Rethinking the Holocaust

By Sheramy, Rona | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Holocaust


Sheramy, Rona, Shofar


by Yehuda Bauer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 335 pp. $29.95.

Rethinking the Holocaust is not only a book on Holocaust history but also a meditation on the writing and implications of this history by one of its most influential interpreters, Yehuda Bauer. Bauer is the former director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research of Yad Vashem, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of a dozen books in English on the destruction of European Jewry. Rethinking the Holocaust brings together several of Bauer's seminal essays, revised and reformulated for the collection (as Bauer writes in the preface, the process of preparing the book led him to "rethink all [he] had ever written...rewrite...and write anew"). The work is part historiographical survey, part intellectual autobiography.

Bauer divides Rethinking the Holocaust into chapters that address specific themes and issues in Holocaust historiography, including the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust, the definition of resistance, the concept of God during the Holocaust, and the relationship between the destruction of European Jewry and the establishment of Israel. Bauer also devotes two chapters to specific Holocaust historians and the debates that they have inspired, including a lengthy discussion of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and the controversy over Hitler's Willing Executioners. Several ideas arise repeatedly throughout the book's chapters, presenting the reader with a philosophy of Holocaust history-writing. First, Bauer stresses the need to examine Holocaust history from the Jewish perspective. He is critical of those who present the Holocaust only as a story of the perpetrators, calling instead for examination of Jewish responses to Nazi persecution and for synthetic histories which consider the Holocaust from a kaleidoscopic lens (Bauer holds up Saul Friedländer's Nazi Germany and the Jews as an exemplar of this method). Second, Bauer insists on the very humanness of those involved in the destruction of European Jewry, from the victims of Nazism to, more disturbingly, the Nazi perpetrators themselves. Regarding the latter, Bauer warns against demonizing the perpetrators and characterizing the Nazis as inhuman. Such descriptions shroud the Holocaust in mystery and put the event outside of history, obscuring the fact that the Holocaust was the result of human action, that it is explicable, and that it can (and has) happened in different permutations elsewhere. Third, and along these lines, Bauer argues that Holocaust history can have a political function by warning people of humankind's genocidal potential. Indeed, Bauer states that one of the aims of his book is to "contribute to the work of those who would stop, even reverse, a murderous trend. Too many humans have been murdered, and the time has come to try and stop these waves that threaten to engulf us". …

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