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by Dr. Adam Muller, April 17,2012


[Editor's note: I think Adum Muller is back-peddling a little here as in his last article he suggested antisemitism was no more than  a "contributing factor" of the Holocaust--and he never referred to antisemitism as having "more than one role." Have a look:

I also note that this is Adam Muller's third kick at the cat. He has certainly gotten a full hearing]


By Dr. Adam Muller, Associate Professor, Department of English, Film and Theatre,University of Manitoba

[ The editorial that Muller is responding to can be found here:'S_VIEWS]

I have tried to make the case in earlier contributions to the WJR that an event as huge and varied as the Holocaust—which spanned not just years but nations, populations, and an immensely broad range of human experiences—is something best approached with a kind of humility: a reluctance to accept easy answers and crude overgeneralizations in the interest of finer-grained and more nuanced arguments and analysis.

With respect to antisemitism and the Holocaust, my point was not that antisemitism played no role in the extermination of European Jews, but rather that it played more than one role, and that determining whether or not its was a “central” role is both difficult and unhelpful. It is difficult because we cannot assume that anti-Jewish prejudice took any one particular form in the Nazi state, and since it certainly existed not just in Germany but everywhere in the world prior to 1933, appealing to antisemitism to explain why the Holocaust occurred requires, minimally, fine tuning our definition of “antisemitism.” For a start, we might benefit from distinguishing between “vulgar antisemitism” (or garden-variety racial prejudice of a more or less reflexive and ubiquitous kind), “eliminationistantisemitism” (stronger prejudice against the Jews embodied in the view that they must be forcibly expelled from the nation), and “exterminationistantisemitism” (the annihilatory view that the Jews must be completely destroyed). The Nazi state moved unevenly between 1933 and 1941 from eliminationism to exterminationism, and the specifics of this movement must be accounted for in any credible account of the Holocaust and its effects.
That said, arguments have been made in the secondary literature that antisemitism in Germany was of a unique kind, and in conjunction with Germany’s distinct political development and modernization that it lead inevitably to the Holocaust. This is sometimes referred to as the “Sonderweg” (“Special Path”) argument, and as suchit became the locus of vigorous academic debate in the 1980s and 1990s, especially amongst German historians. The Sonderweg view is now only held by a minority of historians, and my own position is informed by the work of Christopher Browning, a prominent critic of the idea of aspecial path whose arguments remain especially compelling. Indeed my talk next week is at least partly an attempt to explain the significance of Browning’s conclusions in such landmark studies of Nazi perpetration as Ordinary Men.
I think it is unhelpful to claim that antisemitism is the central motivating factor in the Holocaust (and as I say, I do indeed think it is one of several significant motivating factors) because appealing to antisemitism doesn’t get us very far in so far as a rich account of perpetrator motivation is concerned. Antisemitism may have made it easier for some Nazis and their sympathizers to commit atrocities, but there is a considerable distance between this claim and the claim that antisemitism made people commit atrocities. More troubling for me, appealing to antisemitism can’t explain why perpetrators whom we know were not sympathetic to Nazi racial ideology nevertheless committed atrocities, or why some known antisemitesrefused to kill or persecute Jews when commanded to do so. Again, my point is not that antisemitism has no explanatory role to play in our account of the Holocaust; rather it is that privilegingantisemitism as the “central” cause of the genocide blunts our explanatory power. It remains unclear to me why Spivak thinks a Survivor (several of whom I count myself privileged to count as friends) would object to considering the horror of his or her experience as the byproduct of more than one significant proximal cause.
Spivak objects to considering the Nazis’ initial bureaucratic attempts to deal with Jews (by encouraging emigration, restricting their legal rights and professional opportunities, etc.) more pacific than killing them outright. Do I really have to explain the difference between discrimination and murder, or justify labeling the one more violent than the other? And why should Spivak object to my desire to consider each case of Jewish suffering (or, for that matter, survival) uniquely, as the result of one particular person’s—one real, live, thinking, feeling person’s—encounter with forces oftentimes beyond his or her comprehension and control? While on a fellowship at the USHMM this past January, I was privileged to meet Charlene Schiff and hear her speak about her experience hiding for two years in the forests near Horochow, Poland. She experienced many things during this time: fear, cold, anxiety, hunger, disease, anger, humiliation, and profound loss. The list goes on. To say that her experience of the Holocaust was the experience of antisemitism is precisely to lose sight of what actually happened to Charlene, of what the Holocaust felt like and ended up becoming for her. This is the sense in which I mean that excessively privileging antisemitism in our explanations of the Holocaust robs the genocide’s victims of the specifics of their suffering.
There is more to be said about Spivak’s reductive intentionalism and the damage that such a view can do to our moral and historical understanding of what I continue to believe is the most significant human atrocity committed in and by the modern West. For those interested in accounts of this damage, I would refer you to the substantial criticisms of Daniel GoldhagenHitler’s Willing Executioners, a work now largely in academic disrepute. It may comfort us a little to think of the Holocaust’s perpetrators as racist monsters because that is at least an easy answer to the question of why such a horror occurred. But alas it is we academics, and we genocide specialists in particular, who have the immense responsibility of looking beyond easy answers into the complicated mess of interests, ideologies, institutions, and personalities that comprises the groundwork for all atrocities, perhaps most especially this one. One of the hardest aspects of studying the Holocaust is that it resists facile explanations of every kind. If people think that they knowwhat made the Holocaust happen, then I must congratulate them on their certainty as well as on the breadth of their vision. But as an intellectual my concern is rather with a person’s depth of understanding, and I remain suspicious of any such explanatory overconfidence. I am like the secondary witness in Abraham Sutzkever’s “Poem About a Herring,” who tries to understand what it must have been like for a mother to die horrifically with her child, shot to death on the lip of an unnamed lime pit, a small bit of food recently eaten by the little boy:
 “And I search for that herring’s salt and still can not find its taste on my lips.”
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