The Fate of the European Jews, 1939-1945: Continuity or Contingency? Volume XIII, Studies in Contemporary Jewry – An Annual. – Review

The Fate of the European Jews, 1939-1945: Continuity or Contingency? Volume XIII, Studies in Contemporary Jewry – An Annual. – Review – book review

Arnold Krammer

The Fate of the European Jews, 1939-1945: Continuity or Contingency? Volume XIII, Studies in Contemporary Jewry – An Annual. Edited by Jonathan Frankel. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press with The Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry–The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997, Pp. xiv, 405. $49.95.)

During the mid-1980s, the Historikerstreit or “historians’ dispute” erupted when historian Jurgen Habermas first challenged his colleagues to explain the uniqueness and comparability of National Socialist crimes. Well-known historians, such as Martin Broszat, Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber, and others, waded into the debate, to rationalize, categorize, and, in some cases, minimize the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. Rising above the fray, Saul Friedlander, one of the most sophisticated intellectual historians of the Nazi period, said profoundly that, “the same past may mean something else to the victims of Nazism, whoever they may be, and for them, there are other, no less legitimate modes of historicizing the era.” The most recent annual of the already acclaimed Studies in Contemporary Jewry, elegantly introduced by Yehuda Bauer, provides an outstanding collection of thematic papers on Jews and the Holocaust from a wide range of perspectives.

With the recent provocation by the Goldhagen thesis–that by 1941 Germany was a seething cauldron of historic anti-Semitism and that the entire nation stood in readiness to do the killing–a new generation of historians is readying for a debate. Co-authors Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim see the Holocaust as a product of Himmler’s foundering resettlement policies: the Jews in central Poland needed to make room for a like number of Poles to be removed from annexed western Poland, who, in turn, were making room for the arrival of ethnic Germans from southern Europe. For Dan Michman and Steven Katz, the Nazi murder of the Jews was different from previous centuries of persecution, driven this time by modern nationalist anti-Semitism, in which Jews, without any source of central leadership, were always the specific target. Michman’s discussion is supported by no less than 114 footnotes. To Zygmunt Bauman, the Jews were part of a world-wide Nazi “cleansing” program, which included Gypsies, the handicapped, Slavs, and, had Germany won the war, eventually many German Christians themselves.

Gavin I. Langmuir cleverly points out the continuity of historic anti-Jewish pogroms with the contingency provided by Hitler and the conditions of post-1918 German society. To several historians, the Holocaust boils down to the camps; Zygmunt Bauman offers a philosophical view of the camps as great experimental laboratories–senseless in every other respect–but with their own sinister rationality. Michael Marrus examines the history of Auschwitz as a microcosm of the Holocaust itself. He points out that Auschwitz developed in halting steps, construction snafus, and persistent malfunction of equipment. Despite difficulties, however, the Germans overcame the obstacles and murdered millions, even as conditions worsened for the Reich in 1943 and 1944.

Everything depends on the interrelationship of historiography and memory, an assumption that historians have traditionally neglected, states Dan Diner. Historians raised in an Anglo-Saxon tradition view periodization, causation, and length of memory differently than those raised in the continental tradition. In an excellent, if convoluted, essay, Diner successfully challenges nearly every other contribution to the volume.

And what of the Nazis’ helpers? John-Paul Himka sorts out the factors leading to Ukrainian collaboration and concludes that the socioeconomic hostility between Ukrainians and Jews had almost disappeared in the two decades preceding the Holocaust and that it was the Holocaust that rekindled the antagonism and not the preexisting hatred that led to their enthusiastic participation. The situation in Poland was, apparently, just the opposite. Antony Polonsky sees the gulf between Jews and Poles as widening in the 1930s and in the first two years of German occupation, making it easier for the Germans to implement their policy of genocide and more difficult for decent Poles to assist the Jews, although many blessed people tried.

Finally, there are the exceptions, such as the unique case of Italy’s Jews. Susan Zuccotti follows the themes of the Symposium on which this annual is based–Continuity or Contingency–to weigh Italy’s willingness to tolerate the passage of racial laws between 19391943. Were these restrictive anti-Semitic laws the product of a long tradition? After all, similar laws against the Jews existed in most of the Italian states until 1860 and in papal Rome until 1870. Or were they a contingency, imposed on liberal Italy by fascist Mussolini?

Let the new Historikerstreit begin.

Arnold Krammer Texas A&M University

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