A guide to historians of the Holocaust
The Holocaust in History, by Michael R. Marrus. Hanover, N.H., and London: The University Press of New England. 267 pp. $16.50. In the preface to ``The Holocaust in History,'' Michael Marrus retells the story of the renowned Jewish historian Simon Dubrow, who, dying from wounds inflicted by Nazis in the ghetto of Riga, cries out to his fellow Jews: ``Shreibt un farshreibt! [Write and record.]'' Marrus indicates that many have done so.
Today there is a vast literature of writing on the Holocaust: memoirs, case studies, fictionalized accounts, scholarly analyses, and seemingly endless debates about how it could have happened, why many bystanders collaborated in the genocide and why so few refused to do so, how Jewish captives contributed to their own destruction, and what lessons are to be drawn from what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945.
Marrus has contributed to such discussions in such previous books as ``Vichy France and the Jews'' and ``The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century.'' This latest work is, however, somewhat different. It is an examination of the examiners, a study not of the Holocaust per se but of the historiography of its assessment - and the difficulties of coming to terms with what, to many, is so horrendous that it is both inconceivable and incomprehensible.
Marrus quotes Elie Wiesel's commentaries on the problems of understanding phenomena such as Auschwitz, which, he has said, ``defies imagination and perception; ... submits only to memory.'' He acknowledges Wiesel's contention that ``between the dead and the rest of us there exists an abyss that no talent can comprehend.'' But he argues, and demonstrates, that, while most scholars have been sensitive to such admonitions, much important work has been done to attempt to make sense out of the extraordinary crimes perpetrated during the reign of the Third Reich.
Marrus's book is composed of a series of essays that weigh the evidence garnered to support various hypotheses about the behavior of both victims and victimizers. For example, there is a lengthy discussion of anti-Semitism in prewar Europe and why it was in Hitler's Germany that it was used so effectively as a political weapon when it was France that was far less tolerant of Jews, especially in the beginning of that period.
A chapter deals with ``The Final Solution'' debate. The scholars Marrus calls ``Intentionalists,'' like Lucy Dawidowicz, argue that the destruction of the Jews was a plan that originated in ``Mein Kampf'' and continued apace until the objective was nearly accomplished. The ``Functionalists,'' such as Martin Broszat, and ``Moderate Functionalists,'' like Christopher Browing, see the policy as one that, while relying in part on Hitler's anti-Semitic rhetoric, is far more a result of internal struggles within the German government and high command than a single-minded pursuit. Marrus broadens the Intentionalist-Functionalist debate, explaining the varied interpretations of the motivations of functionaries whose complicity and participation resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews.
Other matters reviewed are the relationship of Germany to its allies, the states it had occupied, and the collaborationists in them; the character of public opinion in Nazi-dominated Europe; the victims themselves and the significance of the much-maligned Jewish Councils; the nature and extent of Jewish resistance; the actions and reactions of bystanders; and what happened after the war ended.
The attempt to cover so much interrelated ground in a relatively short book is both impressive and disconcerting. One gets a very clear sense of Marrus's view of the major concerns of historians of the Holocaust and how the works of those he cites fit into his typological scheme. Such an approach makes the book an especially useful guide to its historiography. Yet, some of the scholars whose works he cites may feel he oversimplifies their approaches (if not their findings) to achieve more paradigmatic purity than may be warranted.
Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.