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The distance of victims

Gustav Seibt writes an obituary to Raul Hilberg, the father of Holocaust research who died August 5.

The history of historical writing continually throws up examples which demonstrate that first an individual must discover and describe an area of research before thousands take it up in the next generation. Jakob Burkhardt's "The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy" staked out a previously uncharted zone which still fuels research today. Raul Hilberg, who died on Saturday at the age of 81, was a one such scholarly pioneer. He became the father of Holocaust research which is now pursued by countless academics around the world today. Except that Hilbert disliked the term 'Holocaust' which comes from ancient religious terminology, as much as the Hebraic expression "Shoah". He spoke, simply and matter-of-factly, of the "destruction of the European Jews."

Raul Hilberg
Photo: Andreas Labes courtesy S. Fischer Verlag

The term describes so monstrous an act that it seems incredible it needed to be scientifically discovered at all. Surely the question must have arisen, immediately after the camps were opened in 1945, as to how, on a purely material level, it happened and what means were employed to orchestrate the industrial deaths of over five million people. How were the victims identified, driven together, transported and then murdered? Yet these question went unanswered for years.

Raul Hilberg, a child of Jewish parents who emigrated from Vienna to America in 1939, was the first person to ask and find answers these questions, in what was initially a one-man quest. In 1945 Hilberg came to Germany as a 20-year-old soldier with the occupying troops, and took the opportunity to read the papers that Adolf Hitler had left behind. In the 50s, his academic teacher at Brooklyn College, Hans Rosenberg, a German Jewish emigre, introduced him to the history of the Prussian civil service, this historically unique and highly sophisticated manifestation of ethically neutral expedient rationality.

Hilberg understood that murdering a swathe of the population consisting of several millions of people scattered over an entire continent required not a group of demoniacal sadists but an army of bureaucrats on the staff of administrative bodies, registrars to control identification, police for segregation, railway officials for transport and paramilitary organisations to whom groups of victims would eventually be assigned for the actual business of extermination. And so to begin with, Hilberg did not study the memoirs of the few survivors, but turned his attentions to the copious amounts of material on the perpetrators. 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.

Hilberg remained concrete to the last, obsessed by detail and relentlessly precise. He avoided epochal diagnoses such as those of the "administered world" (Adorno), and instead described the stages of marginalisation set in motion by the authorities, the dismissals, the Ayranisations, the property taxes, right through to the expulsions and ghettoising, the preliminary stage of the extermination. Together these elements formed a vast logistical operation, as must be performed in the modern world on a daily basis, for example in the organisation of major cities.

When Hilberg's main work, "The Destruction of the European Jews," came out in the USA in 1961, practically no one recognised its importance. It seemed to be a history in which the victims had no face and the perpetrators no physiognomy. No one, not even even astute contemporaries like Hannah Arendt, recognised that precisely these two characteristics - the distance of the victims and the intangibility of the perpetrators - were essential conditions of the historical process of the extermination of the Jews.

In Germany, similarly, Hilberg's achievement initially met with little response. German historical writing had concentrated on the spectral leaders of the Third Reich, to whom it attributed superhuman powers in pushing through their saturnine goals. These goals were then precisely ordered in terms of the history of ideologies. In this context, analyses of the network-like, multi-polar structure of modern management practices were of no interest. On the side of the victims, equally, Hilberg met with bitter criticism for his rather casual treatment of their resistance. Until today, "The Destruction of the European Jews" has not been published in Israel.

Consequently it took an incredible twenty years before Hilberg's work - which had been consistently brought up to date - was brought out in German, the language in which the vast majority of its sources were written. The small publisher promptly ruined itself in the process. And an additional twenty years had to pass before its author was honoured in Germany with two prizes and an order of merit.

In hindsight, it will be recognised as an enormous stroke of luck that the academic treatment of the extermination of the Jews began in such a fair, sober and unassailable fashion. Because Hilberg's approach was diametrically opposed to the kind of sombre, threatening, self-satisfied, moralising and politically-charged treatment of the Holocaust that is nowadays ubiquitous. The problem with this attitude is that it outweighs historical fact by overly emphasising the writers' motives.

Hilberg, for his part, left no doubt about the significance of his topic for human history. "A basic drive had appeared among Western nations, set free by their machines. From this moment onwards, the underlying preconditions of our civilisation and culture no longer reigned supreme, because although the events themselves have past, the phenomenon as such remains." Hilberg stressed this drive, but above all his stress lay on machines: "Before the advent of the 20th century and its technology, minds bent on destruction could not have come up with the Nazi agenda, even in their wildest dreams. Past administrators simply didn't have the means. They lacked today's communication network, and had no access to automatic weapons or highly toxic poisonous gases. Tomorrow's bureaucrat would not have this problem; he is better equipped than the German Nazis. Killing is no longer as difficult as it once was." That is Hilberg's terribly sober lesson for the future. It's hard to endure, but it bears a clue to the hardship and late success of this scholar's career: Killing is no longer as difficult as it was.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on August 7, 2007

Gustav Seibt, born in 1959, studied literature and history. He was editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written for Die Zeit and currently writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His most recent book "Rom oder Tod" deals with the founding of Italy in 1861.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european