Review of Hilary Earl and Karl A. Schleunes, eds., Lessons and Legacies, Volume XI: Expanding Perspectives on the Holocaust in a Changing World

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 1 (March 2015)

Review of Hilary Earl and Karl A. Schleunes, eds., Lessons and Legacies, Volume XI: Expanding Perspectives on the Holocaust in a Changing World (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014). Xxii + 372 Pp., ISBN 9780810130906.

By Stacy Hushion, University of Toronto

The eleventh volume of the Lessons and Legacies series reflects on the study of the Holocaust in a shifting political, social, economic and scholarly landscape. Editors Hilary Earl and Karl A. Schleunes point out that, some seventy years after the end of World War II, fundamental issues pertaining to the origins and history of the Holocaust remain divisive. The book highlights the remarkable diversity of scholarship on the Holocaust and is instructive reading for anyone seeking to keep abreast of developments and current research in Holocaust studies.

earl-schleunesThe bookend essays by senior scholars Omer Bartov and Timothy Snyder offer both critiques of current trends in the field and directions for future research. In his introductory piece, Bartov evaluates scholarly efforts of the last decade to situate the Holocaust as part of a broader phenomenon of genocidal violence in the modern world; in other words, the Final Solution is not the genocide but a genocide among others. Bartov is unsettled by attempts to compare the Holocaust to other genocides, arguing that such comparisons often obscure the particularities of the Nazi genocide and result in the erasure of the experiences of its primary victims, European Jews. Rather than understanding the Holocaust – with its enormous arsenal of scholarship and domination of popular culture – as a barrier to the study of other genocides, Bartov invites us to conceptualize it as a singular historical example of extreme violence that can in fact enrich the field of genocide studies.

Snyder likewise addresses the place of the Holocaust in a changing world but from the vantage point of geography. Snyder encourages scholars to shift the geographical centre of Holocaust research eastwards to Poland and the Soviet Union, the central homelands of prewar Jewish life and the primary landscapes in which the Final Solution was executed. In so doing, Snyder provocatively argues that the analysis of the Holocaust would necessarily move away from a disproportionate focus on German perpetrators and German-Jewish victims, who amounted to approximately three percent of those killed. However, one wonders if a primary focus on the killing (and its geography) runs the risk of reducing the Holocaust to its final murderous stage, rather than viewing it as a much longer and larger process that began in 1933. German Jews of course suffered Nazi discrimination first and for the longest amount of time, a point highlighted by Mark Roseman’s essay in this volume. Tying the Holocaust more closely to the Nazis’ expansionist and military agenda – a relationship Snyder insists is crucial to understanding how the Germans came to control the majority of European Jews – may be one way in which to balance a focus on Jewish life and death in eastern Europe without losing sight of Jewish experiences in other parts of Europe, such as Austria and Czechoslovakia, whose Jews fell under the Nazi yoke already in 1938. In shifting the research program of Holocaust studies eastwards, scholars must also take care to not erase Jewish history from Western Europe. It may alternatively be more fruitful to investigate the political, economic, social and military-strategic dynamics between the different spaces of German-occupied Europe, rather than conceptualize them as completely disconnected.

Snyder concludes with an incitement to return Holocaust studies to its “firm foundations” – traditional subjects of study such as diplomacy, foreign policy, economics, geography and military and social history – and away from the focus on culture, representation and memory of recent years. While he astutely acknowledges that our understanding of the Holocaust can only be enriched by more knowledge about its basic geographical and chronological parameters, it is worth observing that many of the essays in the volume owe something to the “cultural turn” and were only possible due to new and non-traditional theoretical and research approaches. The essays by Regina Mühlhäuser, Pascale Bos and Robert Sommer all investigate the place of sexual violence in the Holocaust, a subject largely ignored until recently. Mühlhäuser challenges historical assumptions that Nazi racial ideology (unintentionally) “protected” Jewish women from sexual assault by German men, whereas Bos demonstrates how sexual violence against Jewish women became mythologized in postwar memory culture. Sommer’s analysis of situational homosexual relationships in the camps opens up the discussion of sexual violence to include men, although it is unclear precisely what is to be gained by comparing male and female sexual slavery and the ethics of doing so.

At the same time as scholars have addressed aspects of the Holocaust previously marginalized, they have also reopened older debates and questions. Rebecca Margolis and Toni-Lynn Frederick reconsider central films of the Holocaust canon: Allied (here Canadian) footage of the liberated concentration camps in 1945 and Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary film Shoah. Both contributions demonstrate how films construct narratives of atrocity and suggest that there is still much to glean from studies of the representation and cultural transmission of Holocaust history. Margolis shows how the Canadian reels struggled to present the particularity of Jewish suffering in a national context far-removed from the actual events. Moving forward in time, Frederick recognizes the visual power of Shoah but questions the ethics of forcing survivors to relive their experiences for dramatic impact.

The impetus to reflect backwards is evident in the renaissance of the contemporary historical record. Shulamit Volkov reassesses German ideas of race in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, arguing that Jews, including the philosopher Martin Buber and prominent state figures like Walter Rathenau, found essentialist notions of race useful in conceptualizing a multi-faceted Jewish identity. Volkov’s findings prompt a reconsideration of the seemingly direct line from nineteenth-century theories of race to the Holocaust; racial discourse neither necessarily nor unilaterally signified racist ideology. Robert D. Rachlin shifts the dialogue from racial to legal discourse in his chapter and offers an expansive definition of de-Judaization, arguing that it signified not only the prohibition of Jews from the legal profession but also the excision of allegedly “Jewish ideas” from German jurisprudence. The twist was that the de-Judaization of law in fact showcased the important contributions of German Jews to long-celebrated legal discourses and institutions.

The histories of everyday life, social networks and individual experience during the Holocaust are also reflected in a scholarly hearkening back to more “personal” contemporary sources, such as correspondence, personal papers and diaries. Mark Roseman’s chapter uses diaries to argue that German Jews in the 1930s were better informed and more attuned to the political, social and cultural changes uprooting their daily lives than scholars have hitherto suggested. Relying primarily on correspondence, Manfred Gailus’s essay examines the intellectual relationship between Karl Barth, Germany’s most prominent Protestant theologian, and Elizabeth Schmitz, a theologian and schoolteacher. Deeply distressed about the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, Schmitz encouraged Barth and his students to take a firm stance against Nazi actions and policies. In 1935-6, Schmitz reproached the Protestant Church for its silence on the persecution of German Jewry in a memorandum influenced by Barth’s 1934 Barmen Declaration. Though not widely circulated, Schmitz’s text became one of the most explicit protests of the situation of all non-Aryans (and not just non-Aryan Christians). Gailus illustrates how one ordinary individual could help create a space – however limited – for protest against injustice.

The volume also draws attention to some of the ways in which present-day concerns about the “uses and abuses” of the Holocaust stimulate academic inquiry. Joanna Beata Michlic analyzes the dynamic “boom of the ‘theater’ of Jewish memory” in Poland since 1989, which has yet to slow (p. 145). She aptly demonstrates the multiple representations of the Holocaust that veer from genuine commemorative efforts to superficial mea culpas in order to gain international stature to the outright whitewashing of the past. Even today, there is not yet a clear public consensus on how to remember the Holocaust in Poland. James E. McNutt’s contribution is similarly motivated by twenty-first century politics, but in the realm of religion. McNutt returns to the figure of Adolf Schlatter, a leading German Protestant theologian and professor at the University of Tübingen. A specialist in the New Testament, Schlatter argued that Jews bore responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ and thus could not be “God’s chosen people.” Though Schlatter’s argument was by no means original, his prominence and close relationships with other important religious scholars, including Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch, helped widen his influence and spread his anti-Jewish hostility in Protestant circles after 1933. Disconcerted by the current revival of Schlatter’s scholarship by evangelical theologians, McNutt insists that Schlatter’s anti-Jewish theological legacy is not one that should be rehabilitated.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the volume is its recognition of the growing interdisciplinarity of Holocaust studies. Tim Cole, Alberto Giordano and Waitman Wade Beorn all take seriously Snyder’s call to attend to geography. Cole and Giordano’s essay uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies to map spatial patterns of dispersed ghettoization in Hungary. Their work highlights how qualitative and quantitative approaches can be complementary and offer new insights; for example, the continued presence of non-Jews in “ghetto houses” in Budapest meant that the ghetto wall was actually often the apartment wall. Beorn’s spatial approach, prompted by his visit to Krupki in Belarus to retrace the footsteps of the town’s Jewish victims, reconsiders the relationship between the scholar and his/her place of study. Beorn argues that fieldwork – a word not often associated with the historical discipline – can illuminate how space and place shaped the experience of the Holocaust. After all, the perpetrators were the first to consider geography in assessing their actions, often connecting the level of their complicity to their physical location in relation to the killing sites.

The geography of the Holocaust has expanded in other ways too, as Wolf Gruner and Esther Webman’s essays on precedents and responses to the Holocaust outside of Europe proper demonstrate. Gruner shows that by 1933, newspapers, memoirs and books had so successfully embedded knowledge of the 1915 Armenian genocide in the German consciousness that Jews and other social commentators were able to make explicit parallels between the fate of the Armenians and the persecution of Jews under Nazism. It would be interesting to know if Hitler and the other architects of the Holocaust also reflected on the Armenian genocide in their planning. Shifting to the Middle East during the Holocaust, Webman analyzes how Egyptian intellectuals and politicians vacillated between recognition of the genocide as a human tragedy and concern about the political ramifications of Jewish immigration to Palestine. By 1945, the political approach won out, and the fate of European Jews was minimized or relativized in Egyptian public discourse.

The field of Holocaust studies is simultaneously expanding and changing. Perhaps the most jarring shift is that the age of the survivor is almost at an end. What is left when there are no survivors remaining to bear witness to the past, both in terms of public education and academic research? The essays published in this volume highlight that, in fact, there is plenty left, including innovative approaches and perspectives as well as a re-thinking of questions and sources long since worked over. The mournful end of the survivor era by no means marks the end of Holocaust studies and perhaps instead offers a new resonance to this wide-ranging and dynamic field of study.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.