Raul Hilberg & The Distance of Victims

Gustav Seibt on the great Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who died last week (originally in Süddeutsche Zeitung, trans in signandsight.com).


When Hilberg’s main work, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” came out in the USA in 1961, practically no one recognised its importance. It seemed to be a history in which the victims had no face and the perpetrators no physiognomy. No one, not even even astute contemporaries like Hannah Arendt, recognised that precisely these two characteristics – the distance of the victims and the intangibility of the perpetrators – were essential conditions of the historical process of the extermination of the Jews.

In Germany, similarly, Hilberg’s achievement initially met with little response. German historical writing had concentrated on the spectral leaders of the Third Reich, to whom it attributed superhuman powers in pushing through their saturnine goals. These goals were then precisely ordered in terms of the history of ideologies. In this context, analyses of the network-like, multi-polar structure of modern management practices were of no interest. On the side of the victims, equally, Hilberg met with bitter criticism for his rather casual treatment of their resistance. Until today, “The Destruction of the European Jews” has not been published in Israel.

Consequently it took an incredible twenty years before Hilberg’s work – which had been consistently brought up to date – was brought out in German, the language in which the vast majority of its sources were written. The small publisher promptly ruined itself in the process. And an additional twenty years had to pass before its author was honoured in Germany with two prizes and an order of merit.