HILBERG, RAUL


HILBERG, RAUL
HILBERG, RAUL (1926– ), "founding-father" of the academic study of the Holocaust in the United States. Hilberg was born in Vienna. His family escaped not only Austria but the European continent in the spring of 1939, one year after the Anschluss, and thus barely evaded death in the Holocaust. After a brief stay in Havana, Cuba, he arrived in the United States. The family moved to New York City, where his middle-class parents became factory workers. In New York Hilberg spent several years at Brooklyn College before joining the army at the age of 18. After service in Europe, Hilberg returned to Brooklyn College, where he was deeply influenced by the historian Hans Rosenberg, an expert in the historical development of the Prussian bureaucracy. He went on to graduate study in political science at Columbia University, where he encountered two more professors of profound influence: salo baron , the doyen of Jewish history, who imparted a sense of Jewish separateness and vulnerability even after emancipation; and Franz Neumann, the author of an early study of the structure of the Nazi state titled Behemoth that focused not on the personality and ideology of Hitler but rather on the four hierarchies of civil service, party, army, and industry that exercised power in Nazi Germany. Hilberg wrote his M.A. thesis at Columbia under the direction of Neumann on the role of the German civil service in the destruction of the European Jews. When Hilberg asked Neumann about the possibility of expanding on this theme to include Neumann's other three hierarchies for his Ph.D. thesis, Neumann agreed but warned, "It's your funeral." Neumann's influence was crucial in another way as well, in that he found Hilberg work with the War Documentation Project in Alexandria, Virginia, sorting through the original complete files of captured German documents. This deepened Hilberg's understanding of the workings of the German bureaucracy and his virtually unparalleled familiarity with its documentation. He completed his dissertation under William Fox in 1955, and then expanded upon it yet further by writing additional chapters. In the spring of 1956, he joined the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont, which would remain his academic home until retirement in 1991 but did not teach the Holocaust. Only in the early 1970s, at the urging of a colleague and students, did he begin teaching a course on the Holocaust. Hilberg's initial attempts to publish his massive study of the destruction of the European Jews failed. Columbia University Press, Yad Vashem, Princeton University Press, and the University of Oklahoma Press all in turn rejected it. With the help of a private subvention, The Destruction of the European Jews was finally published by Quadrangle Press in Chicago in 1961. Though totally unnoticed at the time and appreciated only in retrospect, this event – in the same year as the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem – marked the birth of Holocaust studies as a legitimate field of academic study in the United States. Hilberg's major contribution was to portray the Nazi destruction of the European Jews not as a giant pogrom, but as a bureaucratic and administrative process, requiring specialists of all kinds and successfully eliciting participation from virtually every branch of organized German society. In analyzing this German propensity for widespread participation, Hilberg declared himself little interested in "German race theory" and rarely used the word "antisemitism," but he did emphasize the longstanding negative image of the Jews as "hostile, criminal, parasitical" that was deeply embedded in German culture. Hilberg created an overarching structure for his study through the interplay of two key concepts: a "machinery of destruction" comprising Neumann's four hierarchies – the party, civil service, military, and industry – and a "process of destruction" consisting of three crucial stages – definition, concentration, and annihilation, with each stage accompanied by commensurate expropriation. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Hilberg analyzed how the four hierarchies of the "machinery of destruction" carried out the inherent stages of the "process of destruction" in all corners of the German empire.   Hilberg's self-imposed task was to "grasp how this deed was done." Thus the primary focus of his study was on the perpetrators and the primary source was the entire collection of 36,000 captured German documents selected and numbered as "Nürnberg documents" for possible use in the postwar trials. It was precisely through his exhaustive research on German policies through German documents that Hilberg concluded that some account of "Jewish response" was also essential to understanding "how this deed was done." He presented a spectrum of Jewish response – resistance/alleviation/evasion/paralysis/compliance – and argued that over centuries Diaspora Jews had learned that "alleviation" and "compliance" were more productive survival strategies (i.e., predictably resulting in the "least damage and least injury") than "resistance" (by which Hilberg specifically meant armed resistance). When faced with unprecedented Nazi persecution, however, these time-sanctioned survival strategies led to "Jewish institutions" becoming co-opted as "tools" in the process of destruction. While Hilberg's larger interpretation about the Nazi destruction of the European Jews drew little attention, his comments on Jewish response attracted ferocious criticism, especially after he was specifically cited as an authoritative source by hannah arendt for her own attack upon the behavior of Jewish leadership during the Holocaust in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil. Yet, the arguments of Hilberg and Arendt were significantly different. Hilberg portrayed the subjective attempts of Jewish leaders to help their people through now suddenly obsolete survival strategies as facilitating German perpetrators in their use of Jewish leaders as objective instruments of self-destruction. What Hilberg portrayed as a catastrophic and tragic failure of perception, Arendt in contrast portrayed in terms of seduction by apparent power, self-serving corruption, and ultimately betrayal – in short a searing accusation of moral failure. Hilberg drew criticism for his narrow definition of resistance and his sober conclusion that Jewish armed resistance had both occurred rarely and hindered the Nazis in no significant way in carrying out the Final Solution was for many yet more salt rubbed in an open wound. Israeli historians sought to create a more heroic image of Jewish response by uncovering many hitherto unknown cases of Jewish armed resistance that were attested to in survivor testimony but never reported in German documents. Such an approach, however, could not alter the fact that most Jewish victims had been women, children, and elderly, and most Jews had never had arms. Others articulated broader definitions of resistance to include many activities undertaken in defiance of or aimed at thwarting German intentions, what Hilberg had considered alleviation and evasion. As the firestorm gradually subsided, awareness of the true importance of the book began to emerge. Many, but not all, of Hilberg's critics, while not dropping their reservations about particulars, began to acknowledge the book's overall achievement with such adjectives as "monumental," and "magisterial." Meanwhile, Hilberg focused his research on two additional projects: the German railway system and the diary of adam czerniakow . The German railway system was the most non-political and non-ideological of institutions that had nonetheless shipped over half the victims of the Holocaust to the death camps. It was also the German institution that, perhaps more than any other, had managed to destroy virtually all-incriminating documentation. In one sense the German railway system was for Hilberg the paradigmatic perpetrator organization. A staff of non-political technocrats facing extreme wartime demands adapted their standard routines to arrange hundreds of one-way charter trains to the death camps, charged per track kilometer at a group rate discount with children under 10 half-price and children under four generously sent to their deaths cost free. As Hilberg noted laconically, the German railway men may have shipped the Jews like cattle but they booked them like any other passengers\! Quite simply, the trains were utterly indispensable to the Final Solution. The resulting book was published only in German as Sonderzuege nach Auschwitz ("Special Trains to Auschwitz") in 1981. It is no small irony that Hilberg, who was said to have neglected Jewish sources, was singularly responsible for the 1979 publication of the English edition of The Warsaw Diaries of Adam Czerniakow, one of the two most important sources on the Jewish councils (the other being The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto) that survived the war. The English reader now could encounter a tragic figure who rolled his Rock of Sisyphus up the hill every day, knowing full well that it would come rolling back down each night. Consumed by a sense of obligation and untouched by megalomania, Czerniakow persevered in his impossible situation until he reached a line he would not cross. Faced with the demand to deport Jewish children, he took poison. In the late 1970s, American public consciousness of the Holocaust rose dramatically. For Hilberg, now clearly recognized as America's top scholarly authority on the subject, this meant an increased demand for public and academic appearances. He also began to serve in an advisory capacity to the projected U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum during the crucial formative years of design and construction, where his unfaltering advocacy for a major research and archival center as an essential component of the museum was successful. The explosion of new interest in the Holocaust meant the opportunity to produce a revised and expanded edition of The Destruction of the European Jews (published by Holmes & Meier in 1985) that incorporated a wealth of new documentation from the Eichmann trial, the numerous postwar German trials of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as much archival material that had not yet been accessible when Hilberg had drafted the first edition in the 1950s. Having devoted his scholarly life to analyzing the impersonal structures and processes of the Nazi assault on European Jews, Hilberg turned next to a different angle of approach. In this book, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (Harper Collins,   1992), Hilberg not only laid out a tripartite scheme and vocabulary of categorization that has left an indelible imprint on the field, but in 24 distinct essays he also examined different subgroups of people within these broad categories as to how their experience, perspective, and behavior related to the Holocaust. Appointed the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont in 1978, Hilberg retired from teaching at the end of the spring term of 1991. He was, however, by no means done writing. Next to appear was his academic autobiography, published first in Germany in 1994 and then in the United States in 1996, titled The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian. Written at a time when Hilberg was clearly disappointed that Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders had not escaped from under the shadow of the "monumental" Destruction of the European Jews, the memoir is suffused with a tone of melancholy. Others in his situation – widely recognized as a world-renowned scholar who had legitimized the academic standing of and inspired a veritable flood of new research in an entire field of study – might have been tempted to write a celebratory account of a gradual but inexorable triumph over the many obstacles and critics that had stood in his way. But Hilberg focused far more on the difficulties he encountered and the struggles he waged than on the vindication he eventually won. As the subtitle indicated, it was an account of his "journey," not a celebration for reaching his destination. In general Hilberg identified himself as a "document man." Thus it was fitting that Hilberg turned his attention next to a study of the nature of the documents themselves in Sources of Holocaust Research, published in 2001. And finally, in 2004, Yale University Press published the third – further revised and expanded – American edition of The Destruction of the European Jews. By far the biggest windfall of new documents for scholars of the Holocaust had occurred just half a decade after the appearance of the second American edition, with the collapse of Communist regimes and the opening of archives in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Fortunately, he now had the opportunity to incorporate this massive additional documentation into his opus magnum. (Christopher R. Browning (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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