Intentionalist Vs Functionalist Essay Contest

Scholarly research on the Holocaust, carried out in many disciplines but especially in the field of history, is dynamic and­­ constantly progressing; several giant leaps in its expansion can be discerned, mainly since the end of the 1970s. Testifying to the vibrancy and ‘the sheer scale of contemporary Holocaust historiography’ (as Tom Lawson rightly points out in his introduction to the book reviewed here) is the fact that the library of Yad Vashem, Israel's research and memorial institution for the Holocaust, has in the last two decades enriched its collection with some 4000 titles every year! Consequently, historiographical overviews of the interpretational debates, schools, stages in the development and the impact of political, social and cultural developments on research etc. are much needed – both for scholars in, and students entering, the field, as well as for the growing audience interested in the topic, both laymen and educators (Lawson states that ‘this book is primarily designed as an introductory text for students and teachers’ (p. ix)). Nevertheless, the number of such overviews, especially analytical ones, has remained limited (1), perhaps as a result from the fear by scholars ‘that any attempt to interrogate its history can only be partial and incomplete’ (p. 1). Therefore, first of all, Lawson should be lauded for his courage in attempting this challenge; but then he has also succeeded in writing a quite comprehensive – though not unproblematic – analysis of most of the major debates in the field, while colligating an abundance of literature into his most readable narrative.

Lawson's book is part of a series called Issues in Historiography, which takes on diverse historical ‘events’ (the Norman Conquest, The French and English Revolutions) and processes (the American Civil War era, the rise of the British Empire, black civil rights in America). As such, by showing ‘the ways in which the Holocaust has been rendered and represented as History’, that is, by revealing ‘the complexity of historians efforts to uncover the Holocaust past’, the field of Holocaust research is used as a test-case ‘to demonstrate that historians and history-writing have an enduring social and political relevance’ (p. 2); Lawson emphasizes this point because he believes that the Holocaust has been left outside the notion which is by now a historical consensus in the West, that ‘past and present collide in their markedly provisional narratives’. He is right to a considerable extent in stating this point and it is justified by both in the need to explore the vast area of ‘sub-events’ in the Holocaust (i.e. in establishing what should be included in it) and in the quite unique accompanying phenomenon of Holocaust denial; nevertheless, since the end of the 1980s there are definitely enough Holocaust historians who deal with the topic while subscribing to the above-mentioned historiographical consensus. In this context, it would have been rewarding for the readers if Lawson had dedicated in the introduction at least a paragraph to the path-breaking conference organized by Saul Friedländer in 1990, later published in the volume Probing the Limits of Representation (1992): it dealt extensively with these issues, and most of the articles in that volume are still of relevance today.

The book consists of eight chapters, each dealing with a major challenge of Holocaust historiography which led to debates and controversies. The chapters follow a certain chronology, from the mid-1940s through to recent years, because different challenges became dominant in different periods. This issue is important for emphasizing the varying relevance of the Holocaust in different contexts, yet the analysis of each such challenge often moves freely between earlier and later periods when the author felt that it suited the argument being made.

Chapter one deals with the first post-1945 attempts to conceptualize the understanding that the persecution of the Jews during the Nazi era had some special characteristics which made them stand out among the many other atrocities carried out by that regime.(2) Lawson rightly refutes the quite common observation that there was an ‘absence’ of historiography ‘or at least a silence’ (here he quotes historian Dan Stone and refers to others, among them Michael Marrus). He shows convincingly that much was written already at the time; however, the scholarly studies were mostly written by social scientists and legal theoreticians (some had been written already during the war itself, for example by Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide’,), not by historians; the prosecution of Nazi war criminals also served in shaping first depictions of the Holocaust. However, these methodologies generalized about psychological motivations and the social and historical context, thus trying to universalize the Jewish suffering. Lawson explains that the tendency to render universal meaning to the persecution of the Jews – thus starting in fact a first debate about ‘the universality or specificity of the genocide of the Jews’ (p. 24) – had already begun during the Second World War, and resulted from the policy developed by Jewish leaders and intellectuals to try to draw the attention of the leaders of the free world to the Jewish fate and to encourage them to undertake rescue activities by showing that these atrocities were of relevance to humanity in general.

This interesting insight might be true for the wartime period, but does not explain the universalist approaches explored by scholars during the first decade after 1945 – and Lawson does not elaborate on this further. This reviewer believes that it had to do on the one hand with the social scientific methodological tools used (as it is their nature to generalize and develop models), but also with the fact that many of these scholars were Jewish refugees of assimilated German Jewish origins, some of them belonging to the Frankfurt School, who shied away from emphasizing the specific Jewish aspects of the atrocities. Lawson also deals in this chapter with the important volume of historical works written by survivor historians, focusing on the activities of Polish Jewish survivors – in Poland, the USA and Israel. This phenomenon, however, was much broader and varied than presented by Lawson, going far beyond this group and these countries.(3) Similarly, Lawson does not deal with the historiography that emerged in Germany, especially around the Institute for Contemporary History (Institut für Zeitgeschichte) in Munich, established in 1952 (this institution is mentioned in chapter two, but in a different context), and the Centers for Political Education (Zentrale für politische Bildung), which were established as a result of the Allied demand from West-Germany on its inception in 1949 to embark on the re-education of the German people.(4)

Chapter two takes the Eichmann Trial, conducted in 1961 in Israel, as its starting point, claiming that ‘approaches to the understanding of the Holocaust did change around the time of the Eichmann trial’ (p. 53). Lawson subtitles this chapter ‘war crimes prosecutions and the emergence of Holocaust narratives’ and interprets the account presented by the prosecution in the Eichmann trial, and Hanna Arendt's famous counter-account Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) as presenting and even shaping to a large extent the two interpretational poles of Nazism and anti-Jewish policies nicknamed later intentionalism and functionalism by historian Tim Mason. Lawson contends that ‘the former emphasized Nazi ideology in its explanation of both the emergence and then prosecution of genocide; the latter was more concerned by the cultural and structural preconditions and determinants of mass violence’ (p. 53). The intentionalism/functionalism debate has been described and analyzed by many historians (and Lawson comes back to it in a later chapter), but the way Lawson presents its basics is – though challenging - not convincing in my eyes. Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil cannot be detached from her 1951 path-breaking study The Origins of Totalitarianism; her approach fits in neatly with the universalizing approach so well-presented by Lawson in chapter one. Arendt emphasized the disastrous impact of the totalitarian state on the conduct of the individual, while the functionalists emphasized the escalating effect of structural bureaucratic rivalries and fights over competencies. Arendt attributed much of the power of the totalitarian state to modern anti-Semitism, while for the functionalists this was of minor importance. In Arendt's totalitarianism approach the leader also plays a role, while in the view of extreme functionalists such as Hans Mommsen Hitler was a weak dictator and in fact of minor importance in the unleashing of the Holocaust, which bubbled up and crystallized thanks to the bureaucracy. Although starting with the Eichmann trial, Lawson is obliged to chronologically go back into the 1950s and even into the 1940s in order to find the origins of the prosecutions of war criminals and the metanarratives created by them and in historical works of that period (such as Leon Poliakov's Harvest of Hate, 1951). Here he includes also Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, published at the same time of the Eichmann trial (1961) but written in the decade before.(5) Thus the weight of the literature published before that trial is so important, that the question arises why the trial was chosen at all as a starting point for this chapter. Moreover, this pre-1961 literature overlaps with the literature analyzed in chapter one, thus undermining the chronological division between these periods as presented by Lawson. Another problem in this chapter is that throughout it Lawson uses the term ‘genocide’, which in those years was hardly in use. When he then emphasizes ‘that the label 'Holocaust' helped fix the genocide of the Jews in popular memory … There is seldom any need to describe the Nazi genocide of the Jews as the Jewish Holocaust’, he is definitely right; but when he states that ‘there is no doubt to what one is referring when one uses the word’ he is not, because both historiography and popular discourse grappled with the problem of the exact periodization and the precise nature of the Holocaust.(6)

Chapter three focuses on the ‘bystanders to the Holocaust’, rightly starting with German playwright Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter) first staged in 1963. This play accused Pope Pius XII of having known of the tragedy that befell the Jews and refraining from serious action. The deliberately controversial play paved the way to a path of research which examined the role of those who were neither the perpetrators nor the victims. Lawson focuses on ‘the Pius [XII] Wars’ and ‘the Allies and the Holocaust’ and gives an excellent comprehensive analysis of these issues (though missing some important studies such as Shlomo Aronson's Hitler, the Allies and the Jews, 2004), but entirely leaves out of the discussion the bystanders inside Nazi-ruled Europe. Lawson explains that he disagrees with Michael Marrus' questioning if bystander historiography, which is often tainted by ‘political, theological and moral immanence’, is history-writing at all. Lawson argues ‘almost the opposite, that it is in this immanence, in the reality that the bystander debate is a discourse about now, that we may find … the “meaningfulness of history”‘ (p. 113). I agree with him. But for those who do not look upon the Holocaust only through the angle of the English sphere of language but also through the scholarly and popular literature written in Europe, especially since the end of the 1960s (after the students revolts), the lack of an overview and analysis of the debates in Europe is a major flaw: it is precisely in Europe, first in the West and since the 1990s in the East, that the local ‘bystander’ attitudes to the persecutions of the Jews, have been and still are the major reason behind the ever-expanding interest in the Holocaust; coping with this historical chapter has been the prism of self-evaluation and soul-searching for entire societies (especially in The Netherlands, France and Poland). Lawson relates to these countries (and others) briefly in chapter five, when focusing on the 1990s and suggesting a breakdown of metanarratives into (among other things) ‘National Holocausts’, yet there the focus is on active collaboration and that does not cover real 'standing by’. In this category of ‘bystanders’ also Jewish bystanders should have been included, that is the Jewish communities and leaders in the Free World. The fierce debates inside these communities, especially in Israel (since the 1950s) and the United States (since the end of the 1970s), have sometimes been the dominant issues in their entire discourse on the Holocaust (such as in the so-called ‘Post-Zionist Debate’ in Israel in the 1990s).(7)

Chapter four returns to the intentionalism/functionalism debate at its height, in the 1970s and 1980s. The analysis here is helpful in general, yet one finds a somewhat strange inversion of the development: usually functionalism is seen as a reaction to intentionalism, which had emerged after 1945 as the first major interpretational tendency; yet Lawson deals with intentionalism as a reaction to functionalism. In reality, the development was complicated: early intentionalism preceded functionalism, and is alluded to as such in chapter two; a later, more sophisticated version of intentionalism’(the leading scholar of this approach being Eberhard Jäckel) emerged vis-à-vis the functionalist challenge, and it is with this intentionalism that Lawson deals in this chapter – but he does not clarify this distinction.

Chapters five and six deal with perpetrator history of the 1990s and the beginning of the first decade of this millennium. Chapter five, which is subtitled ‘the end of the Cold war and the breakdown of Holocaust metanarratives’, rightly sees in the downfall of the communist bloc in 1989–90 a major turning point in the historiography. Indeed, ‘during the 1990s a group of younger German scholars working in the archives of the former communist bloc challenged the metanarratives which had dominated the study of the Holocaust since the 1960s’ (p. 154). They enriched knowledge about the Holocaust with a real wave of studies, pointing to possible additional motivations for the mass murder, to tensions between centre and periphery and the problematic nature of decision-making, to the involvement of local populations in the implementation and sometimes even the initiation of murder campaigns (8), and hence questioned the role of ideology. However, did this really mean the breakdown of metanarratives as Lawson suggests? It is precisely towards the end of the 1990s, that – on the basis of the broader knowledge gained by the newly uncovered sources – several major metanarratives emerged in the form of comprehensive studies: by Saul Friedländer (in part one of his Nazi Germany and the Jews1933-1939: The Years of Persecution, which came out in 1997; part two, Nazi Germany and the Jews1939-1945: The Years of Extermination was published ten years later, in 2007), by Peter Longerich in his Politik der Vernichtung (1998; recently translated into English and updated: Holocaust, 2010), and by Ian Kershaw in his two-volume magnum opus on Hitler (Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, 1998; Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis, 2000; amazingly, Lawson does not analyze this integrative and influential study by Kershaw). All three attribute, though in different ways, a central place to anti-Semitism, that is, to ideology and cultural images (Friedländer coines the term ‘redemptive anti-Semitism’) as well as to Hitler. All three also identify the relevant period as 1933–45, that is, they identify the entire period of the Nazi regime with its destructive anti-Jewish policies, not limiting ‘the Holocaust’ to the comprehensive murder campaign of the Jews since 1941.

Chapter six is called ‘”Ordinary men”: rethinking the politics of perpetrator history’. In this chapter Lawson takes Christopher Browning's well-known study from 1992 on Order Police Batallion 101 and its murderous itinerary as the starting point. The chapter follows that on the assumed breakdown of the metanarratives in the wake of the collapse of the Communist bloc. However, it becomes clear after several pages that here too the origins are to be found in a much earlier period (the 1970s), with the emergence of Alltagsgeschichte (the history of everyday life). Lawson’s analysis in the first part of this chapter is excellent, though I would have placed it earlier in the book, precisely because this approach started in the 1970s. In a tour de force, and under the heading of ‘The politics of modern perpetrator history’, Lawson combines the historiography of the idea of political religion and – in a much too short and uncritical mode – the more recent interpretational courses of colonialism and genocide. Lawson, according to his introduction and the formulations in this sub-chapter, seems to embrace these interpretations. He writes that ‘to some scholars … comparison with colonial genocide is anathema because it seems to lessen the particularity of Jewish suffering’ (p. 225). He does not deal with what should have been pointed out in a book emphasizing the interwoven-ness of history-writing with current contexts, namely how politicized the field of genocide studies has become, and how indeed this course of explanation in fact detracts major parts of the understandings of the Holocaust so meticulously built up over decades. It therefore does not ‘lessen the particularity of Jewish suffering’, as Lawson formulates it, but lessens – or even (sometimes intentionally!) downplays the scope and enormity of the Nazi anti-Jewish project (such as for instance the importance of the Holocaust in western Europe; it also provides no convincing explanation of the Nazi obsession to deport to Auschwitz, by means of boats and trains, at a late stage such as August 1944, a remote and tiny Jewish community as the one of Rhodes).Moreover, the evolution of genocide studies since the beginning of the 1980s and its current relationship with Holocaust studies deserves a chapter by itself: genocide studies started as an offspring of Holocaust studies and so to say under its auspices, but has developed in recent years into an independent field, sometimes even clashing with Holocaust studies; this parting of ways was recently demonstrated by the fact that in the series of Oxford Handbooks two separate volumes appeared, one of Holocaust Studies, the other of Genocide Studies.(9)

Chapter seven changes the focus to debates on Jewish responses to Nazism. Lawson touches upon some of the major issues (resistance, ghettos, Jewish Councils), but it is in many respects the weakest chapter of the book. He states that ‘the historiography of Jews and Jewish behavior under the “Final Solution” has therefore developed problematically since the end of the war … this is an historiography defined almost by its absence’. This is a gross misrepresentation: although less voluminous then perpetrator history, a lot has been written on issues not only of resistance and collaboration, but also about the fate of emancipation, questions of Jewish solidarity (or not) and social cohesion (or not), class struggle, religious life and theological responses and much more. Indeed, the major part of studies on these aspects is to be found in Hebrew, Yiddish and European languages; once again, the absence of non-English studies in this chapter is most striking.

The last chapter (eight) shifts to the debated role of testimonies and memoires (Lawson does not really differentiate between the two genres) in Holocaust historiography and memory. His is a fair representation of some of the dominant approaches and challenges in this field – the issue of the blurring of fact and fiction, and the stands taken by scholars against and in favor of using these as historical sources – but much more can and should be said. Lawson rightly concludes that ‘whichever way we turn, we are brought back to the position that using testimony is problematic’ (p. 299). However, it is of major importance to emphasize that witnesses claim in their testimonies and memoires to present historical reality, sometimes even expressing their anger that ‘historians do not really understand’ the reality of the time. Therefore, there is not only a question of how to use these sources, but there is often a clash between ‘memorial history’ and ‘academic history’. On the other hand, the volume of oral and written Holocaust testimonies and memoiristic literature is so vast and has been so much studied in the last three and a half decades, that sophisticated use of this kind of source material has been developed by Holocaust historians and scholars from other disciplines, and has consequently become a model for similar use in other fields of history, especially in genocide studies.

As can be understood, this book has left me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, Lawson has taken up an enormous challenge and his is the only attempt to write a comprehensive overview of Holocaust historiography in one narrative since Michael Marrus's The Holocaust in History (1987); his awareness of the aspects of historical writing and actual relevance is similarly most important, although the declared goal to contextualize the debates is not upheld throughout the entire book. On the other hand, and as pointed out above, the analyses are often problematic (even if thought-provoking) from chronological and thematical points of view, and omit important debates and aspects. The lack of an in-depth discussion of the emergence of the terminology Shoah (actually: The Shoah), Holocaust, cataclysm, Khurbn, Judeocide and genocide itself, and the competition between the terms as representing both conceptual debates on the nature of the event and the importance of the media (cinema, TV) and politics (such as the Middle East peace process as a catalyst for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) in promoting understandings and images, is in my eyes a major deficiency. Add to this the almost complete disregard of non-English research literature (except for what has been translated into English), the slovenly proofreading (10) and some factual mistakes (11) – and one will understand my deep reservations too.


  1. The most notable ones are: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The Holocaust and the Historians (Cambridge, MA, 1981); The Historiography of the Holocaust, ed. Israel Gutman and Gideon Greif  (Jerusalem, 1988); Michael R. Marrus, The Holocaust in History (London, 1989); Ulrich Herbert, ‘Vernichtungspolitik: Neue Antworten und Frage zur Geschichte des “Holocaust”’, in Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungspolitik 1939–1945. Neue Forschungen und Kontroversen, ed. Ulrich Herbert(Frankfurt, 1998), pp. 9–66; Dan Michman, Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective. Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches and Fundamental Issues (London, 2003); The Historiography of the Holocaust, ed. Dan Stone(Basingstoke, 2004); Holocaust Historiography in Context: Emergence, Challenges, Polemics and Achievements, ed. David Bankier and Dan Michman(Jerusalem, 2008); and most recently: The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies, ed. Peter Hayes and John K. Roth (Oxford, 2010). Of course, there are more overviews of Holocaust historiography in different countries (such as West Germany, East Germany, The Netherlands and Israel) and on certain issues (such as ghettos or rescue), sometimes in the form of introductions to studies or in encyclopedias; short overviews are sometimes given also in literature on the historiography of Nazism and the Third Reich. Nevertheless, altogether the volume of this genre is meager.Back to (1)
  2. I regret the fact that Lawson chose to skip the period of the Nazi state itself (1933–45) as a first period of research and debates (although he makes several observations on pp. 23–6): in fact, scholarly attempts to document and analyze what was happening started as early as 1933: the Wiener Library, mentioned by him as one of the post-war institutions, started its activities already in 1933 in Amsterdam, as part of the Dutch Jewish ‘Committee for Special Jewish Interests’; surveys were made by refugee committees throughout; and articles were published in scholarly journals such as Jewish Social Studies.Back to (2)
  3. See Holocaust Historiography in Context.Back to (3)
  4. For an extensive and penetrating analysis of this historiography see: Nicolas Berg, Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker. Erforschung und Erinnerung (Göttingen, 2003).Back to (4)
  5. Unfortunately, although Hilberg's book was published in 1961 and is dealt with by Lawson as a product of that period, he used a much later edition of the book, in which Hilberg altered several formulations; see one quote on p. 73.Back to (5)
  6. See Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective, pp. 11–40.Back to (6)
  7. Only in two notes on p. 264 Lawson refers to this issue.Back to (7)
  8. Lawson entirely disregards the importance of the European unification process on this issue.Back to (8)
  9. The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies; The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, ed. Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses (Oxford, 2010).Back to (9)
  10. There are many typos and misspellings - for instance, on p. 21: Musselman, instead of Muselmann; p. 41, sentence without an end; p. 50, note 111: Zbiniew instead of Zbigniew; p. 202 – missing word in a sentence 22; p. 313: book by Mosse misses place of publication; and more.Back to (10)
  11. For instance: Yad Vashem was not established in 1957 (p. 32) but officially by a Knesset bill in 1953, and had already a first incarnation in the period 1946–1950; the SS rank SS- und Polizeiführer is never written in the documentation as Schutzstaffeln- und Polizeiführer (p. 21), although SS is an acronym for Schutzstaffeln; Raul Hilberg and Ernst Nolte are defined as historians, although both were political scientists; etc.Back to (11)

Author's Response

Posted: Mon, 05/03/2012 - 17:40

First I would like to thank Professor Michman for taking the time to read and engage with my book so thoroughly. It is clear that he would have written a very different book to the one that I produced, and I hope it is not too trite a response to say that this perhaps bears out the founding observation of Debates on the Holocaust (and it is hardly an original thought) that historians read and write History in very different contexts. As I say on page nine ‘this book might be nothing more than an autobiographical account of the development of my understanding of the Holocaust’. It is hardly less trite to reiterate that surveying Holocaust historiography in some 300 pages is an impossible task and as such anyone undertaking it is bound to fail. This is not least because there are some major contributions to Debates on the Holocaust which have been published since my book, including of course Professor Michman’s extraordinary study of ghettoisation. As such it is inevitable that reviewers will to a certain degree focus on what is not in the book, and in doing so they will highlight deficiencies which are to an extent unavoidable because the exercise of writing a book like this demands some form of selection. In this case I do rely almost entirely on English language scholarship.

As such in my response I am not going to deal with the account of what is not in Debates on the Holocaust but to try and explore further what the book tries to do and say. To deal first with what seems to me to be Michman’s most serious criticism of my work, that my attempt to survey scholarship which deals with Jewish responses to Nazism contains ‘a gross misrepresentation’. It is disappointing that he uses this intemperate phrase after a quotation which misses out a qualifying sentence, and in doing so obscures the argument that I had been trying to make. Michman suggests that I state ‘the historiography of Jews and Jewish behaviour under the “Final Solution” has therefore developed problematically since the end of the war … this is an historiography defined almost by its absence’. In doing so he suggests that my argument is that there has been no scholarly engagement with Jewish society under Nazism. Of course that would be absurd. But that is not what I was trying to argue at all. Instead this chapter claims that there was a discernible tendency (more prevalent in the immediate aftermath of war when many documents such as ghetto diaries were first published) to represent documentary material produced inside victim communities without apparent scholarly intervention, as offering somehow a simple window through which we can access the past. That the publication of such material often disguised substantial editing seems to me to be evidence of a perceived need to deny the necessity of scholarly interpretation (from whatever discipline) and allow the past somehow to speak for itself. This argument is made within the context of a wider discussion throughout Debates on the Holocaust of how Holocaust scholars use the documents and traces of the past with which they work. So what I actually say on page 263 of Debates on the Holocaust is ‘the historiography of Jews and Jewish behaviour under the “Final Solution” has therefore developed problematically since the end of the war. The documentary material was treated with understandable reverence , and as such this is an historiography defined almost by its absence’ (emphasis added). This may well be clumsily phrased, but I am certain that the reader would understand the interpretative point that was being made, if only because of the discussion the preceded it. Now that argument may well be wrong, that is for others to decide, but I think it important that it is properly represented.

One of the great challenges in writing any work of history is how one imposes order on the chaos of the past. In Debates on the Holocaust I chose to do this by using particular texts or ideas that represented particular moments in time, in order to convey some sense of the development of Holocaust studies. But I was acutely aware that a chronological narrative is as impossible as it would be misleading, so the chronological development of the book is subverted deliberately throughout. This is not done just, to quote Dan Michman to ‘suit the argument being made’ but to try and give some sense of the context in which some important works should be read and to make the (perhaps painfully obvious) point that forward marching narratives just don’t work. At the same time the historian also has to traverse a landscape which has been drawn by others before. Because of this it seemed impossible to avoid Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem not least because it has so frequently been identified by others as a turning point in Holocaust studies – as the moment when ‘the silence’ was breached. But of course my book rejects the idea of a post-war silence and as such my use of Arendt was not to suggest that her interpretation somehow came out of a clear blue sky but that she gave voice to some of the scholarship of the previous decades, in other words to make precisely the point that Professor Michman suggests that I don’t make: that Eichmann in Jerusalem cannot be divorced from the scholarship of the immediate post-war era. Locating Eichmann in Jerusalem does indeed ‘undermine the chronological division’ of the book, that is in fact the whole idea. That this argument has been obscured by the division of the book into separate chapters perhaps says something powerful about the impact that the form of representation has on understanding of its content.

However, something did change for Holocaust studies around the time of the Eichmann trial, even if the characterization that it somehow broke the silence is misleading. And it would be impossible to deny that Eichmann in Jerusalem had a forward resonance too. What changed was the emergence of the idea of the Holocaust as a particular epoch (the word event is misleading), and alongside this the emergence of particular ‘metanarratives’ to explain it. The court-room, it seems to me, offers a way into understanding those narratives, which to some extent emerged from attempts at prosecution and of course defence. Intentionalism was related to a search for personal responsibility, and functionalism to an extent to an evasion narrative. This does not mean that I am suggesting Arendt’s Eichmann bequeathed ‘functionalism’ indeed I acknowledge that her analysis is ‘somewhat awkwardly’ related to it on p. 53. Rather I am offering the reader a way into understanding an interpretative position which emphasises structure above agency.

The narrative of the book breaks down again in chapter three when I move attention away from the perpetrators and perpetration of the Holocaust to the so-called ‘bystanders’. As someone who came to the study of the Holocaust through its bystanders, I am acutely aware of the problems of this term. As a consequence I think it is vital that we achieve some conceptual clarity when we use it, as to who the ‘bystanders’ are in the past. As I say in the book, I cannot accept the implied definition that the ‘bystanders’ were simply all who were neither victims or perpetrators (as if those are entirely inelastic categories anyway). As such I operate a clear and narrow definition of the ‘bystanders’ as those who looked on and stood by from afar. I think it entirely plausible to consider the international community, including the Vatican, in one category (whether one accepts the terminology bystander or not). But I think it stretches the boundaries of that categorisation to meaninglessness to include those ordinary citizens who were literally the witnesses to destruction inside Nazi-occupied Europe. As I say on p. 89 it is not helpful to include the residents of Mauthausen in the same moral, historical and political schema as the officials of the British Foreign Office. As such when Professor Michman suggests that they are not present in this chapter he is quite right, and this is deliberately so. The omission of European debates about those who were present on the ground, the witnesses to the deportation and destruction may be a shortcoming of the book, but I cannot accept that they should have been included at this particular point. It is worth noting that I do point to work which is recreating those kind of intimate histories of the Holocaust, but towards the end of the book.

The rest of the book concerned with the perpetrators and perpetration of the Holocaust tries to chart the extraordinary impact of global political changes on Holocaust studies and posits that this has led to the breakdown of ‘metanarratives’ of the Holocaust. Professor Michman does not agree, but I am not convinced that any of the works that he suggests propose the kind of singular all-encompassing explanations for the Holocaust that I have defined as ‘metanarratives’. Indeed, I am attracted to Wulf Kansteiner’s interrogation of Saul Friedlander’s work as a radically destabilising text. Equally it seems to me the extraordinary statistic that Michman provides at the beginning of his review, that Yad Vashem’s library is augmented by 4000 items a year, is evidence enough that singular characterizations of the Holocaust can no longer survive.

What I have tried to do is suggest that what we have seen in Holocaust studies in recent years is also a rediscovery of the different contexts in which the Holocaust can be understood. One of those contexts is provided by comparative work on colonialism and genocide. Professor Michman is probably correct when he says that I deal too quickly with scholarship in this area and on the relationship between genocide and Holocaust studies. Indeed that does seem perhaps the urgent challenge, and the need I point to on p. 310 to ‘integrate studies of the Holocaust into a general understanding of the history of genocide’ does to my mind remain, despite recent important work. However, I cannot recognize his characterisation that a politicised field of genocide studies, and particularly the emphasis on colonialism, is somehow detracting from the understanding of the Holocaust that has previously been established. This is not a judgment of historical interpretation but an historiographical one. The point that Debates on the Holocaust is trying to argue above all else, is that Holocaust history-writing has always been (and is, and will remain) in the widest sense of the word, political in some ways. This is, as I stress in the book (probably rather repetitively), not to say that Holocaust history-writing has no relationship with the past or anything as silly as that, but that it is anchored in, and speaks to, the present. As such the book, is an attempt to chart the political contexts in which some history writing has been written and articulated. It seems to me as much a political and ethical judgment, for example, to say the Holocaust should not be considered in a certain context, as it is clearly to say that it should. As such it is not that the field of genocide studies has become politicised but that the fields of Holocaust and genocide studies always have been and remain political.

Professor Michman is of course correct when he identifies my sympathies with recent efforts to integrate the Holocaust into histories of colonialism and to explore the relationship between colonialism and genocide. Indeed, my latest project investigates a case of genocide in the British Empire and then charts its memory down to the present day, including its interactions with memories of the Holocaust.

Lecture 3:  Was the Holocaust Planned and Premeditated?

Stages of the Final Solution

Historians tend to divide events into different time periods.  These divisions are a greater or lesser reflection of what actually happened in the past, but regardless of their accuracy, validity or reliability, all periodizations are artificial and not to be misconstrued as being an inherent aspect of the events themselves.  Time periods or stages of development are created by historians and added to the event. 

Let me illustrate with the term "Middle Ages".  Did anyone living in 14th century Europe know that they were living in the Middle Ages?  Certainly not.  "Middle" implies being between "early" and "later".  Presumably people then (if they thought about it at all) regarded themselves as living in modern times.

Historians of the Holocaust divide Hitler's 12-year reign into 3 main periods: from the assumption of power in January 1933 until the start of war in September 1939, from 1939 until the start of the implementation of the Final Solution in June 1941, and from then to the end of the Third Reich in May 1945.  In this lecture we will look at two diametrically opposed interpretations of history that each attempt to answer the question was the Holocaust premeditated?

The Intentionalists see a straight and clear road

The intentionalist school is made up of those who are convinced that the Nazis\Hitler "intended" to kill the Jews at some relatively early point in time (here historians may differ as to exactly when that point was reached) and that he proceeded along the road to Auschwitz in a carefully planned and premeditated fashion. Gerald Fleming (among others) makes reference to documents, speeches, utterances and testimonies about Adolf Hitler (including ones that predate his joining the National Socialist Party in 1920) to trace an "unbroken continuity of specific utterances...a straight path...a single, unbroken, and fatal the liquidation orders that Hitler personally issued during the war" (Gerald Fleming, pp. 13 and 24).

Lucy Dawidowicz writes that "War and annihilation of the Jews were interdependent.  The disorder or war would provide Hitler with the cover for the unchecked commission of murder.  He needed an arena for his operations where the restraints of common codes of morality and accepted rules of warfare would not extend...Once Hitler adopted an ideological position," she adds, "he adhered to it with limpetlike fixity" (quoted in Michael Marrus, p. 25; a limpet is a snail that tenaciously holds fast to surfaces).

The intentionalists stress consistency, orderly sequence and persistence from start to finish in the Nazi's anti-Jewish policies.  They understand Hitler as possessing a coherent "blueprint", parts of which he periodically revealed in speeches or in writing.  His tactics may at times have appeared to be somewhat haphazard, and periods of stalemate or even back-tracking were not unknown, but the "final solution" was  always Hitler's clear goal and he pursed it relentlessly.

The intentionalist school was fed by the solid tradition of fervent anti-Hun propaganda that emerged from both of the two World Wars in the 20th century Europe and by the vast quantity of  rumours that were spawned, such as the one of Germans having collected dead bodies from battlefields in 1916 and 1917 in order to process human body parts into fertilizers and soaps (a charge that was taken seriously enough in the 1920s to have been investigated by a Governmental Commission of the British House of  Commons).

But the underlying logic of the intentionalist school is really founded in 1945 at Nuremberg.  The War Crimes Trials were run by judges who needed to be convinced of "premeditation".  The evidence was gathered by lawyers who wanted to prove the charges articulated by the International Tribunal: conspiracy to breach international war, orchestrating and launching an aggressive war, engaging in crimes against humanity with the conscious goal of committing horrendous atrocities,  including inter alia, mass murders of innocent civilians.

A concrete example of  the intentionalists' interpretation of history is their reading of the 30 January 1939 Reichstag speech that I quoted in my previous lecture (DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, pp. 134-5).

"One thing I should like to say on this day which may be memorable for others as well as for us Germans: In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it.  During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then, among many other things, settle the Jewish problem.  Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face.  Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" 

They present it as "proof" of Hitler's "intentions", in advance of the start of the World War, to annihilate the Jews.  But is it?  That evening Hitler spoke for hours but devoted only a brief few minutes to the Jews. We certainly would neither deny nor downplay Hitler's amply demonstrated will for taking ruthless actions, for striking sudden blows intended to totally crush his enemies, and for his lust for blood.  But was the Holocaust clearly present in Hitler's mind prior to 1941 and before the surprising German military victories and the stunning Allied defeats suddenly put his armies in positions of power and of control that no one could have predicted beforehand? 

How do we evaluate the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the two "territorial solutions to the Jewish question" - the Nisko Plan (in the Lublin District of Poland) and the Madagascar Plan (an island off the south-east coast of Africa).  Were they both mere bluff and camouflage or were they serious attempts to deal with the Jews by exiling them into territories not intended for ultimate Germanization?  Nearly 5,000 Jews were actually deported to the Lublin District under the Nisko Plan in October 1939.  Technical difficulties that plagued Himmler's more grandiose plans for large-scale population transfers soon caused this program to be abandoned also, but for a brief period it was certainly taken seriously by significant elements in the Third Reich (including Reinhard Heydrich and the Gestapo men, Heinrich Mueller and Adolf Eichmann).

How serious was the Madagascar Plan?  One week after German troops reached the English Channel and trapped the best units of the Allied Armies as Dunkerque, Himmler presented a memorandum entitled "Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Ethnic Groups and Jews in the Occupied East" (a Nuremberg Document):

"I hope completely to erase the concept of Jews through the possibility of a great emigration of all Jews to a colony in Africa or elsewhere...However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible."

Next to this section of the report Hitler added the hand-written notation: "very good and correct." 

Were they fooling themselves or did they really mean it?  For a brief period in the summer of 1940 the German Foreign Office was busily working on the plan and Mussolini and the Italian Foreign Minister were informed of the plans to resettle all of the Jews in Madagascar.  Construction work was actually HALTED on the Polish ghettoes since soon they would not be needed.  As one SS officer said in Warsaw: "The war would be over in a month and the Jews would all leave for Madagascar". 

The idea of an island dumping ground for the Jews had to be put on ice as the Battle for Britain dragged on and then later, by the spring of 1941, a new and far more lethal stage of the Nazi anti-Jewish policies had been reached.

Was there a straight and clear road to Auschwitz?

The functionalists see a twisted road

The father of the functionalist approach to the Holocaust is probably Karl Schluenes who wrote a book in 1970 entitled THE TWISTED ROAD TO AUSCHWITZ, but the study that broke the solid wall of intentionalist thinking about National Socialism was undoubtedly A.J.P. Taylors' THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR that appeared more than a decade earlier.

Reenacting the controversy of the 1920s when the "revisionist" historians attacked the consensus about Germany being solely responsible for the outbreak of the First World War, Taylor sparked a heated debate with his argument that Hitler had not intended for the Second World War to begin and that it was not German actions but those of the Allied governments that had actually precipitated the conflict.

The functionalists present a confused picture of the inner workings of the Third Reich.  Far from it being seen as a well-oiled hierarchy in which authority flowed downwards and obedience flowed upwards, the Nazi bureaucracy was described as a maze of competing power groups that revolved around the personalities of bitter rivals who were diametrically opposed to the policies and interests of each other and who were ceaselessly plotting against and clashing with their rivals.  One writer compared the essence of the Third Reich to a medieval struggle between feudal oligarchies engaged in a Hobbesian war of all against all (Robert Koehl).

Hitler is seen as a brooding and often distant leader who preferred to let his subordinates fight it out amongst themselves while he remained passive and untainted on the sidelines.  Once a winner had clearly emerged, the Fuehrer would ensure that the victor got his laurels by recognizing his de facto control.  It was a sort of "institutional Darwinism" (David Schoenbaum) in which bureaucrats and bureaucracies struggled to survive and only the strongest of them would endure.  At the heart of the system was NOT premeditated planning but a fatalistic laissez-faire.  What happened happened.  No one could predict who would emerge victorious and which one of the competing policies and policy-makers would ultimately dominate, but the one that won was the one that should have one.  Its success was post factum proof of its superiority (had it not been meant to win then it never would have won) and therefore its success was also ultimate proof of the rightness of its victory.

Concrete examples of differing interpretations

1. The Nuremberg Laws (or in their official names: The Law of Reich Citizenship and The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour) 15 September 1935  (all documents in this section are reprinted in DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST).  Intentionalists see them as a keystone to Nazi anti-Jewish measures.  They provided a legal definition to the question "Who is a Jew?", a step that is essential in the process of marking Jews out from the rest of the society, isolating them and preparing the ground for their ultimate elimination.

But, argue the functionalists, if they were so crucial to the process, why were they drafted almost as an after-thought on the back of a napkin in an all-night cafe?  The context in which these laws were presented was the "normalization" of relations between the Aryan race and the Jews.  If these were the new terms under which life was to proceed then it provided some stability.  If these provisions defined what were the restrictions and limitations under the law, then the rest was "illegal".  Contact between Aryans and Jews was now narrowly circumscribed - for example, it became illegal for Jews to employ in their households female Aryans under 45 years old - but not totally eliminated since it was now legal to employ one over 45 years old, or to hire a male.

The representative body of German Jewry responded that the Nuremberg Laws "come as the heaviest of blows for the Jews in Germany" but at the same time they create "a basis on which a tolerable relationship becomes possible between the German and the Jewish people."  Taken in context, the Jewish reaction of alarm and fear may have also been mixed with relief.

2.  Another example of differing interpretations is in regards to the policy of ghettoization.  The Instructions by Heydrich on Policies and Operations Concerning Jews in the Occupied Territories, 21 September 1939 (known by the nickname "schnellbrief").   It distinguishes between "final aims" and "the stages leading to the fulfillment of this final aim".   It set out the areas that "are to be cleared of Jews" and also the principle of "as few concentration centers as possible...only (in) cities which are rail junctions, or are at least located on railroad lines".  In addition to defining the ghettoes, it also outlined the size and responsibility of the Jewish councils and several key German economic interests, such as labour and  food sources.

Again the intentionalists hold this document up as a cornerstone of the Nazi's anti-Jewish policies.  Yet the actual practice of the Third Reich was so diverse and variegated in places that these provisions were kept more in the breech.  So how important were they?  How do we explain that as central a feature as the ghettoes is not a carefully planned and considered program but an after-thought, considered haphazardly, some 3 weeks after the start of the War? 

And what is the "final aim" or "endziel"?  Does the fact that is it not defined even in a highly secret document of the secret police not imply that it has not yet been clarified?  Are the "endziel" and the "endloesung" (the final solution) the same thing, as the intentionalists would have us believe?  After all,  NO document uses them interchangeably.  Functionalist historians stress the probability that the real meaning of the "endziel" to be a territorial solution for the Jewish question (either the "Nisko Plan" in the Lublin District or the "Madagascar Plan").  They also point out that the first appearance in a document of the term "endloesung" was in 31 July 1941 - several weeks after the start of the organized mass murders of Jews in the East.  The term first appears in a letter sent to Heydrich by Goering entrusting him to report back on "the preliminary organizational, practical and financial measures for the execution of the intended final solution ("endloesung) of the Jewish question.".

6 months into the mass killings, at Wannsee, Heydrich was nervous that someone would raise serious objections to his policies or would challenge SS control in this area.  When that did not happen, his relief was apparent to all, as described by Eichmann during his interrogation.

The bottom line of this dispute

Yet the gap between the two positions, the intentionalist and functionalist, is far from unbridgeable.  The pure intentionalist position does not completely hold because if Hitler was merely waiting for the first opportune moment to implement his pre-conceived murderous intentions then why did he wait 2 1/2 years before beginning the Final Solution in Poland?  He held absolute control over millions of Jews from September 1939 but only began the mass murders in the spring of 1942.

But neither does a pure functionalist position fit the facts, for if the murder of the Jews was nothing more than a random side-show that happened to develop out of conditions at the time than how can we explain Hitler's steadfast determination, in the face of repeated difficulties and set-backs, not to desist from pursuing the Jewish question?  Each failure seemed only to cause him to re-double his efforts to find a solution.  And from his first surviving letter in 1919 until his final written statement - his suicide note of 29 April 1945 - the one subject that most occupied his attention was the fight against international Jewry.  Hitler's ideology may neither have been pretty nor fully consistent, but it was of primary importance to everything that he did, and antisemitism was always at its very heart.

Perhaps a greater challenge than making sense of the individual character and role of Adolf Hitler is trying to understand why so many perfectly normally people followed him along that murderous path.  It is to that question that we will turn in our next lecture.


DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman and Avraham Margaliot, eds.,  Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981, Nuremberg Laws pp. 76-80, Jewish reactions pp. 84-8, Schnellbrief pp. 173-8, Final Solution Order p. 233, the protocol of the Wannsee Conference pp. 249-61 and his last testament, pp. 162-3.

Fleming, Gerald, HITLER AND THE FINAL SOLUTION, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984.

Koehl, Robert,  "Nazism as Feudalism", in AMERICAN POLICIAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY, 1959.

Marrus, Michael, THE HOLOCAUST IN HISTORY, Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1987.

NUREMBERG DOCUMENTS, the Green Series, Volume 13, Document 1880, pp. 147-50.

Schluenes, Karl, THE TWISTED ROAD TO AUSCHWITZ, Bloomingdale: University of Illinois, 1970.

Schoenbaum, David, HITLER'S SOCIAL REVOLUTION, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966.

Taylor, A.J.P., THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,  1961.

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