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Response to Review of Debates on the Holocaust

First I would like to thank Professor Michman for taking the time to read and engage with my book so thoroughly. It is clear that he would have written a very different book to the one that I produced, and I hope it is not too trite a response to say that this perhaps bears out the founding observation of Debates on the Holocaust (and it is hardly an original thought) that historians read and write History in very different contexts. As I say on page nine ‘this book might be nothing more than an autobiographical account of the development of my understanding of the Holocaust’. It is hardly less trite to reiterate that surveying Holocaust historiography in some 300 pages is an impossible task and as such anyone undertaking it is bound to fail. This is not least because there are some major contributions to Debates on the Holocaust which have been published since my book, including of course Professor Michman’s extraordinary study of ghettoisation. As such it is inevitable that reviewers will to a certain degree focus on what is not in the book, and in doing so they will highlight deficiencies which are to an extent unavoidable because the exercise of writing a book like this demands some form of selection. In this case I do rely almost entirely on English language scholarship.

As such in my response I am not going to deal with the account of what is not in Debates on the Holocaust but to try and explore further what the book tries to do and say. To deal first with what seems to me to be Michman’s most serious criticism of my work, that my attempt to survey scholarship which deals with Jewish responses to Nazism contains ‘a gross misrepresentation’. It is disappointing that he uses this intemperate phrase after a quotation which misses out a qualifying sentence, and in doing so obscures the argument that I had been trying to make. Michman suggests that I state ‘the historiography of Jews and Jewish behaviour under the “Final Solution” has therefore developed problematically since the end of the war … this is an historiography defined almost by its absence’. In doing so he suggests that my argument is that there has been no scholarly engagement with Jewish society under Nazism. Of course that would be absurd. But that is not what I was trying to argue at all. Instead this chapter claims that there was a discernible tendency (more prevalent in the immediate aftermath of war when many documents such as ghetto diaries were first published) to represent documentary material produced inside victim communities without apparent scholarly intervention, as offering somehow a simple window through which we can access the past. That the publication of such material often disguised substantial editing seems to me to be evidence of a perceived need to deny the necessity of scholarly interpretation (from whatever discipline) and allow the past somehow to speak for itself. This argument is made within the context of a wider discussion throughout Debates on the Holocaust of how Holocaust scholars use the documents and traces of the past with which they work. So what I actually say on page 263 of Debates on the Holocaust is ‘the historiography of Jews and Jewish behaviour under the “Final Solution” has therefore developed problematically since the end of the war. The documentary material was treated with understandable reverence , and as such this is an historiography defined almost by its absence’ (emphasis added). This may well be clumsily phrased, but I am certain that the reader would understand the interpretative point that was being made, if only because of the discussion the preceded it. Now that argument may well be wrong, that is for others to decide, but I think it important that it is properly represented.

One of the great challenges in writing any work of history is how one imposes order on the chaos of the past. In Debates on the Holocaust I chose to do this by using particular texts or ideas that represented particular moments in time, in order to convey some sense of the development of Holocaust studies. But I was acutely aware that a chronological narrative is as impossible as it would be misleading, so the chronological development of the book is subverted deliberately throughout. This is not done just, to quote Dan Michman to ‘suit the argument being made’ but to try and give some sense of the context in which some important works should be read and to make the (perhaps painfully obvious) point that forward marching narratives just don’t work. At the same time the historian also has to traverse a landscape which has been drawn by others before. Because of this it seemed impossible to avoid Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem not least because it has so frequently been identified by others as a turning point in Holocaust studies – as the moment when ‘the silence’ was breached. But of course my book rejects the idea of a post-war silence and as such my use of Arendt was not to suggest that her interpretation somehow came out of a clear blue sky but that she gave voice to some of the scholarship of the previous decades, in other words to make precisely the point that Professor Michman suggests that I don’t make: that Eichmann in Jerusalem cannot be divorced from the scholarship of the immediate post-war era. Locating Eichmann in Jerusalem does indeed ‘undermine the chronological division’ of the book, that is in fact the whole idea. That this argument has been obscured by the division of the book into separate chapters perhaps says something powerful about the impact that the form of representation has on understanding of its content.

However, something did change for Holocaust studies around the time of the Eichmann trial, even if the characterization that it somehow broke the silence is misleading. And it would be impossible to deny that Eichmann in Jerusalem had a forward resonance too. What changed was the emergence of the idea of the Holocaust as a particular epoch (the word event is misleading), and alongside this the emergence of particular ‘metanarratives’ to explain it. The court-room, it seems to me, offers a way into understanding those narratives, which to some extent emerged from attempts at prosecution and of course defence. Intentionalism was related to a search for personal responsibility, and functionalism to an extent to an evasion narrative. This does not mean that I am suggesting Arendt’s Eichmann bequeathed ‘functionalism’ indeed I acknowledge that her analysis is ‘somewhat awkwardly’ related to it on p. 53. Rather I am offering the reader a way into understanding an interpretative position which emphasises structure above agency.

The narrative of the book breaks down again in chapter three when I move attention away from the perpetrators and perpetration of the Holocaust to the so-called ‘bystanders’. As someone who came to the study of the Holocaust through its bystanders, I am acutely aware of the problems of this term. As a consequence I think it is vital that we achieve some conceptual clarity when we use it, as to who the ‘bystanders’ are in the past. As I say in the book, I cannot accept the implied definition that the ‘bystanders’ were simply all who were neither victims or perpetrators (as if those are entirely inelastic categories anyway). As such I operate a clear and narrow definition of the ‘bystanders’ as those who looked on and stood by from afar. I think it entirely plausible to consider the international community, including the Vatican, in one category (whether one accepts the terminology bystander or not). But I think it stretches the boundaries of that categorisation to meaninglessness to include those ordinary citizens who were literally the witnesses to destruction inside Nazi-occupied Europe. As I say on p. 89 it is not helpful to include the residents of Mauthausen in the same moral, historical and political schema as the officials of the British Foreign Office. As such when Professor Michman suggests that they are not present in this chapter he is quite right, and this is deliberately so. The omission of European debates about those who were present on the ground, the witnesses to the deportation and destruction may be a shortcoming of the book, but I cannot accept that they should have been included at this particular point. It is worth noting that I do point to work which is recreating those kind of intimate histories of the Holocaust, but towards the end of the book.

The rest of the book concerned with the perpetrators and perpetration of the Holocaust tries to chart the extraordinary impact of global political changes on Holocaust studies and posits that this has led to the breakdown of ‘metanarratives’ of the Holocaust. Professor Michman does not agree, but I am not convinced that any of the works that he suggests propose the kind of singular all-encompassing explanations for the Holocaust that I have defined as ‘metanarratives’. Indeed, I am attracted to Wulf Kansteiner’s interrogation of Saul Friedlander’s work as a radically destabilising text. Equally it seems to me the extraordinary statistic that Michman provides at the beginning of his review, that Yad Vashem’s library is augmented by 4000 items a year, is evidence enough that singular characterizations of the Holocaust can no longer survive.

What I have tried to do is suggest that what we have seen in Holocaust studies in recent years is also a rediscovery of the different contexts in which the Holocaust can be understood. One of those contexts is provided by comparative work on colonialism and genocide. Professor Michman is probably correct when he says that I deal too quickly with scholarship in this area and on the relationship between genocide and Holocaust studies. Indeed that does seem perhaps the urgent challenge, and the need I point to on p. 310 to ‘integrate studies of the Holocaust into a general understanding of the history of genocide’ does to my mind remain, despite recent important work. However, I cannot recognize his characterisation that a politicised field of genocide studies, and particularly the emphasis on colonialism, is somehow detracting from the understanding of the Holocaust that has previously been established. This is not a judgment of historical interpretation but an historiographical one. The point that Debates on the Holocaust is trying to argue above all else, is that Holocaust history-writing has always been (and is, and will remain) in the widest sense of the word, political in some ways. This is, as I stress in the book (probably rather repetitively), not to say that Holocaust history-writing has no relationship with the past or anything as silly as that, but that it is anchored in, and speaks to, the present. As such the book, is an attempt to chart the political contexts in which some history writing has been written and articulated. It seems to me as much a political and ethical judgment, for example, to say the Holocaust should not be considered in a certain context, as it is clearly to say that it should. As such it is not that the field of genocide studies has become politicised but that the fields of Holocaust and genocide studies always have been and remain political.

Professor Michman is of course correct when he identifies my sympathies with recent efforts to integrate the Holocaust into histories of colonialism and to explore the relationship between colonialism and genocide. Indeed, my latest project investigates a case of genocide in the British Empire and then charts its memory down to the present day, including its interactions with memories of the Holocaust.