Living History

On Raul Hilberg’s The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian


As a child refugee from Europe at the outset of the Second World War, Raul Hilberg escaped with his parents to Paris, then Cuba, before settling permanently in the United States. This traumatic exile formed the basis of a lifelong preoccupation, by turns both emotional and intellectual, which culminated in the publication of his most noted work: The Destruction of the European Jews. His short 1996 memoir, The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian, tells the story of his life.

Hilberg’s autobiography charts the progression of his book from its original inception to its long and troubled road to publication. The multi-volume study was the first of its kind: an attempt to make sense of hundreds of thousands of original historical documents held in archives all over the world. It was a graduate paper that became a Master’s Dissertation, a Master’s Dissertation that became a doctoral thesis. Its method stemmed from political science classes Hilberg attended at Brooklyn College, specifically a series of lectures by Hans Rosenberg, an expert on Prussian bureaucracy:

“He spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, and each lecture was a chapter. In his presentations the bureaucracy became an organism. Its cells underwent amalgamation and interfusion as it took root in the territorial domain of the state, evolving and developing with a tenured meritocracy into an indispensable and indestructible system. As I listened to his lectures I began to identify ‘government’ more and more with public administration, and I became aware of the concept of jurisdiction, that bedrock of the legal order, which appeared to be both the basis and the basic tool of the bureaucrats.”

Hilberg began to ponder how the legacy of Prussian bureaucracy shaped the processes of Nazi Germany, and ultimately enabled the atrocities of the Holocaust:

“These potentates were an unstoppable force. As administrators they would always follow precedent, but if need be they would break new ground, without calling attention to themselves or claiming a patent, trademark, or copyright. The bureaucracy was a hidden world, an overlooked world, and once I was conscious of it I would not be deterred from prying open its shuttered windows and bolted doors.”

Hilberg’s study pursued a mysterious paper trail that, with the spread of Nazi Germany across Europe, transgressed national and cultural boundaries. He studied the documented evidence of the Holocaust, and identified the three key stages of its implementation: identification of the victims, their separation, and their extermination. He drew attention to documents and evidence that had never before been examined, some of which was politically contentious. For example, Yad Vashem purportedly turned down the opportunity to publish his study in light of evidence of Jewish collaboration.

War Documentation Project

Raul Hilberg at his home in Vermont
Raul Hilberg at his home in Vermont

The historian also records his struggle to find secure employment during the writing of his work, and his opportunity to work for the United States government as part of its War Documentation Project. The project, which was based in Alexandria, Virginia, was housed in a converted torpedo tube factory. Hilberg worked as part of a team to read and examine captured German records from the Nazi era, which ‘filled 28,000 linear feet of shelf. Each piece of paper was in its original German folder […] It took one glance at all these documents to realize that their contents could not be read by one individual in a lifetime’.

The War Documentation Project was part of a concerted effort to gather intelligence about the USSR during the onset of the Cold War. It was known that German military had gathered information about a range of subjects, ‘including the morale of the Red Army and the civilian population’. Interest in the Third Reich itself had waned in light of new perceived threats, and the West did not wish to dwell on the depressing realities of wartime atrocities.

During this period a number of prominent Nazi soldiers, scientists and officials were granted leave to remain in the United States. Their insights and expertise were deemed to be useful to the national effort, and so the atrocities alleged against them were overlooked or forgotten. Hilberg remembers a number of Nazi officials granted sanctuary by the US War Documentation Project, including one Gustav Hilger, ‘an official of the German Foreign Office during the Nazi regime’. Hilberg writes that during the Second World War,

“[Hilger] had processed the reports of killings by Security Police for Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, and who had also been the conduit for plans to deport the Jews from northern Italy.”

Hilger was not the only one:

“There was also a German colonel who taught some American military officers in a room next to ours. One of my young colleagues, who was excited about intelligence work and national security, was tempted to look into the German personnel folder of the colonel, which was kept in our building. He showed me the record and asked me to explain the colonel’s assignments on the eastern front. I could see immediately that our German neighbor had been the transport officer of the Eleventh Army at the time in 1941 when that unit lent the Security Police enough trucks to transport ten thousand Jews from the Crimean city of Simferopol to a shooting site. The Jews could then be killed quickly enough to allow the German army to enjoy Christmas without their presence.”

Arendt and the ‘Banality of Evil’

Hilberg’s memoir is always aware of the fragile relationship between past and present, between events and the histories we write about them: ‘The words that are thus written take the place of the past; these words, rather than the events themselves, will be remembered.’ This difficult realization prompts Hilberg to take a strong view on those who, in his opinion, misread or misinterpret history and the evidence that remains.

Of Hannah Arendt, author of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hilberg is critical. The book, based on five articles originally published in the New Yorker, is indebted to a number of historians, yet none are credited in the footnotes. Hilberg spots other ommissions: ‘[Arendt] left Jerusalem after a stay of ten weeks, just three days before Adolf Eichmann’s own extensive testimony began’.

But Hilberg’s greatest reservation about Arendt’s book is its subheading: ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’. The expression, for him, is not only misleading, but risks diminishing and minimizing the actions of the perpetrators:

“She referred to [Eichmann’s] ‘self-importance,’ expounded on his ‘bragging,’ and spoke of his ‘grotesque silliness’ in the hour when he was hanged, when—having drunk a half-bottle of wine—he said his last words. She did not recognize the magnitude of what this man had done with a small staff, overseeing and manipulating Jewish councils in various parts of Europe, attaching some of the remaining Jewish property in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia-Moravia, preparing anti-Jewish laws in satellite states, and arranging for the transportation of Jews to shooting sites and death camps. She did not discern the pathways that Eichmann had found in the thicket of the German administrative machine for his unprecedented actions. She did not grasp the dimensions of his deed. There was no ‘banality’ in this ‘evil’.”

Living History

Hilberg settled into a career teaching political science at the University of Vermont, but his work on the Holocaust was never done. In The Politics of Memory, he writes that each new edition of The Destruction of the European Jews was an opportunity to add new material, new evidence that he had discovered on trips to Israel, Germany and several other locations. He talks about the resistance he faced with the publication of subsequent editions, as evidence he discovered of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis became the subject of media attention. Hilberg also discusses his other work on the subject, including his book Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, and his decision to participate in Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary, Shoah.

Lanzmann’s documentary is remarkable for its refusal to use historical footage or dramatic reenactments to tell the story of the Holocaust. Instead, it blends contemporary (1970s-80s) footage of historical locations, while survivors, witnesses and perpetrators tell their stories on camera. Hilberg mentions Lanzmann’s conviction that ‘To portray the Holocaust […] one has to create a work of art’. This conviction acknowledges the impossibility of bringing the past back to the present, and the fragile relationship we have with our own collective histories. But in approaching its subject matter from an angle, other insights can be gleaned.

Reading Raul Hilberg’s fascinating autobiography, one cannot help but think that the story of this man’s life is, in a sense, a story of and about the Holocaust. While his historical work aims to approach the Holocaust directly, through tangible documents and recorded processes, his memoir is doing something different. In The Politics of Memory, we do not only see the struggles of an academic in a fiercely political environment, but the way the Holocaust continues to affect and colour cultural, historical and intellectual life in the twenty- and twenty-first century.


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