A Conscious Pariah
Raul Hilberg was born in Vienna in 1926, the only child of a cold, stolid mother and a quiet, proud father, whom Hilberg pitied and revered. In his youth Raul was a loner who took up solitary pursuits like geography, music and train spotting. His parents occasionally attended synagogue, but Hilberg was repelled by the irrationality of religion: "Already I was contrary-minded, turning away from religion, which at first became irrelevant to me and then an allergy," he recalled in his autobiography.
After Hitler marched into Vienna during the Anschluss, the Hilbergs were forced out of their apartment at gunpoint. Hilberg's father's spirit was broken after he was jailed; he told his son, "Hitler will put us to the wall." The family set off on a mad dash out of Europe, which ended a year later when they settled in Brooklyn after stopovers in France and Cuba. In 1944 Hilberg enlisted in the Army and ended up serving in a unit that swept through Germany as it was liberated; at one point Hilberg was in the Nazi headquarters in Munich and stumbled across portions of Hitler's private library. Even before he was stationed in Europe, Hilberg had followed the scattered reports telling of the incipient genocide; in 1942 he made contact with an organization that asked him to call Stephen Wise, a leading rabbi in New York City. "What are you going to do about the complete annihilation of European Jewry?" Hilberg asked. Wise, Hilberg later remembered, hung up.
After the war, as a student first at Brooklyn College and then at Columbia, Hilberg was quickly drawn to the academic study of the fate he had escaped in Europe but that many of his relatives had not. "Briefly I weighed the possibility of writing a dissertation about an aspect of war crimes, and then I woke up," he explained in his autobiography. "It was the evidence that I wanted. My subject would be the destruction of the European Jews." He was soon spending long hours in a torpedo factory in Virginia that had been transformed into a repository for countless boxes of captured Nazi archives. Hilberg's decision to study this material was not considered a professionally prudent one at the time, which may seem odd in the current era of Holocaust movies and proliferating Holocaust studies departments. But in the late 1940s and '50s, the genocide of the Jews was a subject ignored in academic circles. History books of the era focused on the cult of Hitler and the Nazi terror but generally did not identify the slaughter of the Jews as a central part of the story of World War II. In the United States, the first college-level course dedicated to the subject of the Holocaust was taught in 1974--by Raul Hilberg. More than twenty years earlier, when Franz Neumann, Hilberg's adviser at Columbia, learned of his dissertation topic, he quipped, "It's your funeral."
Hilberg's study opens with a bold statement: "Lest one be misled by the word 'Jews' in the title, let it be pointed out that this is not a book about the Jews. It is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews." Hilberg toiled for nearly a decade in the archives of the Nuremberg trials and other collections of recovered German documents. During his last lecture, which he delivered in Vermont just a few months before his death, he recalled the void that engulfed him at the outset of his research. "I was transported into a world for which I was totally unprepared," he explained in his dry, austere manner. "I would read a document, but I would not understand what it meant. The context had to be built record by record."
In Hilberg's telling, the murder of the Jews was not a product simply of Hitler's anti-Semitic rage (as Dawidowicz would later argue), nor was it preordained the moment the Nazi Party coalesced or even by the terror of Kristallnacht. "The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps." Hilberg presented a staggering picture of the bureaucratic machinery of extermination, which developed slowly over time and inundated every sector of German society--not just the Einsatzgruppen and the SS but also the finance ministry, foreign office and railways; everyone knew what was happening, and everyone cooperated.
Hilberg defended his dissertation in 1955 and submitted it to prominent publishing houses. It was roundly rejected until 1961, when a young press in Chicago, Quadrangle Books, decided to publish the work, printing it in double columns on cheap paper. From there, the massive tome began quietly and slowly to win over admirers. In a glowing review in Commentary, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote that Hilberg's book was "not yet another chronicle of horrors. It is a careful, analytic, three-dimensional study of a social and political experience unique in history: an experience which no one could believe possible till it happened and whose real significance still bewilders us." Michael Marrus, the foremost historiographer of the Holocaust, says that it is now generally agreed that before Hilberg "there was not a subject. No panoramic, European-wide sense of what had happened. That's what Hilberg provided."
In Vermont, Hilberg embraced the role of the lordly European intellectual: he was a distant and often haughty scholar who favored somber, elegant suits and gave few indications of his personal entanglement with his research. On campus, he was revered for his courses and books (altogether he wrote and edited seven volumes concerning the Holocaust). I was told by Richard Sugarman, a philosophy professor at the University of Vermont who grew close to Hilberg, that "The phrase 'spellbinding lecturer' doesn't do justice to him. Was it a little intimidating talking to him? Sure. He was not a recycled soul--he was an original."
Beyond the mountains of Vermont, however, Hilberg's achievements were generally unknown outside the scholarly community. The Destruction of the European Jews is scarcely mentioned in Peter Novick's acclaimed The Holocaust in American Life (1999), which chronicles the rise of Holocaust consciousness. For Novick it was not Hilberg but the Eichmann trial and Arendt's reporting on it that "effectively broke fifteen years of near silence." After the trial, Novick writes, "there emerged in American culture a distinct thing called 'the Holocaust'--an event in its own right, not simply a subdivision of general Nazi barbarism."