Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

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Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Wed Oct 25, 2017 1:05 pm

Last night, I attended the annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont. The speaker was Dan Michman of Bar-Ilan University and Yad Vashem. I don't know how the lecture would have seemed to the more knowledgeable people on this board, so please forgive me if I repeat material that is familiar to you. (Of course, you can stop reading at any time.)

As I learned during the question period following the lecture, Michman had given this talk last Wednesday at the Berlin conference. It may not be obvious from the name, but Michman is the son of Joseph Melkman [sic], who was contacted by Raul Hilberg back in 1958, when the first edition of his work was ready to be published. Hilberg wanted Yad Vashem to share publishing expenses, but Melkman declined, saying very bluntly that the scholars at Yad Vashem found serious defects in the work, most especially the concentration on German sources to the neglect of sources in Polish, Czech, and other languages and also due to neglect of the Jewish resistance. But he wanted to be supportive and offered to send an endorsement of the work to Columbia University Press. (It was, as you know, published in 1961 by Yale University Press.) Hilberg wrote back a rather indignant letter, saying he wasn't surprised, since his book does not praise the glory of Israel. He actually bordered on "blaming the victim" at one point, saying that the Holocaust would not have been possible had the Jews offered resistance.

It took over 40 years to heal that rift, but the last edition of Hilberg's work was published, in Hebrew only, by Yad Vashem, and contained thousands of new items that Hilberg had unearthed since the 1986 edition of the work. Some background on the work here from Hilberg's daughter Deborah. (Personal digression. Deborah appeared at the memorial service after Hilberg died and rambled on and on and ON about trivialities, until the assembled people were nearly united in the wish to throttle her. I was there with a friend and we both were thinking "Get the hook!" She does a much better job here. Deborah's mother, Chris Hemenway, was also a friend of mine back in the 1970s. She was not Jewish and, as far as I know, is still residing at an Episcopalian convent.)

To the lecture: Hilberg famously described the stages of the Holocaust as Definition --> Expropriation --> Concentration --> Annihilation. Michman finds that too linear. Looking into Hilberg's reminiscences, he is particularly struck by the influence of Hans Rosenberg at Brooklyn College, who impressed Hilberg with the power of bureaucracy. Hilberg wrote that the whole process, once set in motion was "unstoppable" due to the logic of a bureaucracy. That, he said, is why even non-Nazi functionaries were drawn into playing a role. Getting the trains routed to the camps was merely a bureaucratic problem to be solved. In a bit of hyperbole, Hilberg wrote that the Final Solution was inevitable once the first bureaucrat had defined "non-Aryan" in early 1933. At least, I'm sure that is hyperbole.

(Second personal digression: Back in the 1970s, when Affirmative Action was an issue on campus, aimed at making the lily-white University of Vermont more diverse, Hilberg told me that he didn't think Affirmative Action would solve America's racial problem, precisely because America had already taken the first three steps along the road to Hell. He thought that we needed to undo them one at a time in reverse order. To me, Affirmative Action looked exactly like an attempt to undo the Concentration part, but Hilberg didn't see it that way. Well, he was quite conservative on the American political spectrum.)

Back to the lecture: Michman argued that even the first two of Hilberg's categories are not an adequate explanation of the Holocaust. He pointed out that there were many ways of identifying Jews in Germany, and that individual acts of anti-semitism predated 1933. He also took exception to the Concentration portion, arguing that concentration and ghettoization have different sources and that Hilberg conflates the two of them. In particular, he doesn't accept that the Judenräte were merely a part of the Concentration.

Well, I can't summarize the rest of the hour, but these are a few of the highlights I carried away. Inexperienced as I am in this area, and in the presence of so many people who were experts, I hesitated to ask my question, which was the following: If "non-Aryan" was first bureaucratically defined in 1933, was this not a discontinuity with past practice? While it does seem extreme to say it entailed the Final Solution, what was the legal/political/social role of that concept under Weimar vs. its position under the Third Reich? Perhaps some of you here can answer that.

I was sitting next to a colleague in the German Department (the same one who had told me about the Berlin Conference last week). He, like everyone at the University, is an admirer of Hilberg, and he objected that Michman was arguing from a psychological standpoint, always a difficult thing to do in explaining history.
"Reserve a part of your wrath ; you have not seen the worst yet. You suppose that this war has been a criminal blunder and an exceptional horror ; you imagine that before long reason will prevail, and all these inferior people that govern the world will be swept aside, and your own party will reform everything and remain always in office. You are mistaken."

George Santayana, "Tipperary" (1918)

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Statistical Mechanic » Wed Oct 25, 2017 2:24 pm

Thanks for this. Michman is really good, his book on the ghettos is first rate and lays out in more detail his argument against Hilberg's schematic/linear model, which you summarized very well IMO (I sat next to Michman during two sessions at a Holocaust conference two or three years ago; he's a voluble, exciting, slightly cranky guy in person - with a lot to offer). I find Michman's "correction" to Hilberg on the ghettos very persuasive. IIRC Michman also wrote a long introduction/essay in the Yad Vashem encyclopedia of the ghettos.
. . . I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. - John Keats, 1817

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Jeffk 1970 » Wed Oct 25, 2017 2:42 pm

Thanks for sharing this, Upton_O_Goode.

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Jeffk 1970 » Wed Oct 25, 2017 5:54 pm

Upton_O_Goode wrote:To the lecture: Hilberg famously described the stages of the Holocaust as Definition --> Expropriation --> Concentration --> Annihilation. Michman finds that too linear. Looking into Hilberg's reminiscences, he is particularly struck by the influence of Hans Rosenberg at Brooklyn College, who impressed Hilberg with the power of bureaucracy. Hilberg wrote that the whole process, once set in motion was "unstoppable" due to the logic of a bureaucracy. That, he said, is why even non-Nazi functionaries were drawn into playing a role. Getting the trains routed to the camps was merely a bureaucratic problem to be solved. In a bit of hyperbole, Hilberg wrote that the Final Solution was inevitable once the first bureaucrat had defined "non-Aryan" in early 1933. At least, I'm sure that is hyperbole.


After recently finishing Hilberg’s book myself, I think it’s very valuable on the references alone. However, I get the issues with this “linear” thinking. The problem with it is it doesn’t take into account the evolution of Jewish Policy over time, moreover the fits, starts and deviation that occurred while it evolved. In many wants it turned into the “tail wagging the dog,” with, initiative coming from below and the Nazi Administration having to corral the enthusiasm of the members of the SA (early on) and the SS and other party members after Hitler suppressed the SA in 1934.

A good example of this occurred after the Anschluss with Austria, the SS and Party pillaged the Austrian Jews without restraint and as a consequence Germany lost out on the loot. Goering and the others wound up applying the Austrian experience with its Jews, the forced appropriation and deportation that until then was very scattershot.


Back to the lecture: Michman argued that even the first two of Hilberg's categories are not an adequate explanation of the Holocaust. He pointed out that there were many ways of identifying Jews in Germany, and that individual acts of anti-semitism predated 1933. He also took exception to the Concentration portion, arguing that concentration and ghettoization have different sources and that Hilberg conflates the two of them. In particular, he doesn't accept that the Judenräte were merely a part of the Concentration.


Again, agree with this. The Ghettoizing of Jews occurred due to very specific circumstances, the Nazis suddenly found themselves with millions of Polish Jews on their hands and no real plan for them.
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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Wed Oct 25, 2017 7:49 pm

Jeffk 1970 wrote:After recently finishing Hilberg’s book myself, I think it’s very valuable on the references alone.


Yeah, the references are amazing. Hilberg once told me he received a letter from a Holocaust scholar who, it was rumored, had plagiarized Hilberg's book. The scholar asked Hilberg to deny the accusation. After looking at the book in question, he suspected the alleged plagiarist had raided his footnotes and carefully written things up to make it appear that the original sources had been consulted. He did not respond to the letter. I'm glad I don't know who his correspondent was.
Last edited by Upton_O_Goode on Thu Oct 26, 2017 12:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Reserve a part of your wrath ; you have not seen the worst yet. You suppose that this war has been a criminal blunder and an exceptional horror ; you imagine that before long reason will prevail, and all these inferior people that govern the world will be swept aside, and your own party will reform everything and remain always in office. You are mistaken."

George Santayana, "Tipperary" (1918)

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby nickterry » Wed Oct 25, 2017 8:09 pm

My final-year special subject class read something by Dan Michman this week - his introduction to the Yad Vashem ghettos encyclopedia. They also read Browning's chapter on ghettos in 1939-41 from Origins, and will read a chapter of Kassow on the Warsaw ghetto plus Philip Friedman's portrait of Chaim Rumkowski tomorrow.

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby nickterry » Wed Oct 25, 2017 8:20 pm

Upton_O_Goode wrote:Yeah, the references are amazing. Hilberg once told me he received a letter from a Holocaust scholar who, it was rumored, had plagiarized Hilberg's book. The scholar asked Hilberg to deny the accusation. After looking at the book in question, he suspected the alleged plagiarist had raided his footnotes and carefully written things up to make it appear that the original sources had been consulted. He did not respond to the letter. I'm glad I don't know who his correspondent was.


I'd guess that could have been Nora Levin (1916-1989), since her book The Holocaust (1968) reads very much like a precis of Hilberg for its sourcing. Other general accounts since Hilberg's first edition don't have nearly the same emphasis on Nuremberg documents as Levin. Levin's book had no especial merits and is justly forgotten. The much maligned Lucy Dawidowicz is best known for her ultra-intentionalism, but The War Against The Jews actually has a kind of anti-Hilbergian emphasis on the Jewish perspective and mostly uses Jewish sources.
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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby nickterry » Wed Oct 25, 2017 8:30 pm

To join in the reminiscences: I met Hilberg at USHMM, in the corridor towards the library, in 2003 while a PhD student, for all of a minute or two. I was able to thank him for piquing my interest, as the first book on the Holocaust I ever read was the original edition of The Destruction of European Jews, when I was at school. I was back at USHMM in August 2007 when the news came through that he had passed away.

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Thu Oct 26, 2017 12:10 pm

nickterry wrote:
Upton_O_Goode wrote:Yeah, the references are amazing. Hilberg once told me he received a letter from a Holocaust scholar who, it was rumored, had plagiarized Hilberg's book. The scholar asked Hilberg to deny the accusation. After looking at the book in question, he suspected the alleged plagiarist had raided his footnotes and carefully written things up to make it appear that the original sources had been consulted. He did not respond to the letter. I'm glad I don't know who his correspondent was.


I'd guess that could have been Nora Levin (1916-1989), since her book The Holocaust (1968) reads very much like a precis of Hilberg for its sourcing. Other general accounts since Hilberg's first edition don't have nearly the same emphasis on Nuremberg documents as Levin. Levin's book had no especial merits and is justly forgotten. The much maligned Lucy Dawidowicz is best known for her ultra-intentionalism, but The War Against The Jews actually has a kind of anti-Hilbergian emphasis on the Jewish perspective and mostly uses Jewish sources.


Well, I carefully avoided pronouns so as not to reveal that the scholar was a woman. But it was, so your hypothesis looks very plausible.
"Reserve a part of your wrath ; you have not seen the worst yet. You suppose that this war has been a criminal blunder and an exceptional horror ; you imagine that before long reason will prevail, and all these inferior people that govern the world will be swept aside, and your own party will reform everything and remain always in office. You are mistaken."

George Santayana, "Tipperary" (1918)

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Jeffk 1970 » Thu Oct 26, 2017 3:28 pm

Just as an aside, I never liked “The War Against the Jews.” It’s been about three years since I read it, it was the “intentionalism” that turned me off. It seemed like a major stretch, by this time I’d read how the Nazi Government functioned and knew more about the Holocaust than when I started out.

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Statistical Mechanic » Thu Oct 26, 2017 3:36 pm

Nora Levin's book was one of the first general histories of the Holocaust I read; it might be why I quickly turned to primary sources and read the Black Book of Russian Jewry and the Łódź Chronicle around then. But also Primo Levi. Not to mention Maus . . . :)
. . . I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. - John Keats, 1817

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Jeffk 1970 » Thu Oct 26, 2017 3:40 pm

Statistical Mechanic wrote:But also Primo Levi. Not to mention Maus . . . :)


I really need to take some time and read Levy, I’ve heard he’s a very good writer.

I also read Maus, a friend of mine collected graphic novels and let me borrow it.

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Re: Annual Hilberg Lecture at the University of Vermont

Postby Statistical Mechanic » Thu Oct 26, 2017 3:52 pm

Jeffk 1970 wrote:
Statistical Mechanic wrote:But also Primo Levi. Not to mention Maus . . . :)


I really need to take some time and read Levy, I’ve heard he’s a very good writer.

I also read Maus, a friend of mine collected graphic novels and let me borrow it.

Levi is an excellent writer. His observations are about life in the camps, power and the social structure, moral issues in the KLs, prisoner interrelationships - not the gas chambers per se. Funny that, deniers still don't like him. Wonder why . . . ?
. . . I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. - John Keats, 1817


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