When I think of Raul Hilberg an image pops into my head. A man gazes thoughtfully up at an Everest of fraying documents, some manuscript, some printed, some typescript. Looming behind the monstrous pile is an elaborate Gothic structure: the interlocking bureaucratic organisations through which the Nazis effected the Holocaust. Hilberg achieved the Herculean task of reconstructing that obscene edifice from its own documents in his Destruction of the European Jews (1961, 1985). In 1979 came his study, with two colleagues, of the man who headed the Jewish Council of the Warsaw ghetto for the three years before its annihilation. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow provides an enthralling day by day account of Czerniakow’s untiring efforts to placate an ultimately implacable enemy. Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (1992) was Hilberg’s attempt to populate the bureaucratic machinery he had exposed in Destruction with living individuals – all unalike, but all participants in the Nazi programme of destruction – and to animate the categories of ‘victims’ and ‘bystanders’, too, with real people. It was, simply, a heroic achievement. Passing the Hilberg shelf in the library I would mentally genuflect, warmed by the thought of the boy refugee from Hitler who, in single combat with that mountain of documents, established the Holocaust as detailed, examinable, indisputable fact, so identifying the ‘denialists’ as fools, or knaves, or both. I imagined him in his twilight years basking in the sunlight of colleagues’ admiration and student devotion.
Then I stumbled across another Hilberg book, and discovered my serene fantasy was wrong. The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian, published in 1996, was not widely reviewed, and rarely more than politely. It upset people. A TLS reviewer diagnosed ressentiment as its ‘main structuring principle’. He especially rebuked Hilberg for having continued to denounce Lucy Dawidowicz’s silliness and Hannah Arendt’s misuse of his work beyond their respective graves, when, presumably, a decorous silence ought to have prevailed: quite a restriction on a practising historian. It’s true that Hilberg recounts his long struggle to overcome publishers’ indifference to his Destruction manuscript with bitterness: but why not? It was the fruit of 15 years’ solitary labour, and he knew its quality. I found every page gripping and many of them moving in this account of the intellectual journey of a man dedicated to an austere, impossibly demanding vocation. So what had gone wrong between Hilberg and some of his readers?
The problem is likely to be, at least in part, Hilberg’s laconic style. He says it derives from an early reading of Genesis in Hebrew and his father’s insistence that the power of language resides in brevity, reinforced by university teachers’ exhortations to expunge emotion from scholarly texts in the interest of objectivity. But for all its surface simplicity, it is both intense and tensely controlled, and demands a great deal of the reader. For example, when I read a string of mini-biographies of lesser bureaucratic personnel in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, I waited for the authorial resolution – but it did not come. The catalogue simply stopped. I realised, with some chagrin, that for Hilberg the conclusion was implicit in the sequence, and he had trusted me to see it.
Hilberg is after the Nazi beast in all its manifestations and consequences: its complex, interlocking bureaucratic structures and the range of personalities who staffed them; those who watched; those who suffered Nazi violence directly and indirectly. He is a patient hunter, but the hunt is fuelled by rage. He is unfailingly generous to those who share his reverence for the retrieved fact, but he can be unfair to scholars whose inquiries are more theoretical than his own, dismissing legitimate preoccupation with, for example, the slow evolutions and revolutions of memory as so much pirouetting. He is ready to be grateful – but not, I think, to be merely polite. He is ferociously contemptuous of people who distort the meaning of a document or the argument of a book or use the past as an adventure playground. But he is harshest with himself. He still grieves that as a young man he ‘did not always recognise the importance of every single document’ and provides a couple of instances which are clearly still painful to him.
The Politics of Memory also draws attention to the artfulness of his earlier works. Beethoven’s thematic interweavings helped structure the 12 chapters of Destruction, while the swift understanding triggered by great portraits inspired Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders. When he recalls his boyhood love of trains and his pre-atheistic fantasy that heaven might consist of endless train travel, with spirit-ghosts privileged to travel free, we flinch from the premonition of those other trains endlessly crossing Europe, crammed with ghosts, every one of them travelling free. His writings also remind us of something it is easy to forget, down among the foot-sloggers: the exhilaration of archival research. He recalls his excitement when he first contemplated a series of rooms stuffed with German records captured by the United States Army – 28,000 beautiful shelf feet of them, more than could be read in any man’s lifetime – and approvingly quotes a veteran researcher surveying local archives in the USSR and the GDR in all their chaotic splendour, who observed that ‘looking at all these files, which had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for so long, was like being at the Creation again.’ Human documents belong to humankind: hence his rage against obstructive archivists who dare refuse access to precious materials which have fallen to their care. When after years of frustration he was at last able to read the diary of Czerniakow, he felt he had rediscovered a lost world: ‘The diary became a place, a strange locality that I was entering for the first time. I was a voyeur, a ghost inside Czerniakow’s office, unobserved, and the longer I inhabited that enclosure, the more I saw.’ That sense of magical access to an apparently sealed world is a vital part of the experience of doing history.
He is subtle in recognising a ‘craving for the familiar, the habitual, the normal’, as a primary explanation for ‘how these groups managed to go on – the perpetrators with their ever more drastic activities, the victims with their progressive deprivations, the bystanders with the increasing ambiguity and ambivalence of their positions’. But the subtlety of passages such as these is elsewhere eclipsed by the force of his moral judgments, which can look startlingly stern to readers accustomed to genteel equivocation. Hilberg insists that men and women are individually responsible for what they do. All perpetrators, however ingeniously they might seek to distance themselves, were guilty; bystanders were not innocent because, knowing, they failed to intervene; even the victims were not fully innocent because too many acquiesced in their victimhood. Hilberg had studied the long and successful history of Jewish accommodation to persecution. He identified with Czerniakow in his daily struggle to preserve at least some of his people. But he knew, as Czerniakow could not, that these tactics – any tactics – could not prevail against this new kind of enemy.
His response to the mass killings caused most offence. After describing one individual’s hand-to-hand struggle on the brink of a mass grave, he reflects: ‘Spot resistance, even when objectively nothing could be lost any more, was an isolated act. The rhythm of compliant behaviour, practised over centuries, was not about to break at the sight of a ditch.’ Comments like these embroiled Hilberg in what he tagged, with characteristically biting humour, ‘the thirty-year war’ between himself and self-appointed Jewish custodians of the Holocaust. He confesses: ‘it has taken me some time to absorb what I should always have known, that in my whole approach to the study of the destruction of the Jews I was pitting myself against the main current of Jewish thought.’ He reminds us that Yad Vashem, the name of the Israeli centre for Holocaust research, translates as ‘Remembrance Authority of the Disaster and Heroes’, neatly raising more than a few questions.
Now comes his most recent and, in its way, most ambitious book. In Sources of Holocaust Research Hilberg intends to teach novice researchers how to read a Holocaust document with Hilbergian acuity. Once again reaching over the heads of fellow scholars, superbly ignoring whole libraries of scholarly angst, his stunning opening move is to declare that historical sources fall into two categories: three-dimensional ones and flat ones. Chasteningly, the distinction works. He offers five chapters – on types of material, their composition, style, content and usability – and each presents many sub-categories, because Hilberg is determined, this time, to be explicit. Nonetheless, I would urge that the book be read from cover to cover before particular chapters are plundered, to appreciate the richness of thought and experience presented here. He is especially penetrating on the perversions of language developed in Nazi-speak, as he is on all issues of language use and misuse, along with the uses of silence, while his brisk elucidation of opaque administrative terms and acronyms will spare novice researchers months of confusion. Having read Sources, we might not read documents with Hilberg’s washed eyes, but we will read them very much better than we did.
Hilberg’s style is acerbic, his humour disquiets, his directness can shock. He is also a great historian, and his influence is everywhere. Consider a recent book which on the face of it might seem to invert most of his practices and requirements. It is a small book, friendly in the hand, slipping easily into a pocket. Its title is deliberately innocuous. Like Hilberg’s the style is simple, but it lacks Hilberg’s incandescent intensity. Neighbours focuses on a single event: ‘One day, in July 1941, half the population of a small East European town murdered the other half – some 1600 men, women and children.’ There had already been spontaneous pogroms in villages around Jedwabne, so it is likely there were experienced killers among the men who attacked the Jedwabne Jews with clubs, knives, spikes, rocks, water and fire (the Germans had refused them guns), but the bulk of the work was done by local men. Jan Gross cannot reconstruct what happened that day from contemporary records, because there are none. The Germans, not long arrived in the town, permitted the action, but they neither participated nor interfered, and it appears only glancingly in their records. While some Germans soldiers were reported as filming and photographing throughout the day, none of that material has as yet been found. No municipal records survive for this chaotic period. Gross therefore works largely with memories, a category of evidence which Hilberg views with none of the reverence accorded it by most Holocaust scholars. Gross exploits the memories and the memorabilia of a rabbi who left the town in 1937; of a survivor, one of seven hidden by a Polish family, who four years later, at the end of the war, wrote an account of what happened; of testimonies given in the course of a cursory trial of some of the murderers in 1949, and again in 1953. There is also an archive of photographs in the possession of the rabbi and a ‘History and Memorial’ book compiled long after the war. And, as a documentary film-maker was to discover, memories of what had happened that July day were still vivid in the minds of local Poles in the 1990s. Hilberg proudly (and provocatively) declares himself to be ‘a brute-force man’ undaunted by abundance: ‘the more paper in the files the better.’ Gross must content himself with fragments, because there is nothing else.
It is from those fragments that he tells a terrible story otherwise lost to us, and he tells it, in my view, through Hilbergian modes of analysis and in Hilbergian terms. Hilberg’s ‘perpetrators, victims, bystanders’ distinctions are implicit throughout, and Gross is determined to uncover the dynamics of their interactions within Jedwabne’s tiny frame and in the textures of its everyday life. Like Hilberg, he is intent on allocating individual responsibility for what happened: he undertakes to be ‘particularly careful to identify who did what in the town of Jedwabne on 10 July 1941, and at whose behest.’ Like Hilberg, he brings much art to the enterprise, brilliantly deploying two categories of Hilberg’s ‘flat, visual documents’ to begin and end the book. He begins with a hand-drawn map of Jedwabne. It provides some blurry information, but not much: the script of the few captions is tiny, and in Polish. It is childlike in its simplicity – stick conifers capped by skinny triangles, cottages with all the windows inked in, a windmill, something that might be a church – and what it says most clearly is that this was once an innocent place, an implausible setting for mass murder. Gross closes the book with some of the rabbi’s rescued photographs of prelapsarian Jedwabne. They are presented with identifying captions, but without comment. Here are the butcher’s two glossy daughters, dressed to astonish. A bearded patriarch and his small neat wife sit among an efflorescence of children and grandchildren. Three sisters pose sweetly with their parents in front of what looks like a photographer’s backdrop. We look closely. We need to know which girl’s head was cut off and used as a football on the first day of the killing. It is the youngest one, the one in the middle. The one with the prim white collar.
Unlike Hilberg’s urgent forward movement, the pace of Neighbours is slow, and its connections are manifest. We are invited to consider the reliability of particular evidence; to reflect on the way small events can open large issues. But despite the differences of pace, scope and material, Gross is as successful as Hilberg in rescuing a complicated and painful past from the detail he seeks out because he is possessed of the key Hilbergian virtues: moral energy, commitment to accuracy, and the maintenance of a continuing open dialogue between historian, sources and reader. Doing history well rests on the conviction that people are moral beings accountable for their actions.