A Conscious Pariah | The Nation


A Conscious Pariah

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Raul Hilberg was known for cultivating enemies. During faculty meetings at the University of Vermont, where he was a professor of political science from 1956 to 1991, the renowned historian of the Holocaust would unfailingly denounce the consensus position, whether it concerned faculty appointments or vacation policy. "He was an intensely stubborn and contrary person," one of his old colleagues told me. In The Politics of Memory, an autobiography published in 1996, Hilberg dedicated a chapter to attacking fellow historians whose work he considered derivative or misguided. Among those admonished was Lucy Dawidowicz, a popular Holocaust scholar and author of the emotional bestseller The War Against the Jews (1975); Dawidowicz provided "vaguely consoling words" that "could easily be clutched by all those who did not wish to look deeper," Hilberg complained.


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Nathaniel Popper
Nathaniel Popper is news editor of the Forward.

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But no one who wrote about the Holocaust nettled Hilberg more than Hannah Arendt. Hilberg's anger toward the German refugee and New York intellectual erupted with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt told the tale of Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for implementing the Final Solution, against the backdrop of his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. (Eichmann was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina in May 1960. His trial in Jerusalem began in April 1961, and he was executed in May 1962.) Arendt's study was serialized in five installments in The New Yorker in the spring of 1963 and then quickly published in book form in May of that year by Viking Press with its now infamous subtitle, "A Report on the Banality of Evil." The work has attained a mythic status. Penguin publishes it in two inexpensive paperback editions--one a "Penguin Classics" and the other a "Great Ideas" version that, with its matte blue-and-white cover, is attractively designed for display next to cash registers as an impulse buy.

Hilberg died in 2007, and among the private papers he left to the University of Vermont library is a box stuffed with materials about his scholarly antagonists. Folders filled with Arendt clippings occupy half of the tightly jammed container. There is also a brown accordion folder holding two crisp copies of each of the five issues of The New Yorker in which Arendt's study of Eichmann was serialized. Hilberg was obsessed with Arendt's dispatches because two years before their appearance, with the Eichmann trial under way, he had published his own magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, a multivolume work that is still widely considered in scholarly circles to be the first great history of the Holocaust and the cornerstone of Holocaust studies. "No other book will ever be, by my hand, annotated to such a degree," Claude Lanzmann remarked in 1993, eight years after the release of his epic film Shoah. "A beacon of a book, a breakwater of a book, a ship of history anchored in time and in a sense beyond time, undying, unforgettable, to which nothing in the course of ordinary historical production can be compared." (Hilberg is the only historian to appear in Shoah, which documents victims' and perpetrators' direct experiences of the Holocaust.)

As Hilberg read Arendt's articles about Eichmann, he noticed a number of striking similarities to his own research. He tallied them on an accounting spreadsheet stored in the accordion folder with the New Yorker issues. At the bottom of the spreadsheet he divided the instances into "cert." and "prob." and penciled hash marks next to each category. Among the flagged passages is Arendt's account of the plight of Bernard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest in Berlin who was condemned to a concentration camp after speaking out against the deportation of the Jews. Hilberg noted the page on which Arendt's version appeared and next to it wrote, in red ink, "verbatim."

Hilberg had discovered Lichtenberg's story in Nazi foreign office files, and he recounted it in his book in what were, for him, unusually emotional terms: "Dompropst Bernard Lichtenberg of St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin, dared to pray openly for the Jews, including those who were baptized and those who were unbaptized." Arendt told Lichtenberg's tale in the third New Yorker installment as a parenthetical aside in the story of a deported minister: "A similar fate befell the Catholic Dompropst Bernard Lichtenberg, of St. Hedwig's Cathedral, in Berlin." Lichtenberg, Arendt wrote, "had dared to pray publicly for all Jews, baptized or not." In his book Hilberg footnoted the document from which he drew the anecdote; in The New Yorker Arendt gave no indication of her source--one of many similar instances.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem Arendt was a little more forthcoming about her debt to Hilberg. The book includes a note on sources in which she describes The Destruction of the European Jews as "the most exhaustive and the most soundly documented account of the Third Reich's Jewish policies." There are five quotes in the book followed by a discreet "(Hilberg)," including a few she had not sourced to him in the New Yorker series. Still, many facts reported by Hilberg that appeared without attribution in Arendt's magazine pieces remained uncredited to him in Eichmann.

Hilberg stopped documenting Arendt's borrowings on his spreadsheet after he read the third installment, but "verbatim" was not his last word about the series. Years later, in a letter also found among his papers, he explained to one of Arendt's biographers, Elzbieta Ettinger, that he had "noticed what she had done as soon as I read the installments in the New Yorker." He continued, "A lawyer of my publisher at the time asked me to draw up a list of items she had lifted. I found about eighty, but he also said that I would have to prove that she could not have obtained the information anywhere else. That proof I could not supply, except in such instances as an error of spelling that she had copied." In The Politics of Memory, Hilberg dedicated a few pages to Arendt and obliquely mentioned that others had commented on her mostly invisible reliance on his research; he also averred that her work "consisted only of unoriginal essays on anti-Semitism, imperialism, and general topics associated with totalitarianism." Despite his derision, Hilberg declined to publicly air his grievances. As a result, the scale of Arendt's debt to him has remained largely unknown.

Hilberg's indignation, as well as his decision to hold his fire, testify to the complex psychology of a Jewish man whose life had been threatened by the rise of Nazi terror but who managed to escape Europe and the Holocaust and lived thereafter with the resulting burden of guilt and luck. Arendt took a similar path out of Europe and carried much of the same emotional shrapnel. Hilberg and Arendt never met, in part because of his lingering bitterness toward her, but the strands of his research that she wove into her writing are only the most telling instances of the profound ways in which the two thinkers' lives and ideas were intertwined. Both studied the problem of political evil in the twentieth century--Hilberg its social machinery in Nazi Germany, Arendt its origins in political systems like totalitarianism--and wrestled with the dilemma of the Jew in the twentieth century. Perhaps most important, at the core of their books about the Holocaust is a deep disappointment over the lack of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. After the war, both Hilberg and Arendt fashioned themselves as defiantly strong Jews, in contrast with their vision of the weak Jews they had left behind, and yet both remained fascinated by the story of those who were killed.

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