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Book Reviewed:

Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust. Yale University Press, 2001.

The book can be purchased from Amazon.com.

Review by John Day. All copyrights are held by the author.

The author is a retired history professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and, at the time this book was written, director of the International Research Institute of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum which is also in Jerusalem. It is a failing of the publisher that it takes some work to find out about his important background and credentials. However, such are the ways of American publishers.

This is not a history of the destruction of Europe's Jews between 1939 and 1945. It is, in part, a reflection on historical questions arising from the event, and, also in part, a formal historiography, which is a discussion of what historians have had to say about it. For all that, as Dr. Bauer is reviewing and rethinking much of his earlier work, there is a lot of original research here as well. Much of it, from the materials filed at the Yad Vashem museum, is in Yiddish or Hebrew, and not very readily accessible to many of us.

The first two chapters attempt to define what, exactly, "The Holocaust" was, and how it differed from other genocides. It is the book's strength that it admits other genocides, including others carried out by Hitler's regime. It also draws the crucial conclusion that another holocaust, as specifically defined by this book, could very well occur to other groups in the future.

In the end, Dr. Bauer sees the following distinction between the Holocaust and other genocides. He can not find a parallel case not merely of destroying a people, but eliminating every individual of it; not merely eliminating it in areas one wishes to control, but eliminating it everywhere in the world; not acting in any explicable ground of self-interest of the persecutor, but in defiance of the persecutor's own benefit; not because a people have undesirable beliefs, politics or even society, but because they have a biological existence at all, anywhere. For a genocide to be a "holocaust", it has to meet these criteria. That they do apply in the attempt to destroy Jews between 1941 and 1945 makes it a unique event.

The closest parallel Dr. Bauer can find as a parallel concerns the Roma (or Gypsies) and even here, there is an important limited. Within the territory considered to be the German Reich, as opposed to other controlled territories, such as Bohemia or the Government General of Poland, the intention was to eliminate them all. And the regime did a good, thorough job of it. However, outside the Reich proper, a Rom who had settled down and abandoned nomadic ways was left alone. In this case, a member of the Roma community had a possibility of doing something which was officially tolerable. There was no such chance for any biologically-defined Jew.

Here, Dr. Bauer finds a very important difference between this and other anti-Jewish persecutions. Altering one's religion, culture or politics usually would save oneself. One's very existence was not in itself a crime, nor was having a Jewish ancestor. In the Holocaust, the latter two were crimes. He leaves open the possibility of exploring the possibility that a number of anti-Semites of Europe, who had been co-operative with the Nazis, began to change directions when they could no longer avoid knowing what was happening. He does contend that simple anti-Semitism or a more general uneasiness about Jews (not the same thing, in his opinion) would not, by itself, have caused this particular kind of genocide.

This, by the way, he does not excuse. But he does say that one has to appreciate the difference in trying to come to terms with understanding why the Holocaust did indeed occur.

He then goes on to ask whether the Holocaust which did occur (and which could occur again, to any group) was capable of explanation. This point is debated, especially by a number of artists. A more interesting question arises from others who admit that it might be possible to investigate and explain the Holocaust, but that it is in the highest degree morally objectionable to do so. Simple contemplation of the fact is enough. I might add that this question arises with every biography of Adolf Hitler.

Dr. Bauer strongly disagrees. What evil humans have prove capable of doing, they are very likely to be able to do it again. If the questions arising from the event are faced, such events become more likely to reoccur, not less.

At this point, it is worth remarking that Dr. Bauer takes great exception to the habit of somebody accusing another of behaving or acting like Hitler/the Nazis in launching another holocaust. There is no one point where he enters into depth on this, but it is a point which he raises several times in passing. He is particularly distressed that this is almost a normal way of abusing each other in Israel's domestic politics. Admittedly, if one in three Jews everywhere died as a result of the Holocaust, it's a fact of life you won't forget easily. (As a personal note, the Irish have similar opinions of Oliver Cromwell, although his intentions were less murderous in intent, if not result. After 350 years, however, it is easier to take a more detached view of things.) But Dr. Bauer argues that resorting to it as a normal means of name-calling cheapens the event. If every common garden variety iniquity becomes a new holocaust, the possibility of recognizing the real thing goes down dramatically. As he does point out later on, the excesses of propaganda in World War One made it difficult for anybody Jewish or not) to take similar charges seriously. Unhappily, in World War Two, they proved not to be exaggerated.

Chapters three and four are historiographical essays. Obviously, other historians have attempted their own explanations and accounts. Dr. Bauer divides them into two schools of thought, which he calls the "functionalist" and the "instrumentalist" schools. Each gets a chapter's consideration.

"Functionalists" look for answers in social structures of one sort or another. The better historians of this school tend to think that the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state best explains it. Given the same motivations, earlier genocides and persecutions would have indeed been holocausts, but the means of conducting a holocaust did not exist. There are more contentious theories of course. In recent times, the imagined particular nature of German society or simply being German have been given as explanations.

"Instrumentalists" take the view that there was nothing inherent in social systems which caused the Holocaust, but rather it was the result of a determined intention by a rather small group of people (possibly about 125 in number) to do something quite unheard-of.

Dr. Bauer leans heavily towards the second school of thought, although he sees serious problems with both schools of thought. His own interpretation is more implicit than stated in so many words. he holds that both views on the matter have contributed much, leave covers the central questions satisfactorily, and that there is a lot of unfinished business. This is a frustrating conclusion, but one far too well known to scholars of all varieties. Coming up with satisfactory answers depends on asking satisfactory questions, which is often very hard work. Dr. Bauer appears to think that his contribution lies in defining the questions required. In my opinion, he does it very well.

Three chapters then follow which examine the responses of Jewish communities under Nazi rule. The third discusses a specialized application which we will set aside for the moment. The other two deal with more general issues. The first deals with collective responses, usually before a community underwent deportation and death. the second is concerned with individual responses before, during and after the deportations and killings.

The responses, both by communities and individuals, were many and varied. For the most part, both communities and individuals behaved reasonably within the limits of what they were able to do. Armed resistance was normally quite impossible, although this has not prevented any number of present-day Jews denouncing the absence of it. It did happen on rare occasions, as did the range of other possibilities, from passive resistance, through obstruction, reluctant co-operation to willing co-operation.

In terms of community responses, people within them, both at the time and since, arrived at a definition of whether the leadership recognized by the Nazis behaved honorably or not. The defining point turned on whether the community leaders began co-operating in compiling lists of community members to be deported. That line is not entirely clear (some who did co-operate that far were still regarded as honorable, while some who did were considered dishonorable then and since), but it's the easiest line to draw. About 70% of the community leadership passed that basic test.

The discussion of individual reactions is particularly interesting, especially for non-Jewish readers. Dr. Bauer concludes that most Jews in Nazi-controlled countries practice an old Jewish norm of "sanctifying life". the best summary of that outlook was expressed by an Italian (and non-Jewish) writer, Giovanni Guareschi, "I will not die, even if they kill me." One might have very little or no control over one's circumstances, but within them, one always had the option of trying to assert a human dignity and worth. Great efforts were made to maintain schools, cultural institutions, artistic events, and, as far as possible, religious observances, all of them highly illegal, carried on even as the participants in the events were going to the gas chambers. Their persecutors could, and did place them in the most humiliating and degrading conditions before killing them. But even then, one could choose not to be humiliated and degraded. The general opinion of the persecuted, both among those who survived and those who did not, was that the persecutors thus became the degraded and dehumanized, not the ones being persecuted.

As an aside, this attitude was not dependent on religious belief. It was shared by people with every conceivable range of faith or lack of it. One Viennese Jew who professed not to believe in God, and who did survive, went on to found a school of psychiatry (logotherapy) which, on examination, is based on the idea of "sanctifying life".

The third of this group of chapters is a discussion of questions raised by gender studies, especially feminist ones. Like many other historians, he is badly hindered by the lack of any evidence at all as to what Jewish women were doing (I might add that in my experience, women sometimes were strongly determined to ensure exactly that in some times and places.). The Jewish communities, especially in Eastern Europe, were extremely patriarchal, and any contemporary records within them were created exclusively by men. Moreover, the worse the persecution, the more conservative and patriarchal the community was likely to be. However, Dr. Bauer was able to find an example of one woman, Gisi Fleischman, who did play a very significant role in her community, and who left a fair paper trail behind her. And this chapter discusses her activities at length.

Chapter nine (in case you've lost count!) deals with theological questions. Dr. Bauer's own view is that the Holocaust raises no questions not posed by, for an example, a child's running into the street and being hit by a car. The issue of evil being visited upon the apparently innocent, or indeed the obviously virtuous, remains the same. However, this opinion is not universally held. Dr. Bauer's examination of theology dwells on conservative interpretations, some quite "orthodox" by any definition, and some which are quite eccentric. For non-Jews, however, it is a useful discussion into Jewish religious thought.

The second-last chapter concerns attempts at rescue and the lack of them. The examples of those which were actually attempted tend to demonstrated the enormous problems involved. many of those to be rescued either did not wish to be rescued, or distrusted the rescuers as much as anybody else. Several men who did succeed in escaping from Auschwitz found it easier to convince Gentiles than Jews that they were telling the truth. The attempts were mot completely ineffective: although it was far too late to save Jews everywhere else in Hungary, those of Budapest were saved.

Of course, this does not excuse those who made no effort at all. the Allied powers were not terribly interested, and for that reason , they did not make use of such information as they did get. Dr. Bauer properly notes that "information is not knowledge". As a mitigating circumstance, he does note that many of the strongest rebukes have been made of later Allied powers applying to times before the complete destruction of Jews had been decided upon. His verdict is predictably harsh, but it is fair.

The final chapter concerns the relationship between the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. He believes the Holocaust came very close to making the latter quite impossible. It is true that the Jewish survivors of the Nazi regime were overwhelmingly and militantly Zionist in a way their communities had not been before. But had the Nazi regime managed to last a year or so longer, there would have been so few survivors that there would have been nobody to mobilize. As he points out, the original war of 1948 between Israel and its neighbors was a very, very close-run thing for Israel.

The epilogue is a speech Dr. Bauer made to the German Bundesrat, which is the closest he could come to a summary of his thoughts. It reflects the book in general: that he is in the middle of rethinking a lot of issues, and doing better at trying to formulate the questions, rather than finding conclusive answers to any of them.

This process can seem to be diffuse and frustrating. Yet it is well worth the effort. The book is very sound and thoughtful scholarship, which is informed by a warm humanity which shines throughout the entire book. That is a most agreeable and sadly rare treat in any scholarly writing. And, before I forget, it is also very well written.

Those last two observations are the best not on which to close, and they are well illustrated by a closing passage in Chapter One.

"No gradation of human suffering is possible. A soldier who lost a leg and a lung at Verdun suffered. How can one measure his suffering against the horrors that Japanese civilians endured at Hiroshima? How can one measure the suffering of a Roma woman at Auschwitz, who saw her husband and children die in front of her eyes, against the suffering of a Jewish woman at the same camp who underwent the same experience? Extreme forms of human suffering are not comparable, and one should never say that one form of mass murder is 'less terrible' or even 'better' than another."