In April, 1991, a major symposium honored one of the University of Vermont’s retiring faculty members. It paid tribute to an exceptional professor of political science. His research, including especially a monumental book called The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), arguably has made Raul Hilberg the world’s preeminent scholar of the Holocaust—Nazi Germany’s planned total destruction of the Jewish people, the actual murder of nearly six million of them, and the annihilation of millions of non-Jewish victims who were also caught in that catastrophe.
Among the many distinguished persons who honored Hilberg was filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose epic Shoah (1985) is a cinematic counterpart to Hilberg’s authoritative scholarship. Hilberg plays an important part in Lanzmann’s film. In a segment on the Warsaw ghetto, for example, he discusses the dilemmas faced by Adam Czerniakow, the man who headed the Jewish Council there. Czerniakow documented his role in the diary he kept until he took his own life on July 23, 1942, the day after the Germans began to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto by deporting its Jewish population to the death camp at Treblinka. Hilberg knows the details of Czerniakow’s life because he helped to translate and edit the Czerniakow diary.
In another segment of Lanzmann’s Shoah, Hilberg studies a different kind of document:Fahrplananordnung 587. This railroad timetable scheduled death traffic. Conservative estimates indicate that Fahrplananordnung 587, which tracks a few days in late September, 1942, documents the journey of some ten thousand Jews to Treblinka’s gas chambers.
Hilberg has spent his life detailing how such things happened. Thus, in his first appearance in the Lanzmann film, he observes that
In all of my work I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers; and I have preferred to address these things which are minutiae or details in order that I might then be able to put together in a gestalt a picture which, if not an explanation, is at least a description, a more full description, of what transpired.
In Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, Hilberg continues his unsurpassed attention to the Holocaust’s detail. His documentation of that catastrophe’s particularity forms a terribly vast description. Although no delineation, however full, could answer completely the biggest question—Why did the Holocaust happen?—this book has much of importance to say about that issue because of its novel emphasis on how the Final Solution developed.
Organized into three distinct but overlapping parts that converge, respectively, on the Holocaust’s perpetrators, its victims, and the bystanders, Hilberg’s book consists of twenty-four crisp chapters. None is even thirty pages long, but each is packed with content, filled with insight, and documented with precision. Hilberg invites his readers to explore the chapters “in any number and any order,” for they are written, he says, as self-contained modules. Hilberg’s word is good. It is possible to dip into this book at random. Its longer chapters on “Adolf Hitler” or “The Survivors,” for example, can be read as freestanding essays. The same is true of even shorter reflections, such as those on “Neutral Countries” and “The Churches.”
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Hilberg wrote on random topics and then assembled discrete pieces to create a book that is merely a compilation of unrelated parts. Composition much more subtle and significant emerges here instead, because Hilberg’s word is also good when he states that his lifelong intention has been to provide Holocaust description that is a gestalt, a configuration that goes beyond the sum of its parts but that cannot be understood well without painstaking attention to each of them.
A key ingredient in Hilberg’s gestalt is the brilliance of his own writing style. Clarity is its hallmark, but that characteristic is only the beginning. Hilberg analyzes history and probes politics with a remarkable flair for narrative. His reports often involve ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Hilberg portrays their passions and prospects, their dilemmas and decisions, with all the skill of the gifted storyteller that he is. Concurrently the reader is gripped by cultural and social inquiry the gravity of which is intensified not by overtly expressed emotion, let alone by preachy moralizing, but instead by prose that is controlled and shrewdly understated. Hilberg’s writing is all the more compelling because it remains calm, even matter-of-fact, as it marks the causes and effects of a disastrous bureaucratic process of destruction.
The effect of Hilberg’s astute writing is that readers can begin anywhere in this book, but they will discover that one chapter leads to another irresistibly. During that unfolding, Hilberg’s gestalt is further...
(The entire section is 2036 words.)