(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Born in the Czech city of Prague, Yehuda Bauer escaped the Holocaust when he and his parents immigrated to Palestine in 1939. Nevertheless, Nazi Germany’s destruction of European Jewry marks his life, for after serving in Israel’s 1948-1949 War of Independence and completing his doctoral studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, this Jewish scholar became a leading historian whose work does much to define Holocaust studies.

Bauer’s book is not a history of the Holocaust but “an attempt to rethink categories and issues that arise out of the contemplation of that watershed event in human history.” Rethinking the Holocaust requires what he calls “historiosophy,” a term denoting investigations within the territories where philosophy and Holocaust history intersect. Focusing on how the Holocaust happened and why, Bauer identifies key implications of that dark chapter in human experience. His inquiries also shed light on his own methods and concerns. As the work unfolds, it becomes apparent that a mature scholar seeks to restake his claim to ideas and interpretations that he fears will be distorted, overridden, or eclipsed by scholarly competitors.

To support these claims, consider five themes that distinguish Bauer’s outlook: The Holocaust remains unprecedented. The Holocaust is, at least in principle, explicable. If scholars probe why the Holocaust happened, a task that many of them tend to avoid, anti-Semitism looms large. The Holocaust is best understood from a Jewish perspective. Study of the Holocaust involves political aims.

First, Bauer defends the Holocaust’s uniqueness, although his rethinking makes him prefer the term “unprecedentedness” instead. By switching terminology, he tries to elude a criticism, namely, that the concept of uniqueness lacks meaning because all historical events are particular and therefore unique in one way or another. Bauer contends that this criticism is neither telling nor helpful, for it overlooks the point that sound analysis entails comparison of historical events. When comparison takes place, and one event exhibits an element—especially one of immense importance—that all others lack, then a claim for that event’s uniqueness, far from being trivial, is appropriate and significant. Bauer hopes to avoid misunderstanding by using “unprecedented” instead of “unique,” but the change reaffirms the Holocaust’s uniqueness nonetheless.

To advance his claim about the Holocaust’s unprecedentedness, Bauer acknowledges that the Holocaust was a genocide, but he also argues that much more needs to be said to answer the question, “What was the Holocaust?” As the term “genocide” is commonly used, it refers primarily to the destruction of a national, ethnic, or so-called racial group. Genocide, however, does not necessarily mean that the murder of every single member of such a group is intended, but that was the fate that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers had in mind for the Jews. In ways never seen before or since, says Bauer, Nazi ideology, a “pure fantasy” that combined racial anti-Semitism with belief in a global Jewish conspiracy to control the world, condemned Jews “anywhere in the world” to death “just for being born,” and murdered them in killing centers that were brought “to a totally new stage of development.”

Second, if the Holocaust is unique, especially in the sense that no event before or since has been driven by such lethal intentions, then it could be argued that the Holocaust defies explanation. The brutality involved was so senseless, the vastness of the catastrophe so immense, the suffering of the victims so devastating that we are at a loss to understand how the Holocaust could happen. Bauer rejects such reasoning. Far from making the Holocaust inexplicable, the Holocaust’s unprecedentedness depends on the fact that its horror was unleashed by one group of human beings and inflicted on another. Unless it is claimed that human beings cannot be understood, which it is not, the Holocaust can be comprehended by historical analysis because it was a human event from start to finish.

Up to a point, Bauer realizes that his position about the Holocaust’s intelligibility involves problems. Thus, he underscores that he is not saying that anyone has fully comprehended how the Holocaust happened and why. He stresses that historians develop interpretations and theories to explain events. Not only do these efforts involve alternative and even competing views, but the historians’ accounts do not—indeed cannot—encompass everything. They are incomplete, subject to correction as errors are discovered, and destined for revision as new evidence is found.

Bauer hedges his bets on the degree of explicability one can expect, but still his analysis does not probe deeply enough. Because...

(The entire section is 1969 words.)