Raul Hilberg: Documenting Genocide

For over thirty years I have read accounts of Nazi Germany, including Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), the first comprehensive history of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Of interest to me at the moment is a lesser-known monograph written toward the end of Hilberg’s life: Sources of Holocaust Research (2001). Being an evaluation of Holocaust documentation, this concise technical work actually achieves more by understatement than many more dramatic chronicles.

In dealing with this or any other historic catastrophe one often encounters incredulousness at their sheer scale of malevolence.  Many Jews at the time felt that no one would believe them. According to one anecdote:

David Olère was… a skilled painter who lived in France. He was deported to Auschwitz in March 1943. There he was employed as an illustrator, but he also emptied gas chambers of corpses. After the war he recounted to his wife the things he had seen. When she could not believe him, he sketched or painted his recollections (p. 167).

Hilberg’s sober categorization of the mass of corroborative evidence shows that Germany’s widespread killings of Jews, and others, was not haphazard. There are laconic reports by officials at all levels detailing the execution of non-combatants, including the number of bullets used or the size of mass graves for various “operations” by German police units and SS death squads. As the ever objective historian, Hilberg dispassionately accounts for exaggerations, errors and deliberate falsehoods—on the part of fake “survivors” like Binjanin Wilkomirski or German officials denying involvement in Nazi policies.

Nor does the author shy away from questions of collaboration and opportunism on the part of some victims. There were Jewish auxiliary policeman who, in return for certain exemptions, corralled people onto trains headed for the camps, and Jewish doctors who took part in the selection process determining which individuals would be gassed and which would be allowed to live. The author cites one account in which a Jewish policeman gave up his protected position to be with his wife on the death camp transports. In yet another example a man was glad to be rid of his spouse since she might lessen his own chances for survival. In conclusion, Hilberg’s book offers a more subtle and nuanced view of this human cataclysm than one is apt to get from more popular sources.

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