From Propagating Myths to Research: Preparing for Holocaust Education. Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Yehuda Bauer

The publicity focus on Holocaust issues in the last decade may cause one to mistakenly assume that its main aspects have, by now, been well researched. Yehuda Bauer, the director emeritus of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem explains: “To comprehend where Holocaust research is at, one must assess three very roughly defined categories of interest to the historian: the attitudes of the criminal perpetrators, the victims and the bystanders.”

Functional and Intentionalist Schools

“Due to the work of several young German historians, major progress has been made in understanding the attitudes of the perpetrators. Somewhat paradoxically, these researchers have become allies in Jewish research on the Shoah. This ‘grandchildren’ generation’s perception of the Shoah is similar to ours. Between 30 and 45 years old, they are sworn anti-Nazis. We see each other often, either at Yad Vashem or in Germany.

“Their work has convincingly clarified the motives of those behind the slaughter of the Jews. It also answers such major questions as: ‘Who were those who carried out the murders?’ and ‘What was the relationship between the central authority, Hitler and local initiatives?’

“In the past, two schools of research confronted each other: the functionalists and the intentionalists. The first claimed that murder of the Jews was not the initiative of one man or a group of people, but rather the result of socio-economic developments in German society, which had come to a dead end. These prepared the ground for radical mass murder. A leading German historian, Hans Mommsen, said, ‘All Hitler had to do was nod his head for the genocide to take place.’

“The intentionalists claimed the opposite, namely that the initiative for the murder came from the center, and ultimately from Hitler himself, on an ideological basis. In the meantime, some mainly younger German historians have concluded that ideology was indeed the driving force. In their view, the central direction provided by Hitler was the decisive factor. The historian must, therefore, investigate how this ideology developed and how Hitler played a key role as its radicalizing force without, however, denying the importance of the contribution of the functionalist school.”

Bauer elucidates: “These findings do emphasize the importance of local initiative in the execution of subsequent murders. Those sent by Nazi authorities to be butchers were people that they were certain would always propose the most radical solution, in line with the central authority’s ideology.”

Although Bauer concludes that anti-Jewish activity was first and foremost ideological, he agrees that this did not negate the important role played by economics and politics. In his view, both positions must be integrated into a more complete whole. “Overall, however, Marxism is proven wrong once again. Its idea that everything is determined by socio-economic factors is wrong. Yet, in concluding this, we are guilty of some personal injustice to Karl Marx himself, since in the third part of his main work, Das Kapital, first published in Leipzig in the 1920s, he already claimed that it is sometimes ideology that moves everything.”

The Importance of Field Research

Bauer provides details on how historians have brought proof for their theses from field research. “Dieter Pohl and Thomas Sandkuehler have done outstanding work on Galicia. Ullrich Herbert from Freiburg — to some extent the teacher of the younger historians — studied France and reached similar conclusions, as did Christoph Dieckmann on Lithuania.”

“From Israel, Sarah Bender’s research on Bialystok and Michal Unger’s research on Lodz, as well as that of others investigating the side of the Jewish victims, have confirmed these theses, as has the work of Yad Vashem researchers and American scholars specializing in this subject. Christopher Browning, who investigated Warsaw, has also confirmed these findings. Assembling all this independent research greatly clarifies the picture concerning the perpetrators.

“Christian Gerlach, a German researcher, has studied the German occupation and the mass murders in White Russia. Peter Longerich, a German scholar in London, has published an overview of German genocidal policies. Michael Wildt from Hamburg has written an important book about the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. This central office, part of the SS, largely directed the execution of the Holocaust. Adolf Eichmann was among those who worked there.

“Writing biographies of these people Wildt discovered intellectuals, ideologues and staunch anti-Semites who were ideologically motivated to carry out the mass murder. They drove the machine as opposed to merely being cogs in its wheels. Hannah Arendt was mistaken when she considered them mere bureaucrats. Yaacov Lozowick, the Yad Vashem archivist, labeled them more accurately as unusual bureaucrats.”

What Remains to be Done?

“In contrast, the history of inner Jewish life in the destroyed communities remains largely unresearched. Gerlach provides an overview of the extermination of the Jews of White Russia based on German material, but he is unable to understand the Jewish life of these communities. His studies do not prepare him for that, nor is it within the scope of his research, which focuses on the murderers.

“The same is true for Browning’s initial analysis of the German policy of extermination of the Polish Jews. Yet even regarding the murderers, we have minimal material from many countries, including the Ukraine, Greece and Croatia. On Romania, a recent book by Jean Ancel, published by Yad Vashem, provides practically all the answers we need.

“Not enough effort has been devoted to victims’ lives before they were murdered. Some studies deal with Jewish communities of big cities such as Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno, etc. It is difficult to obtain material and compare testimonies on small communities in eastern Poland and western Russia. When researching this issue myself, I found only one book which described the history of a small community in western Poland, and one dealing with eastern Poland.

“Some research had been done on Stanislawow, the first victim of the Shoah. An M.A. student from Australia has described Kolomea’s history. In the various memorial books (Yizkor Bicher), writers try to provide an overall picture of what happened. Yet since this research is of a general character, and is not based on detailed studies, it must give a distorted picture. There is no alternative but to research the details, even if that is difficult. Jews behaved differently in various places. It is important to understand what they did and how they viewed the surrounding society.”

Who were the Jews and How did They Live?

“Jan T. Gross’s remarkable book on Jedwabne focuses on the slaughter of the Jews. His conclusion, that this particular mass murder was carried out by Poles on their own initiative, is both revealing and important. Yet it doesn’t tell us who these Jews were and how they lived. One also has to ask: What was the Jews’ relationship with the surrounding community? How did they perceive the approaching disaster? How did they react to it? What happened to the very small groups which survived?

“My current research focuses on a number of such small communities in eastern Poland, such as Baranowicze. It shows how inaccurate Fiddler on the Roof nostalgia is as a description of the very difficult life faced by Jews in these communities. Shalom Cholawski has done important work on the Jewish partisans in these areas. Yet all available studies concern only isolated cases. Though most survivors have died, there are still some Jews who can give testimony about their experiences. However, very large numbers of those who passed away have left us testimony.

“The work remaining is enormous and the difficulties involved are almost insurmountable. Yad Vashem has pooled resources, exchanging material with the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. Their investigations focus partly on Russia, our partly on the Ukraine. The language problem is a major one. If one knows Yiddish, one has to learn Russian, and vice versa. Some texts are in White Russian or Ukrainian. Archives in Russia, though nominally open, are often inaccessible. The Russian authorities are usually well-disposed toward our desires, but local problems are manifold. Often local archivists think they have material we will find valuable and then make access difficult or conditional on large payments.”

Western Europe

“The role of Jewish organizations is another important subject to be studied. An excellent book by Raya Cohen covers the period from 1939 to 1942. Research on the remainder of the war years will have to be completed by someone else. Again, study in this field is fragmented. My own research, for instance, includes some work on the American Joint Distribution Committee’s role in France.

“Another under-explored subject is the Jews’ efforts to keep up their morale and culture. This happened both in Eastern Europe and Western Europe. One can quote many examples from the abundant raw material, but there is a dire need to investigate this subject in many countries, leading to a cross-country comparison.

“Sometimes Jewish reactions in different countries were quite similar. For example, the Zionist youth organizations in Poland refused from the start to collaborate with the Judenrat (the Jewish Council). This was also true in France, where the youth movements went underground in May 1942. At that time, there were anti-Jewish laws, but no physical actions against the Jews had yet been taken. Renee Poznanski has researched both the resistance of French Jews and its social and cultural aspects.

“The writing of Shoah history in Western Europe has progressed significantly over the last few years. The debate on the restitution of stolen property has been accompanied by much historical research. It has given us insights into the role of the bystanders. In Switzerland, particularly important avenues have been opened up. We now have improved insight into the role of the government and how Jewish refugees were received in the country.”

Greece and Romania

“Greece is a particularly difficult country to study, since few historians who know Greek are interested in the Shoah. One needs not only to know two types of Greek (written and spoken), but also German, Ladino and some Yiddish. Some research exists on communities such as Salonika and Yoannina, but this is not representative of Greece as a whole. In the former Yugoslavia much progress has been made; and we now have a good information base. What is available thus differs greatly from country to country.

“Romania is extremely important because there the Jews were murdered by Romanians, rather than by Germans. One has to understand how the mass murders related to the support the Germans gave to the Romanians and to their political and ideological identity, as well as the role of the local Antonescu government and the Nazis. Ancel’s recent major study in Hebrew analyzes Romania’s internal situation. His 1,300-page book is unlikely to be translated in its entirety into English, but an effort to translate at least the gist of it should be made.”

Islamic Anti-Semitism

When one asks what the study of Holocaust history can add to our understanding of contemporary anti-Semitism, Bauer refers to recent radical currents within Islam. He stresses that, in what is commonly called “Islamicism,” ideology is the prime mover, but social and economic conditions also play a significant role in its development.

“Today’s extreme Islamic anti-Semitism relates to current issues. Traditional Islamic movements, such as Saudi Wahabism, initially did not make any reference to the Jews. Nowadays Islamic societies have a major problem. They are backward, not only compared to Europe and the United States, but also in comparison with Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, China, or India.

“In their ongoing backwardness they seek a scapegoat. This they find in the West, symbolized by the Jews, an idea they took from European anti-Semitism. Radical Islamists explicitly say that one has to destroy the Jews. Their language is a mix of that of the Nazis and the Koran as the latter makes many negative comments about the Jews as Mohammed’s enemies.”

Three Murderous Utopias

According to Bauer, “In both the National Socialist and Marxist communist ideology, the liberal West’s parliamentary democracy is the enemy. The Jews are its typical expression. Radical Islam identifies the same enemy. One has to realize that not only Islamicism, but also these two other totalitarian movements, are religious in essence. All three surrender to a transcendental force while trying to escape from an inconvenient reality.

“It makes little difference whether one calls this the God of nature (the Nazis), dialectical materialism (the communists), or the Koran; their key features are similar. Islamic radicalism is the desire for a global utopia, to be achieved through violent means, which aims at global dominance. This is equally true for National Socialism and communism.

“Every universal utopia is murderous and every radical universal utopia produces radical murderers. Despite big differences between these three ideologies which have emerged over the last hundred years, these parallels exist between them. We do not know how much this radicalism has penetrated Islamic society because, in these non-democratic countries, opinion polls are forbidden.”

Egypt: The Origins of Modern Fundamentalism

“Modern Islamic fundamentalism originates in Egypt. Its main ideologist was Sayyid Qutb who returned to Egypt from a stay in the USA around 1950, abhorring Western culture. In 1954 he was incarcerated, along with many other members of the Moslem Brotherhood, by Nasser’s regime. He was temporarily released and then executed by the regime in 1966.

“Radical Islam opposes Arab nationalism and, therefore, the governments now in power in the Arab states. Among Palestinians its adherents can be found in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are both anti-Christian in nature. Their views are radically different from the extremist groups which support Arafat. The latter have to keep the loyalty of the Christian Palestinians. A similar pattern can be found in Lebanon where the Christians are an important minority. In other Arab countries, minorities are so small — in Egypt the remaining Copts are only a few percent of the population — that one does not have to show them much consideration.

“Two other Egyptian radical ideologues are Mohammed Salih al Awa and Yussef al-Karadawi. The latter now lives in Qatar. One may add to this Osama Bin Laden’s deputy, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, also an Egyptian.”

Pakistan as a Source of Islamicism

“The second major source of Arab fundamentalism is Pakistan. All extremist Pakistani Islamic organizations draw their ideas from the writings of Abul ‘Ala al-Maududi, who died in 1979. Westerners erroneously think that the future will be determined by Pakistani President Musharaf. He may well be only a passing phenomenon with no impact on his crisis-ridden country.

“Pakistani society imbues millions with extremist anti-Semitism, as was highlighted by the recent murder of Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl. The West, together with the Jews, is totally oblivious to how fanatic much of Pakistani society is and what extremist literature is published there. “Neither does the Israeli government realize that, beyond the local controversy with the Palestinians, lies a much greater ideological conflict in which extremist anti-Semitism plays a very important role. Compared with others, the Palestinians are relatively moderate. It is an absurd expectation that democracies will emerge in Arab and Islamic countries as long as such radical ideas are common.”

Genocidal Forces in Islam

“Analyses of Islamicism are important for Holocaust scholars because the Shoah exemplified how far such ideologies can lead. I have been saying for 40 years that another genocide of the Shoah type is quite possible. In radical Islam there are forces which are mentally prepared — given the power — to carry out genocide against others.

“Radical Islam is such a major source of anti-Semitism that other types become less important even though they are far from harmless. Most of the synagogue-burners in France were Moslems. The rise of neo-fascists, such as Le Pen, is also associated with dangerous anti-Semitism. In these circles one finds the Holocaust deniers. In the United States, rightist militias are a major anti-Semitic danger since they are armed.

“Anti-Semitism is also found in the extreme left, for instance among Trotskyites. One also has to fight against them, even though they are not the main danger to the Jewish people. The extreme left uses the terminology of the Islamic world. Islamicists, the extreme left and the extreme right, despite their differences, form alliances to fight the Jews.”

Islamicist Preparation for Genocide

“We have to distinguish between three man-made disasters. The first one is mass murder, which if it continued could develop into genocide, but which may stop before. Bosnia and Kosovo are examples. The second concerns national and religious confrontations, such as those in Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Macedonia, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The third category is terrorism.

“Between 1900 and 1987, according to American social scientist Rudolph J. Rummel, governments and political bodies murdered 169 million people. Of these, 34 million were soldiers, and 38 million were victims of genocide. Their ranks include the Herrero in Namibia, the Armenians in Turkey, and the Assyrians in Iraq during the 1930s. The Second World War witnessed genocide against the Jews, the gypsies and the Poles, even if the latter cases were different in nature from that of the Jews.

“Genocide cannot be stopped once it has started. One must consider beforehand how to prevent it. When one sees radical Islamicists in Pakistan and other places saying ‘Who is the great demon? The Jews!’, the threat of genocide becomes palpable!”

Holocaust Education

“Against this worrisome background, Holocaust education becomes an increasingly important challenge. Now, 50 years after the war, a sudden awareness has emerged of its necessity. Sweden’s Prime Minister, Goran Persson, was the driving force in the startup of an international project on Holocaust education. His initiative was due to serious problems of neo-Nazism among youngsters and the influence of Holocaust deniers in Sweden. This endangered the values Sweden wished to represent, those of a cultured social democracy. At the same time, there are Swedish government ministers who do not agree with his attitude.

“These concerns led Persson to initiate the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, which convened in January 2000. When I had suggested this meeting, I thought there was a one in a million chance of it happening, yet it did and it was successful. The Stockholm conference was important for the Jews, as they need allies in their battle against anti-Semitism. It was the first time in history that politicians, among them many heads of state, met to discuss education. The subject of that unique event was the Holocaust.

“Although various national leaders tried to cover up their countries’ pasts, more significant, all these leaders signed the conference’s concluding document. As a direct result of the Stockholm conference, in September 2001 there was a memorial day for Holocaust victims in Lithuania. There the designated Ambassador to Israel, a History professor, spoke openly about the Lithuanian slaughter of Lithuanian Jews.”

Apologies of Doubtful Value

According to Bauer, “The apologies of some Eastern European governments are insignificant symbolic acts, mainly designed to help those countries become NATO members. Those in power today are not the ones who murdered 6 million Jews. They can not request forgiveness for a generation to which they do not belong and which did not authorize them to seek forgiveness. Who is guilty? Not they, but those who murdered the Jews at the time. What price does an Austrian Chancellor have to pay when he finally apologizes on behalf of Austria? He is not the spokesman of the Austrian mass murderers, because he opposes their mass murders.

“Thus, we must continue to bring war criminals to trial, even if only a few very old individuals remain. Their criminal sentence is not as important as telling their story to the public. Still, if a war criminal sits in jail until the end of his days, justice has been done. This should not be confused with moral restitution, which is impossible.”

Teaching the Teachers

“The Stockholm conference resulted in an organization for Holocaust education, remembrance and research, which already operates in many countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Argentina) and is gradually spreading to others. Several of these countries, whose leaders told all kinds of ‘stories’ about their country’s Holocaust past at the Stockholm conference, have since begun Holocaust education programs.”

According to Bauer, “One has to be very careful to ensure that alien concepts do not creep into this teaching. Universalization of the Holocaust, by extending it to many other situations, is very dangerous. Only rarely is this justified, such as when the Czech Republic wished to include the remembrance of the mass murder of the Czech gypsies — eighty-five percent of whom were murdered — in its educational program. “More and more educators come to Yad Vashem to learn how to teach the Holocaust. With several countries, such as the United States and Poland, we have excellent contacts, either directly with the government or with governmental organizations. One can never be sure how far this will go. Politicians in power change. One does not know to what extent the successors of the leaders who attended the Stockholm conference will have the same interests.

“Meanwhile, the picture differs greatly from one country to another. Sometimes one has setbacks, such as the temporary attention a Jewish anti-Semite like Norman Finkelstein received with his book on the ‘Holocaust industry.’ After a few months, this publicity diminished. This phenomenon of Jewish anti-Semites goes back many centuries.”

Continuing the Struggle

“Germany is most active in promoting Holocaust education for which there is a very good reason. Given their history, they understand the importance of education as a means of preventing future disasters. The Holocaust today serves as a symbol for what we ought to oppose: racism, genocide, mass murder, ethnic hatred, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism and group hatred.

“Descartes once said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’” Bauer adds: “We should say with respect to Holocaust education, ‘we struggle, therefore we are.’ The moment we stop struggling, we stop existing.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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Yehuda Bauer was born in Prague in 1926. He is Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in 1982, remaining its chairperson until 1995. He retired in 2001 from his directorship of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, where he now serves as Academic Advisor. In 1998 he was awarded the Israel Prize. He has been a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities since 2000.

This interview by Manfred Gerstenfelds is based on Professor Bauer’s lecture delivered at the JCPA’s first Herbert Berman Memorial Symposium, “Defamation and Moral Compensation: The Holocaust and Today,” November, 2001.


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