Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Farewell to the Giant

Raul Hilberg, professor emiritus of political science at the University of Vermont and author of the canonical Destruction of the European Jews (first publication, 1961; revised and updated, 1985), has died at the age of 81.

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Hilberg and his family were run out of Austria in the aftermath of Reichskristallnacht, bouncing around the Caribbean before landing semi-permanently in New York, where he wrote his Ph.D. under the direction of Franz Neumann, author of Behemoth: National Socialism in Theory and Practice, a look at the Third Reich from a political refugee while it was still in power. Hilberg took as his doctoral thesis subject the Holocaust (a first among American scholars), which was eventually published as Destruction in a much expanded form.

I always admired Hilberg for not shrinking from saying what others refused to say, and this admiration was only increased by reading his Politics of Memory in the spring of this year. Hilberg had been roundly denounced for some of his conclusions when he first published -- conclusions that, by and large, Holocaust historians accept as truths today, e.g., that Jewish resistance was lacking in most of Europe during the Holocaust. While Mordecai Anielewicz and Abba Kovner were heroic in their actions, they were the exceptions and not the rule, and I think we all know today that this was a factor in European Jewry's destruction. Further, Hilberg did not shrink from discussion of issues like the Blood for Trucks deal between the yishuv and Eichmann or the Transfer Agreement, even if Hannah Arendt was publishing articles about these issues simultaneously.

The point is this: If we are going to be honest and thorough researchers into this period, we have to take our medicine like everyone else. Not everyone was a hero and not everyone did everything they could to help.

Hilberg had popped up in the last decade as a defender of some of Norman Finkelstein's conclusions in The Holocaust Industry -- particularly on Israel's misappropriation of some reparation funds and the culture of victimhood that continued to propagate itself. He drew fire for this (unsurprisingly), as he did for his general political conservatism in a field dominated by Jewish lefties like yours truly.

While Hilberg's other work (Documents of Destruction and Perpetrators, Witnesses, Bystanders) also made important contributions to the field, it is his three-volume magnum opus that put him on the map and has made him the yardstick by which all Holocaust historians are currently measured.

Well done, sir. May you rest in peace.

2 comments:

Didi said...

Well said. I couldn't have summed it up better. Hilberg will be sorely missed, both in the acdemic communities and on the front lines of denial-fighting.
Sara

104839sobe104839 said...

Farewell indeed. And very well said.