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Lionel Steiman

The Holocaust, Antisemitism, and Jewish Identity: Challenges and Changing Perceptions

by Lionel Steiman, April 12, 2013

                                     Presented at the annual UJPO Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, April 8, 2013.


The present essay will consider the academic challenge to the prevailing idea of the Holocaust as a unique event, caused primarily by antisemitism; the next much longer section will consider how the older popular view of the Holocaust had become central to Jewish awareness and identity; I will conclude with a brief consideration of what impact academic debates might have on Jewish identities and self-understanding.

The Holocaust is perhaps the single most written about event in history and certainly the best documented. Books, articles, films, and other programs continue to be produced in record numbers. Most academic scholars no longer regard the Holocaust as being the singular event that Jews believe it was; academic research no longer places the Holocaust outside or above the course of history and therefore so unique that it cannot be compared to any other event. 

The term ‘Holocaust’ itself did not become the accepted word for the destruction of European Jewry until well into the 1960s, but it quickly became the centre of Jewish awareness. With high rates of intermarriage, the decline of Jewish religious observance and cultural usage, Holocaust awareness, Israel, and concern about the enduring threat of anti-Semitism came to define for many Jews what it meant to be Jewish. 

At the same time, academic research had rejected both the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust and the idea that anti-Semitism was its most important cause. The Holocaust has been merged with genocide studies in general, which sees the murder of the Jews as one of many other instances of genocide that occurred at various times in history and in our own day. The list of its causes continues to grow, with some scholars arguing that some of the most important causes had little to do with hating Jews. 

Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief “architects” of the Holocaust, was a “bureaucrat”, an “administrator” with no particular antipathy toward Jews, motivated primarily by the desire to do be the best he could at his job.   Such “bureaucrats” led researchers to focus on “bureaucracy” as a cause of the Holocaust.   And because “bureaucracy” and its culture of efficiency without ethics had become an intrinsic part of modern civilization, sociologists advanced the notion that “modernity” itself was the Holocaust. Other researchers assigned a similar role to science, technology, medicine and other aspects of “modernity”. These disciplines had become divorced from ethical constraints. Their practitioners were driven solely by careerism and the logic of their science that felt no compunction in using the “opportunities” made available by Nazis Germany’s conquests. They weren’t necessarily anti-Semites or even Nazi.  

Recent scholars have also focussed on the geographic and political environment of German Occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where most of Europe’s Jews lived and where the Holocaust happened. What they saw was a complex configuration of often overlapping and competing offices, agencies, and departments tasked with carrying out Germany’s conquest and colonization of lands with diverse populations and resources. A “Master Plan for the East” was drawn up. Its implementation required the removal, resettlement or killing of populations, and the re-allocation of their food and other resources to maintain the German military and security forces. Economists, demographers, agricultural experts, industrialists, contractors, and the trades were all involved. The various offices and agencies overlapped and competed, making it difficult to determine from their archives exactly which office or personnel did what and why as the populations were shifted around, ghettos established, Jews and others deported and resettled or killed en masse. This apparent confusion led some scholars to argue that, far from being centrally planned and ideologically driven by Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was improvised haphazardly and piece meal, driven by the “structural” and “functional” dynamics generated by competition and rivalry inside the vast administrative apparatus that Nazi Germany had imposed on its conquered territories. 

These so-called “structuralist” or “functionalist” interpretations of the Holocaust threatened to eclipse the established “intentionalist” version, according to which the Holocaust was the implementation of a preconceived plan driven by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. But no clear evidence of such a plan has been found, and neither has any written or other order for the extermination of the Jews been discovered. This might appear to reinforce the credibility of the “structuralist” interpretations, but the problem with them is that they attribute agency to abstractions: it’s one thing to say that a particular bureaucrat did something, but you cannot show that “bureaucracy” made him do it. By the same token, you cannot say that it was “technology” that caused the Nazis to advance from killing by bullets and mobile gas vans to stationery gas chambers with built-in crematoria. And you can’t say—although some have said-- that it was “medicine” that caused the Holocaust because Auschwitz was run by doctors who prescribed mass killing as a “bio-medical” cure for the world’s ills.

The most can say is that the culture of bureaucracy—or medicine, other sciences or technology-- provided the context in which or the tools with which the Holocaust could evolve. But ‘modernity’ only provided the context; it did not generate the event itself. What needs to be asked is what triggered the process, what generated the sustained program of mass killing that was the Holocaust? For some historians, the most convincing answer is still Jew hatred: antisemitism was the trigger. Of course anti-Semitism was far from being an independent variable. But the fact that every bureaucrat, technician, medical doctor, or other operative was well aware that making the disposition of Jews a priority was a sure way to advance his own interests suggests that anti-Semitism was indeed a central cause of the Holocaust.


       In recent years the Holocaust has been examined from a global perspective, and this has resulted in a more serious challenge to the view that anti-Semitism was the cause of the Holocaust. Programs in many universities have integrated the Holocaust with the study of genocide, the comparative study of which has become widespread. This “global turn&

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