The Holocaust and Historical Methodology

By Smith, John David | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

The Holocaust and Historical Methodology


Smith, John David, Canadian Journal of History


The Holocaust and Historical Methodology, edited by Dan Stone. Making Sense of History series. New York, Berghahn Books, 2012. xii, 323 pp. $95.00 US (cloth).

As editor Dan Stone notes in his introduction to this useful collection of compact, largely theoretical essays, the Holocaust as historical subject confronts longstanding tenets of best historical practice, including "impartiality, objectivity, progress, clarity of meaning, and scholarly rigor." Although the field of Holocaust history shares epistemological challenges common to all historical subjects, Stone maintains that "these difficulties present themselves with especial clarity in the case of the Holocaust" (p. 4).

Stone's ambitious book considers its subject broadly and deeply, and engages directly with complex, jargon-prone theoretical questions. On the one hand the book focuses on historical theory, historical method, and the practice of historical methodology. But it also probes closely how theoretical questions have defined Holocaust studies and, in turn, how the Holocaust has defined theory. Stone notes correctly that while scholars of film, literature, museum studies, and the visual arts have engaged actively with Holocaust representation, historians have been slower to grasp the challenges and opportunities presented by new understandings of the Holocaust. His book encourages historians to view the subject through the varied lens of comparative genocide studies, culture, ecology, memory, and testimony.

The fourteen contributors to The Holocaust and Historical Methodology confront these challenges head on. They treat four broad subjects: memory and culture in the Third Reich; testimony and commemoration; the meaning of Saul Friedlander's classic text, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution "(1992); and the Holocaust in world history. The essayists investigate not only the varied meanings that emerge from the historical record on the Holocaust, but how historical method and methodology on the topic pose serious challenges to those who study it.

In Part I Alon Confino reconceptualizes the Holocaust as an imagined, "future-oriented" project by the Nazis to create a world without Jewish people. "Their emnity against and extermination of the Jews was part of a Nazi universe of racial enemies and exterminations" (p. 38). Following in that vein, Stone emphasizes the importance of comprehending the Holocaust in cultural terms--assuming "that the Nazis meant what they said, that they created reality to fit in with their belief system and not-vice-versa--as the outcome or a German narrative through which the perpetrators made sense of the world" (p. 56). "The Nazis attempted to influence and control contemporary and later images of their crimes and their victims," writes Dirk Rupnow. "The perpetrators tried to establish their own structure of memory and representation which would have determined our contemporary attitude toward the crimes ..." (p. 67). Amos Goldberg urges Holocaust researchers to utilize social psychology, ethnography, and anthropological history to understand the cultural history of Nazi victims, not the perpetrators. He faults previous investigators for sanctifying Holocaust victims at the expense of understanding the transformation of their helplessness. Boaz Neumann frames the Holocaust, not ideologically, politically, or racially, but in "eco-logical" terms--removing Jews from the world and their ability to "be-in-the world" (p. 119).

Samuel Moyn begins Part II by examining the theological origins of "witnessing," especially its use by historians as a moral paradigm. …

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