Accounting for Genocide

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization during the Holocaust by Helen Fein claims to be “an application of historical sociology, not a conventional history.” For this reason, the book suffers from schizophrenia, gravitating from well-written and often eloquent history to the turgid and almost incomprehensible language of sociology. Because the book attempts to be a sociology of the Holocaust, it apparently seeks to derive sociological principles from the experience and to use sociological principles to comprehend that tragedy. A problem from such an approach is that the author is really extrapolating from a single point. In order to avoid such a charge, Fein briefly includes a discussion of Turkish annihilation of the Armenians in 1915. Inclusion of this example of genocide does little to universalize Fein’s sociological principles or to comprehend the Holocaust, and the few pages on which she considers the Armenians could well have been eliminated from the book.

To a great extent the Nazis were able to destroy the Jewish population of Europe because they developed and rationalized a bureaucracy and a technology of death in which humanity was ignored. The humanity of Jews was denied, and Jews were abstracted into raw material to be processed. This process is poignantly described in R. Rubinstein’s The Cunning of History and, most importantly, in Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. Hilberg’s brilliant account of the technology of destruction remains a classic study of the Holocaust and of man’s inhumanity to man. Fein recognizes that the Final Solution depended on an abstraction of man: “Only by focusing on the identity of the victim and that of the perpetrator can we strip the mask of ideology and the accounting mechanisms used by perpetrators to disguise their responsibility.” However, this is precisely what is wrong with Helen Fein’s book. By attempting to devise a sociology of the Holocaust and laws or principles to explain what happened, Fein seeks to derive abstractions that quite deliberately ignore the identity of the victim and focus, instead, on a “calculus” or “mechanism” of genocide.

Moreover, the abstract language that Fein employs to give the appearance of being scientific is problematic; it ignores humanity and compassion to convey an impression that a machine and not a person has written portions of this book. Readers are treated to such statements as “If Jews were included by the dominant group within the nation-state as members with equal rights, the likelihood of Jewish victimization should be negatively related to the intensity of solidarity among members of the state.” Frequent use of language of this sort, especially in the first half of the book, makes the account unpalatable, if not indigestible.

The author’s effort at deriving principles of human interaction from the historical events of the tragedy leads to the denial of freedom and capriciousness in history. Fein argues that what happened during the Holocaust had to have happened. Yet, choices were made to persecute Jews, to refuse to assist them, to murder them. The results were not inevitable. Men could have made other choices from those they made. For example, Fein attempts to test the thesis that “differences among nation-states in the percentage of Jews victimized are positively and regularly related to the intensity of German control. When German control was greater, there were more Jewish victims than when German control was less.” First, such statements belabor the obvious. The reader, for example, is told “one’s chances of escaping many raids decline successively in a geometric ratio as raids multiply if one relies on chance alone. The evader is the person who has escaped the first raid, and the second and the third (and so on), successively.” (Fortunately, the author did not feel it necessary to explain that the person ceases to be an “evader” when he gets caught.) Second, such statements attempt to create inevitable principles out of the events of the Holocaust. Third, they attempt abstraction about events that can only be abstracted at the cost of their impact on students of the Holocaust. This is all done to give the appearance of an objective and neutral science of the Holocaust when in fact the book advances little beyond existing historical accounts, such as those of Hilberg, Nora Levin, and Lucy Dawidowicz.

While Fein could criticize Hilberg, Levin, Dawidowicz and others because they are not theoretical enough—an appropriate critique of the works of a historian by a sociologist—it can also be argued that Fein attempts to be too theoretical—an appropriate criticism of the works of a sociologist by a historian. Fein should accept the commandment that “thou shalt not commit a social science.” Such a commission becomes particularly problematic when the result is obfuscation and confusion of a subject that requires description with delicacy, clarity, and compassionate understanding.

Fein’s effort at developing a sociology of the Holocaust fortunately occupies only a portion of her book. When she moves from sociology to historical description, the book improves. Her summaries of secondary and primary sources and her many long...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)