line of the stage which preceded it.

An intentional destruction

This dynamic reveals a spontaneity which many historians belonging to the functionalist school, following Hilberg's elaborate description, relied upon. These historians point to the more clandestine mass murder of Jews (principally in the East) and, as stated by notable functionalist, Martin Broszat, because "no general all encompassing directive for the extermination had existed."

While firmly intentionalist, unlike many intentionalists and functionalists alike, The Destruction does not emphasize and focus on the role of Hitler, though on this, Hilberg has shifted more towards the centre, with the third edition pointing at a less direct and systemic, more erratic and sporadic, but nonetheless pivotal, involvement by Hitler in his support for the destruction process.

Hitler was a crucial impetus for the genocide, Hilberg claimed, but the role played by the organs of the State and the Nazi Party should not be understated. Hitler, therefore, intended to eradicate the Jews, an intent he sometimes phrased in concrete terms, but often this intent on the part of Hitler was interpreted by rather than dictated to those at the helm of the bureaucratic machinery of destruction which administered and carried out the genocide of the Jews.

A destruction of 5.1 million Jews

Within a death toll often viewed as ranging between as low as five and as high as seven million, Hilberg's own detailed breakdown in The Destruction reveals a total estimated death toll of 5.1 million Jews. Only for the death toll at Belzec does Hilberg provide a precise figure, all the others are rounded. When these rounding factors are taken into account a range of 4.9 million to 5.4 million deaths emerges. It is instructive to note that the discrepancy in total figures among Holocaust researchers is often overshadowed by that between centres of destruction. One striking example can be seen in the Auschwitz State Museum's significant reduction of the estimated death toll in Auschwitz.

A 1980 study by the Historical Department at the Auschwitz State Museum (later approved by the Polish government), led by the Department chair, Franciszek Piper, revised very dramatically their (widely held as grossly inflated) figure of four million (including a large number of non-Jewish Poles) into one million (mostly Jewish)—Hilberg's own original estimate for the death toll in Auschwitz (though, Piper noted, this estimate fails to account for those not appearing in the records, especially those murdered immediately upon arrival).

This extreme example does not, however, mean that the total death toll should be lowered by three million, argues Brian Harmon in "The Auschwitz gambit: the four million variant" (Deceit and misrepresentation: the techniques of Holocaust denial), but rather, following a correct distribution, the total death toll still amounts to conventionally held figures.[9] The role played by The Destruction in shaping widely held views as to distribution of and evidence for these, has for decades been, and arguably remains, almost canonical in Holocaust historiography.

Widely acclaimed as seminal

Today, The Destruction has achieved a highly distinguished level of prestige amongst Holocaust historians. While its ideas have been modified (including by Hilberg himself) and criticized throughout four decades, few in the field dispute its being a monumental work, in both originality and scope. Reviewing the appreciably expanded 1,440-page third edition, Holocaust historian Christopher Browning notes in his The Revised Hilberg[10] that Hilberg "has improved a classic, not an easy task." And while Browning maintains that, with the exception of Hitler's role, there are no fundamental changes to the work's principal findings, he nevertheless states that:

If one measure of a book's greatness is its impact, a second is its longevity. For 25 years The Destruction has been recognized as the unsurpassed work in its field. While monographic studies of particular aspects of the Final Solution, utilizing archival sources and court records not available to Hilberg before 1961, have extended our knowledge in many areas, The Destruction of the European Jews still stands as the preeminent synthesis, the book that put it all together in the framework of an overarching and unified analysis.


  1. ^ Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History (Univ. Press of New England, 1987), pp. 4–7.
  2. ^ Hilberg, Raul. The politics of memory: the journey of a Holocaust historian (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1996), p. 84.
  3. ^ David Cesarani, Eichmann: His life and crimes, 350
  4. ^ Kohler, Lotte and Saner, Hans (eds.; trans. Robert and Rita Kimber) Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926–1969 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY, 1992), pp. 549–51.
  5. ^ Mitchell B. Hart, "The historian's past in three recent Jewish autobiographies" (Jewish Social Studies, Indiana University Press, 1999).
  6. ^ Nicolas Kinloch, "Parallel Catastrophes? Uniqueness, Redemption and the Shoah," Teaching History, 104: pp. 8–13.
  7. ^ Yehuda Bauer, "The Significance of the Final Solution," in Cesarani, David (ed.). The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation (Routledge, NY, 1996), p. 303.
  8. ^ Arno Lustiger (Honorary President of the Zionist Federation of Germany), "Testimony in Remembrance", The Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, 2000.
  9. ^ Brian Harmon, "The Auschwitz gambit: the four million variant", from Deceit and misrepresentation: the techniques of Holocaust denial (The Nizkor Project)
  10. ^ Christopher Browning, The Revised Hilberg, [(Simon Wiesenthal Center)]


  • Pacy, James S. and Wertheimer, Alan P. (ed.) Perspectives on the Holocaust: Essays in honor of Raul Hilberg (Westview Press, Boulder, 1995).
  • Raul Hilberg. The destruction of the European Jews, Third Edition, (Yale Univ. Press, 2003, c1961).
  • Hilberg, Raul. The Holocaust today (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1988).
  • Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish catastrophe, 1933–1945 (Aaron Asher Books, NY, 1992).
  • Raul Hilberg. "The relevance of Behemoth today," Constellations, June 2003, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 256–263(8)
  • Franz L. Neumann. Behemoth: The structure and practice of National Socialism (Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1942).
  • Neumann, Franz L. The fate of small business in Nazi Germany (Fertig, NY, 1975).
  • Yehuda Bauer. Holocaust in historical perspective (Washington Univ. Press, 1978).
  • Léon Poliakov. Harvest of hate: The Nazi program for the destruction of the Jews of Europe (Holocaust Library, NY, 1979, c1951)
  • Poliakov, Léon. The history of anti-Semitism (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).
  • Poliakov, Léon. The Aryan myth: A history of racist and nationalist ideas in Europe (Sussex Univ. Press, 1974).
  • Poliakov, Léon. Jews under the Italian occupation (H. Fertig, NY, 1983, c1954).
  • Reitlinger, Gerald. The final solution: The attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939–1945 (Barnes, NY, 1961, c1953).
  • Reitlinger, Gerald. The SS, alibi of a nation, 1922–1945. (Viking Press, NY, 1968).
  • Nora Levin. Holocaust Years: The Nazi Destruction of European Jewry, 1933–1945 (Krieger Pub. Co., London, 1990, c1968).
  • Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. (Viking Press, NY, 1963).
  • Lucy S. Dawidowicz. The Holocaust and the Historians (Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).
  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (Bantam, NY, 1975).

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