Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

How Yehuda Bauer's Critique of Holocaust Thinking Has Changed My Mind. (Explorations and Responses.)

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

How Yehuda Bauer's Critique of Holocaust Thinking Has Changed My Mind. (Explorations and Responses.)

Article excerpt

The recent publication of Yehuda Bauer's collected essays, Rethinking the Holocaust, (1) makes possible a reexamination of difficult questions of history, historiography, ethics, and theology that rise out of that hideous event in human evil we know as the Holocaust. Reading Bauer's book forced me to modify some of my most cherished but uncritically held thoughts about the Holocaust.

For years I was influenced by the novels and essays of Elie Wiesel to think that a crime so massive in evil, so irrational in motive, so ugly and awesome in consequences was mysterious and incomprehensible. I thought that such an event had nothing to teach us that we could understand and use in our lives. While I continue to think that, at its center, the Holocaust--particularly the motives of the perpetrators--remains enigmatic, raising more questions than are answered, reading Bauer's book convinces me that to assert an enigma without qualification and without making a conscientious effort to do the research and read the primary studies is to surrender to a romantic and wrongheaded conception of evil's inherent darkness. Evil, however dark and impenetrable, can be seen, felt, touched, grasped, and understood.

Bauer's arguments have persuaded me that the Holocaust is an explicable event. If the Holocaust were totally inexplicable, it would lie outside history and be impervious to rational discourse. This also means that the attribution of absolute uniqueness to the Holocaust (so often heard among Holocaust scholars) leads to trivialization. The basis of intelligible historical writing, states Bauer, is the "comparability of human experience." There are recurring, recognizable patterns in the passing events of history that we can study and understand. With respect to the Holocaust, this "comparability" is a guide to investigation and knowledge. To suppose otherwise is to replace history with chaos in which nothing is explicable or rationally discussable. Since the Holocaust is explicable, no good is accomplished by referring to it as mysterious, as containing religious elements of transcendence. "If we argue like that," says Baner, "we may be guilty of transforming the murder of children into some sort of metaphysi cal gibberish we blasphemously call transcendence." (2)

Another uncritical assumption influencing my thinking arose in how I explained to my students the causes of the Holocaust. For many years I was led by Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (3) to believe that the Holocaust could be explained by the personality of Eichmann himself. Of course, there is much truth in Arendt's description of Eichmann as the total bureaucrat-functionary who had no particular hatred of Jews, one who was willing to organize the deportation of Jews to their deaths out of a wish to obey orders, to do his job, to advance in rank. However, bureaucracy alone or the "banality of evil" (to use Arendt's fertile phrase), cannot explain the Holocaust.

My own uncritical use of Arendt's account tended to downplay the role of historic German disfavor of Jews in seeding the ground for the eventual appearance of a specific racial-biological form of antisemitic ideology that captured the German public and made possible the Holocaust. Bauer's essays made me realize that such an ideology and the genocidal policy that accompanied it must be explained. We can find that explanation not in German history or culture or tradition, as such, but in the emergence of the Nazi party elite. Hitler and his fellow Nazis won to their side thousands of the most educated of Germany's society: professors, university students, and professionals, including clergy, physicians, military officers, engineers, attorneys, and judges.

Now, because of Bauer's book, I stress in my classes on the Holocaust the indispensable roles played by antisemitic ideology and the Nazi elite. Yet, Bauer makes clear that Antisemitism alone will not explain the cause of the Holocaust--at least not the historic Antisemitism of the German people, which was "moderate" (Bauer's word) as compared with that of Russia and Rumania, which had longer histories of virulent Antisemitism. …

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