Historical Understanding and
The Judenrat as Epistemological Vantage
The difficulty inherent in describing Nazism—or, more precisely, in representing the mass extermination in historiographical terms—reflects the basic unimaginability of the event itself. Such an observation would be trivial if this problem of describability and representation did not have a powerful epistemic dimension: one directly bound up with the entire question of understanding Nazism. Moreover, the remarkable debate between Martin Broszat and Saul Friedländer on the historization of the Nazi era has underscored just how narrow the boundaries indeed are of a descriptive mode aimed at achieving historiographical understanding, Verstehen:1 a considerable theoretical and analytic effort is necessary before any effort to historicize Nazism can begin.
Beginning with Droysen if not sooner, historical research has proceeded on the assumption that a Verstehen-oriented reconstruction of a historical, hence social, context is possible only under one condition: when the reconstruction can be subjectively meaningful for the observer; 2 when he or she can rely on what is familiar from previous experience. Moreover, this project of experientially based comprehension must not be in conflict with the dictates of reason. 3 Such a notion of Verstehen as a process in which conclusions are drawn about an internal motive on the basis of external evidence relies on the assumption that the historian proceeds in the same way as the agent making history. 4 Or to formulate it differently, that both historical reconstruction and the action of the historical subject rely, in similar fashion, on reason. 5 In short, we have an assumption that the anticipated, logical connection between explanans and explanandum is fully functional in the process of understanding. 6 From this perspective, the meaningfulness of a dia-