Truth’s Other: Ethics, The History of the Holocaust, and Historiographical Theory After the Linguistic Turn

Michael Dintenfass. History & Theory. Volume 39, Issue 1. February 2000.

The most telling sign of the seriousness of the challenge of the linguistic turn to working historians’ notions of historical knowledge has been the animated affirmations of history as a project of faithful reconstruction that it has elicited from some of our most accomplished students of the past. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob make a “curiosity about what actually happened in the past” the distinguishing mark of historical inquiry in their well-known response to post-structuralism and deconstruction, Telling the Truth about History. Richard Evans, in his aptly titled In Defence of History, identifies history with the “reconstruction of past reality.” In her spirited protest against “postmodernist history and the flight from fact,” Gertrude Himmelfarb rallies to the historian’s “strenuous effort … to reconstruct to the best of his ability the past as it ‘actually was.'” Omer Bartov likewise associates the study of the past with the “attempt to reconstruct reality.”

No past event figures more prominently in these polemics against postmodernist theories of historiography than the Holocaust. Here the fate of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945 serves as a limit case that any tenable account of historical representation must accommodate. In the discourse of the defenders of history as a reconstructive enterprise, the gas chambers constitute a fixed point of reference for the assessment of historiographical theories in the face of the uncertainties introduced by the linguistic turn.

Appleby et al. invoke the Holocaust at the beginning of Telling the Truth to show what is at stake in “current controversies over national history, scientific integrity, and the possibility of achieving truth and objectivity in human knowledge of the past.” “The disturbing efforts of some groups to deny the reality of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,'” they write, exemplify “a more general set of issues about the purposes and responsibilities of history.” In the narrative Appleby et al. construct of Western epistemology the Holocaust figures as a temporary brake upon the descent from the belief “that truths about the past are possible, even if they are not absolute,” to “a pervasive lack of confidence in the ability to find the truth or even to establish that there is such a thing as truth.” “The killing of the Jews,” they write, “seemed to show that absolute moral standards were necessary, that cultural relativism had reached its limits in the death camps.”

Evans and Himmelfarb both turn to the Holocaust in their respective efforts to uphold the integrity of historical inquiry against the threat from the linguistic turn. Defending history as “an empirical discipline” that by means of “the sources” and “the methods” with which they are handled can “approach a reconstruction of past reality that may be partial and provisional, and certainly will not be objective, but is nevertheless true,” Evans rails against “the hyper-relativism of the postmodernists.” “This kind of extreme relativism,” he inveighs, “makes it impossible … to say that a Nazi or fascist interpretation of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ which conceded it actually happened could be any less valid than any other interpretation. Total relativism provides no objective criteria by which fascist or racist views of history could be falsified.” Himmelfarb too subjects what she takes to be postmodernist history’s “denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past” to trial by Auschwitz. She allows that proponents of such a historiography have

with much sensitivity and agonizing … considered the implications of their theories and techniques, trying to avoid the suggestion that they are casting doubt on the narratives and “emplotments” of the Holocaust, still more on the reality of the Holocaust itself … Yet committed as they are to a theory that repudiates any “realist” or “essentialist” notion of facts, that sees history (the past itself as well as the writing about the past) as inevitably “fictive,” it is only by an “inordinately circuitous and abstract” mode of reasoning … that they can elude the most relativistic consequences of their theory—if not the denial of the fact of the Holocaust, then a denial of any objective truth about it.

For Bartov, “the question of whether the gas chambers existed or not” is the question by which all historiography, traditional, modern, and postmodern, must stand or fall. “It is by applying whichever theory of historical explanation we consider useful and accurate to Auschwitz,” he tells us, “that we can test its validity. If we accept that Auschwitz happened in history, then theoretical generalizations that do not apply to it cannot apply anywhere else.” But if “historical reconstruction” is called into question, Bartov continues, then “the very nature of truth” is put in jeopardy. For if the existence of the gas chambers “can be doubted, or if it is a relative issue open to multiple emplotments,” then every human being is confronted “with the peril of losing control over truth, of not being able to distinguish between what is false and what is true, of plunging into a dangerous abyss of openended relativity, wherein there is no objective reality, but a multitude of subjective views, all legitimate.”

The appropriation of the Holocaust as the touchstone of historiographical theory is most visible in the controversy about the inexpungeable textuality of historical discourse that Hayden White initiated with Metahistory in 1973. Though White first asserted the inescapable literality of historical narrative through a reading of the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, for more than a decade now the conflict over the constructedness of historical reconstruction has been located largely on the terrain of the Holocaust. White’s, in fact, is the name that Bartov, Himmelfarb, and Evans attach to the theories of historiography against which they summon up Auschwitz.

Missing from the texts that pose the death camps as the proving ground of postmodernist historiographical theory is any argument about the nature of the limit that the Holocaust sets to theses about what we can know of the past and how we can know it. One seeks in vain in the writings of Appleby et al., Evans, Himmelfarb, and Bartov for a specification of the kind of analytical reference point Auschwitz provides and for an explanation of its fixity for the evaluation of historiographical hypotheses. Instead of the theorization of the event that would make evident its qualifications as the litmus test of historiographical theory, we find the invocation of the Holocaust functioning as an incantation with which the adherents of history as faithful reconstruction attempt to ward off the demons of the linguistic turn.

The theoretical questions about the kind of event the Holocaust was and the nature of the historical representations it admits that the opponents of post-linguistic-turn historiographical theory neglect have very much exercised the minds of a number of historians intimately involved in the writing of Holocaust history. The efforts of Saul Friedlander, Dominick LaCapra, and Raul Hilberg to come to terms with the historiographical implications of the gas chambers have, alas, failed to register with those for whom Auschwitz is the limit case for the historiographical imagination. Appleby et al., Himmelfarb, and Evans all write as if these Holocaust scholars had never wrestled with what the history of the death camps might mean for our understanding of historical inquiry, while Bartov acknowledges only Friedlander’s ruminations.

I seek with this article to juxtapose the anti-postmodernist narratives that invoke Auschwitz as the fixed point of reference for the testing of post-linguistic-turn historiographical propositions with the reflections of some historians whose experience of writing Holocaust history induced them to interrogate the writing of history itself. I will proceed via a close reading of the historiographical discourses of Hilberg, Friedlander, and LaCapra. What kinds of interpretive and representational protocols, I ask, has the production of Holocaust history impressed upon these experts on the Holocaust? How have LaCapra, Hilberg, and Friedlander come to comprehend the historical enterprise in the light of their engagements with Auschwitz? And what do the answers to these questions suggest about how the event of the Holocaust might enrich the theoretical discussion of historical inquiry today?

I am not concerned in these pages to anatomize the debate between Hayden White and his critics about the emplotment of the gas chambers. Still less do I wish to adjudicate between the contending parties, My purpose instead is to consider how we might most fruitfully comprehend the project of studying the past. To this end, I find the reflections of Friedlander, Hilberg, and LaCapra on the knowability and representability of the Holocaust terribly suggestive about the cognitive limits of historical representation. To the same end, I find the language with which Appleby et al., Evans, Himmelfarb, and Bartov constitute the Holocaust as the touchstone of postmodernist historiographical theory richly revealing of the repressed moral dimension of historical inquiry.

I develop the ethical and epistemological strands of my story more concretely in the fourth and concluding section of this essay. I move toward it first through a discussion of Saul Friedlander’s unease with historical reconstruction and his insistence on the necessity of narrative disruption. Then I take up Dominick LaCapra’s diagnosis of the dangers of unchecked empiricism and his identification of dialogic exchange with the past as an integral component of historical investigation. Raul Hilberg’s documentarist aestheticism is my focus in section III.

Saul Friedlander: On the Limits of Historical Reconstruction and the Aesthetic Demands of Holocaust History

No historian has been a more determined explorer of the historiographical implications of Holocaust history than Saul Friedlander. An active historian for more than thirty years, he has produced books about the Vatican and the Third Reich and about Hitler and the United States; a study of the SS officer who attempted to obstruct the “Final Solution,” Kurt Gerstein; and a two-volume work on Nazi Germany and the Jews, still in progress, as well as a memoir of his own experience of the Holocaust. At the same time, Friedlander has been intimately involved in the diverse intellectual controversies to which the writing of Holocaust history has given rise: as a leading commentator on the German Historikerstreit of 1986, through an important public correspondence with Martin Broszat about the historicization of National Socialism; as the editor of Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution”; and as the writer of essays on Nazism and kitsch and on memory and historiography. His reflections on the practice of Holocaust history thus originate in both a long involvement in this practice and sustained meditation upon it. At their heart is a profound uneasiness with historical reconstruction as an end in itself and an insistent attention to the aesthetic requirements of Holocaust history.

Friedlander’s metahistorical writings exhibit a marked ambivalence about the representativeness of Auschwitz as a subject of historical inquiry. “Writing about Nazism,” he suggests, “is not like writing about sixteenth-century France.” Yet he also maintains that “the extermination of the Jews of Europe is as accessible to both representation and interpretation as any other historical event,” and that the historian “cannot but study the ‘Final Solution’ as he would any other past phenomenon.” Even from the perspective that Auschwitz is as amenable to historical study as anything else, though, Friedlander’s theorization of Holocaust history raises serious questions about the suitability of the gas chambers as the litmus test of historiographical theory.

The conceptual foundation of Friedlander’s historiographical discourse is a radical separation of historical reconstruction from historical interpretation, a stark bifurcation between historical knowledge and historical understanding. To be sure, Friedlander valorizes both poles of this opposition. There is for him, however, no presumption that historical knowledge of the Holocaust conduces to historical understanding of the Holocaust, and there can be no doubt that it is interpretation, and not reconstruction, that is the crux of historical inquiry in his eyes.

Much in Friedlander’s representation of historical reconstruction would gladden the historiographical heart of a Richard Evans, a Joyce Appleby, or a Gertrude Himmelfarb. First is his adherence to the methodological protocols of professional history. “The imperative of rendering as truthful an account as documents and testimonials will allow,” Friedlander affirms, remains “a main aspect” of the historian’s coming to terms with the past. Second is Friedlander’s recognition of the dangers of deconstruction. Any such approach, he warns, “would necessarily demand a primacy of the rhetorical dimension in the analysis of the historical text and the impossibility of establishing any direct reference to some aspects at least of the concrete reality we call the Shoah.” Third is Friedlander’s conviction that five decades of Holocaust research have proven an unquestionable success. “Since the end of the war,” he determines, there has been a “considerable increase in [our] knowledge” of the tragedy of European Jewry. “The reconstruction of the most detailed sequences of events related to the extermination of the Jews [has been] progressing apace.”

As Friedlander elaborates this advance “at the level of historical reconstruction,” though, the progress to which he attests proves remarkably hollow. “Despite so much additional factual knowledge,” the catastrophe of the Jews of Europe “has not been incorporated into any compelling framework of meaning in public consciousness, either within the Jewish community or on the Western cultural scene in general.” “The representation of the events” of this catastrophe continues to lack “clear terms of reference,” and “an opaqueness remains at the very core of historical understanding and interpretation of what happened.” “For almost fifty years now,” Friedlander is compelled to confess, “we have faced surplus meaning or blankness with little interpretive or representational advance.”

Faced with the manifest inadequacy of historical inquiry into the Holocaust “on the simplest factual level”—its time-proven incapacity to yield meaning or understanding—Friedlander’s historiographical discourse takes an emphatically aesthetic turn. Friedlander understands the limits of historical reconstruction to be the limits of narrative. What he calls “the facile linear progression of the narration” always carries the implication of closure, and closure in the case of the Holocaust “would represent an obvious avoidance of what remains indeterminate, elusive, and opaque.” The Holocaust historian, whom Friedlander enjoins to “search for ever-closer historical linkages” through the truthful rendering of testimonials and documents, is also admonished to avoid “giving in to the temptation of closure”—to steer clear, more precisely, of the “naive historical positivism” that leads “to simplistic and self-assured historical narrations and closures.”

The aesthetic to which Friedlander turns in rejection of the “straight documentary realism” characteristic of historical reconstruction is the “allusive or distanced realism” he finds in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and in the stories of Ida Fink. What attracts Friedlander to this aesthetic is its capacity to figure “reality … in its starkness, but … through a filter: that of memory (distance in time), that of spatial displacement, that of some sort of narrative margin which leaves the unsayable unsaid.” To achieve the same effect in the historical representation of the Holocaust Friedlander calls for the “forceful” intrusion of the historian’s own “voice” into “the narrative structure” of his or her text. Whether the historian works this disturbance of his or her own reconstruction through the insertion of authorial commentary into them or by the superimposition of commentative discourses upon them is a matter of individual preference. The essential point for Friedlander is that “the sporadic but forceful presence” of the historian should disrupt the smooth, seamless surface of historical knowledge by introducing “alternative interpretations, question[ing] any partial conclusion, [and] withstand[ing] the need for closure.”

The necessary self-vocalization of the historian at the site of historical reconstruction is not, as Friedlander takes pains to make clear, a license to the historian to do as he or she pleases with the past. “Commentary,” he stresses, should “not lead in any way to ‘the use of fact and fiction, document and imaginative reconstruction, to ponder how history is made.'” It is equally imperative that the historian not construe the aesthetic of allusive realism as a solution to the problem of historical interpretation that the Holocaust poses or as a transcendence of it. On the contrary, the practice of narrative disruption enables the historian to register the “opaqueness—which confronts traditional historical narrative” accounts of the gas chambers, to mark the indecipherability at the core of “even the most precise historical renditions of the Shoah.” That is to say, it is only by deliberately fracturing the discourse in which the extermination of the Jews is reconstructed that the historian can discharge his or her obligation “‘to keep watch over [the] absent meaning'” of the Holocaust.

Both the epistemology and the aesthetics of Saul Friedlander’s historiography unsettle the appropriation of Auschwitz as the proving ground of historiographical theory. If the event of the Holocaust, despite the evident progress of factual knowledge about it, remains beyond interpretation, beyond understanding, and beyond meaning, how can it meaningfully test the evaluative capacities inherent in any hypothesis about how we can know the past? And if the only aesthetic appropriate to the reconstruction of the death camps is one that self-consciously subverts its own pretensions to mimesis, how can the Holocaust determine whether the representational strategies sanctioned by a given historiographical theory, postmodernist or otherwise, satisfy the requirements of faithfulness to what once was?

Dominick Lacapra: On the Indiscipline of Objectivity: Auschwitz As the Limit Case of Empirical-Analytical History

Dominick LaCapra comes to the history of the Holocaust not from Jewish or German history but from intellectual history. A reader of texts more than a miner of documents, LaCapra’s two volumes on Holocaust history span the discursive spectrum from Himmler’s notorious speech to high-ranking SS officers in Posen in October 1943 to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Whatever their occasion, though, each of his essays exhibits an adamant refusal to separate history from theory. Thus, all of his inquiries into particular pieces of the past are at one and the same time meditations on the means by which we may apprehend the past at all. The challenges of Holocaust history, as LaCapra construes them, are the challenges of history in and of itself.

Writing the story of the past is, in LaCapra’s terms, no less a truth-telling venture than it is for Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob. Where LaCapra departs from these defenders of history as “the adjudication of truth-claims,” however, is in his fear that the historian’s “scientific expertise” harbors a propensity to propagate uncontrolled narrations and interpretations. Even when the empiricist’s susceptibility to “anything goes” is averted, and the historian’s reconstructions meet the craft’s standards of “accuracy, meticulous research, and rigorous argumentation,” historical study has yet to fulfill what LaCapra takes to be its obligations. The point of historical inquiry for him is not to seek some “abstracted meaning … in a hypostasized past or in some teleological master code” but to arrive at “meaningful guides to thought and practice” in the present for the sake of the future. Auschwitz, by LaCapra’s lights, is the case that demonstrates the limits of “empirical-analytical history,” and the event that illuminates how a historian’s “critical exchange with the past bearing on present and future” ought to work.

Discussion of LaCapra’s construction of the historical enterprise must begin with his unwavering commitment to “the necessary and legitimate role of standard or conventional historiographical techniques.” The “norms of meticulous research and careful testing of propositions,” he affirms, have “produced much admirable work.” Because they enable the critical testing of memory and lead “ideally … to the emergence of both a more accurate memory and a clearer appraisal of what is or is not factual in remembrance,” he “would in no sense want to jettison” them. The “distinction between fact and value” remains as “critical” for LaCapra as it does for a Richard Evans or a Gertrude Himmelfarb, and the strength of his attachment to it can be read in his dismissal of “a fictionalizing if not mythologizing idea of history that is insensitive to the tricks memory plays and to the reasons for those tricks.” The conviction that “values and norms” must be kept separate from “empirical reality” also informs LaCapra’s criticism of Claude Lanzmann’s approximation of “historical understanding to myth and prejudice” and his objection to the “significant, historically dubious omissions” from Lanzmann’s Shoah.

What poses the most dangerous threat to the empirical accuracy of the historian’s reconstructive and interpretive endeavors, according to LaCapra, is not the lapse into relativism that torments Omer Bartov and Richard Evans but the “simplistic view” of objectivity that positivism—”an abuse of the scientific method”—has bequeathed to the historical profession. Positing “history as a dry and sober matter of fact and analysis” that can be fully and satisfactorily represented in the “empirical-analytical domain of discourse” positivism has misconstrued bias as “merely a correctable deviation” from “the given or normal status of objectivity.” The “given or normal status” of the historian, as LaCapra understands it, could hardly be further removed from this posture of near-Olympian nonpartisanship. “We are always implicated in the things we analyze and try to understand,” he writes. “To the extent that an issue is not dead, provokes an emotional and evaluative response, and entails the meeting of history with memory … one becomes affectively implicated.”

The conclusion LaCapra draws from the inescapable commitment of the historian to his or her subject and his or her unavoidable investment in it is not that we should attempt “to neutralize the problem of the historian’s voice in narration or analysis … not that we efface or transfix the self.” Rather, it is that we should recognize the inevitability of the historian’s projection of his or her “values onto empirical reality through ideological narratives” and reconceive objectivity as the “more difficult and problematic undertaking” of counteracting “modes of projection, self-indulgence, and narrow partisanship.” Objectivity in this sense, LaCapra maintains, has to be “seen as a difficult, never fully achievable objective that is not even desirable in its imaginary total state.” To the extent that the adjudication of truth claims and the transmission of critically-tested memory through accuracy, meticulous research, and rigorous argumentation make some measure of objectivity “justifiable [and] desirable,” its attainment demands of the historian a practice of self-interrogation akin to psychoanalysis. It requires, first, that he or she work “through [the] transferential relations, resistances, denials, and repressions” that enable projection. It means, second, that the historian explicitly acknowledge, and possibly transform, his or her position with respect to his or her subject as he or she “engages problems in historical research and self-understanding.” Third, it entails that the student of the past “listen to the other.” Last, fidelity to the LaCaprian ideal of objectivity impels the historian to submit his or her account of the past to “explicit critical and self-critical theoretical questioning”—an undertaking to which, as LaCapra ruefully notes, the field has been “particularly resistant.”

For LaCapra, then, it is theory—and not the evidence, the sources, or the empirical record—that disciplines the historian’s representation of the past. In its absence the historian “may well indulge in dubious interpretations or renderings.” Hence LaCapra’s warning that the confinement of history to “neopositivist protocols” is likely to prove “self-defeating” precisely because these protocols blind the historian to the pitfalls that mark the path towards truth, and deprive him or her of the practices that could constrain him or her from the indiscriminate, inadvertent falsification of the past. Theory, in other words, is LaCapra’s antidote to the most prevalent of historiographical viruses: the researcher who in the name of knowledge pursues history “in a totally objectified manner” and subjects it “to narrowly empirical and analytic techniques of representation.”

Nowhere, LaCapra maintains, “do positivism and standard techniques of narrowly empirical-analytical inquiry seem [more] wanting” than “in discussions of the Holocaust.” Nowhere is “the need critically to scutinize or supplement” these techniques greater than “in the attempt to account for extreme phenomena” on the order of the death camps. This, at any rate, is the lesson LaCapra reads in the German Historikerstreit of 1986 occasioned by Jurgen Habermas’s responses to the Holocaust histories of Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber and their deflection of the burden of German responsibility for Auschwitz. The Historians’ Debate, he suggests, “may … be taken to indicate … that objectivity is [not] a mere given or taken-for-granted professional stance and that biased deviations from it can[not] always be corrected for, allowing a return to third-person objectivity.” The debate, as LaCapra interprets it, demonstrated too “the importance of the problem of one’s relation to the past … the more general questions raised by one’s differential implication in a controversial, traumatizing past,” and the necessity for “the historian [to] work out a subject-position in … coming to terms with his or her implication in the tragic grid of participant positions” locking “together perpetrator, collaborator, victim, bystander, and resister and that also threatens to encompass the secondary witness and the historian.” LaCapra’s Historikerstreit poses as well, and in a paradigmatic way, the problem of how “historiography may combine its modes of empirical research and analysis with a more dialogic engagement with the past that furthers the attempt to work through problems that remain alive as forces in the present.”

The project of “working through the past” in the interest of the living and the still-to-be-born that LaCapra takes as a mandate in the aftermath of Auschwitz is, in his formulation, “in good part an ethical process.” In the case of the Holocaust itself this necessitates “not only remembering what happened in the past but actively recognizing the fundamental injustice done to the victims as a premise of legitimate action in the present and future.” The historian’s enactment of this moral responsibility, moreover, “may be most effective when it is situated in social and political contexts”—and not by undertaking it at a suitably scholarly remove from them. The historian’s obligations to the living on behalf of the dead may well, in LaCapra’s view, extend still further, beyond the social and the political to the ritual. Again, nowhere is this more evident than “with respect to limit cases” such as the Holocaust. Where inquiry engages with the “victims of traumatic cases” and “working-through … is embodied in mourning,” “history may legitimately have a ritual component.” Here the historian’s “judgment concerning the appropriateness of a historical account—one’s very sense of whether or not the language used is ‘fitting’—may well require … an appeal to ritual as well as to scientific and aesthetic criteria.”

In the historiographical discourse of Dominick LaCapra, Auschwitz is the reference point against which all accounts of historical inquiry must be evaluated, just as it is in the anti-postmodernist writings of Bartov, Himmelfarb, Evans, and Appleby et al. As LaCapra explicates the Holocaust, it is the gas chambers that test that a given historiography’s construction of objectivity is robust enough to deter unwitting error and distortion. It is the gas chambers that verify that an account of historical representation allows fully for the accommodation of the claims of ethics, present-day social and political contexts, and ritual. And it is the gas chambers that determine whether the provision a theory of historical inquiry makes for the critical theoretical gaze is sufficient to check both the historian’s implication in the past he or she aims to reconstruct and his or her projections onto his or her reconstruction of that past. Formulated in this way, the case of Auschwitz does far more to problematize a historiography of faithful reconstruction than its invocation in response to the challenge of the linguistic turn does to affirm it.

Raul Hilberg: On the Artistry of the Documentarist and the Historian’s Usurpation of the Holocaust

Raul Hilberg is best known as the author of The Destruction of the European Jews. Comprising 765 double-column pages of text, four appendices, ninety-four tables, seven maps, and some 3300 notes in the original 1961 version, and 1194 pages of text, thirty-five pages of appendices, 100 tables, seven maps, and nearly 4000 notes in the three-volume revised edition of 1985, The Destruction of the European Jews is a landmark of Holocaust history. Christopher Browning, writing in 1992, described it as a “monumental work” that “has remained the preeminent synthesis of perpetrator history since its first appearance.” Four years after Browning, Geoffrey Hartman called The Destruction “a pioneering work and a giant step forward in clarifying the policy that led toward the ‘Final Solution,'” while Steven Aschheim labeled it “remarkable,” “still-unequalled,” and a “masterpiece.” What has most impressed Holocaust scholars about Hilberg’s history is the extraordinary mastery of the empirical record that it displays. In Saul Friedlander’s view, Hilberg is “possibly the historian most thoroughly acquainted with the documents of destruction and the day-to-day aspects of the ‘Final Solution.'” According to Bartov, Hilberg “has done more than any other single scholar to compile and analyze the facts of the Holocaust.”

This is not how Hilberg sees himself as a historian. Nor is it how he sees The Destruction of the European Jews. In his own story of his career as a Holocaust historian and in his theoretical reflections on the practice of history, Hilberg portrays himself as an artist and his celebrated study as a work of art. Nor is this just a conceit that he fancifully entertains about himself and his scholarship. It is the expression of a historiographical vision that combines documentarism with aestheticism. The writing of history is a fine art for Hilberg. The documents are the medium of the creative artist of the past.

The Destruction of the European Jews originated in a dissertation in political science at Columbia University, and the tale of its composition looms large in Hilberg’s narrative of his life in Holocaust history. Taking up a subject “the total import” of which had “not yet been explored … not yet absorbed as a historical event” and not yet accepted “in an academic sense,” Hilberg found “no literature [that] could serve [him] as an example.” As he worked on, however, he “became aware that [he] was appropriating, transcribing, arranging something. It was not a work of literature but a body of music.” Like any piece of music in the making, The Destruction posed problems of arrangement and expression. Hilberg recognized first that he “had to control [his] work, to dominate it as Beethoven had fashioned his music.” While “writing, like music, is linear, … there are no chords or harmonies in literature,” so Hilberg “concentrated more and more on chamber music … in which [he] could hear every instrument and every note distinctly. The Schubert. Quintet in C—a Germanic work—gave [him] the insight that power is not dependent on simple mass or even loudness, but on escalations and contrasts. Beethoven’s Appassionata … showed [him] that [he] could not shout on a thousand pages, that [he] had to suppress sonority and reverberations, and that [he] could loosen [his] grip only selectively, very selectively.” Then there was the question of “capsule lines at the end of passages and chapters,” and again Hilberg’s history took shape under the example of classical music. “I really weighed this decision,” he recalled, “listening carefully to Beethoven’s extended finales but also to a violin concerto by Prokofiev that seemed to end in midair. In my resolution of this particular predicament I leaned toward Beethoven.”

There was, finally, for Hilberg the problem of the “overall symmetry” of his rendering of the “Nazi machinery of destruction.” Just as Beethoven “had sketched the finale of his Eroica symphony by pairing what he had placed first with what he put down last, and then what followed the first with what preceded the last,” so Hilberg did “something very similar with [his] twelve-chapter work. The first chapter was thematically reflected in the last. The second was matched with the next to last, and the third with the tenth.” The eighth chapter of the dissertation, on deportations, was the longest one. “It was,” in Hilberg’s conception of it, “the andante of [his] composition, with a theme and multiple variations that mirrored the special conditions under which deportations were carried out in each country.”

Three decades after The Destruction of the European Jews first appeared as a book, Hilberg published a second study of the Holocaust, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945. Where the first book “had been preoccupied with organizations,” the later book focused on “people: individuals and groups.” The inspiration for Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, though, was no less aesthetic than the inspiration of The Destruction, and no less did its author aspire to craft a work of art. “In the summer of 1961,” Hilberg recalled in his memoirs, “I spent a month in Europe, traveling from country to country, from city to city, and from museum to museum…. Why did I dwell in these museums? At the time I did not know, but now I realize I was searching for a new conception, that then and there I had found a model for … Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders.” What Hilberg had found in the museums of Europe all those years before were “paintings … portraits in particular: here a youth, there an old man, a cardinal, a pope, but also peasants and soldiers.” What he sought in the book they inspired was “to paint … in words of course” the images he had in his mind of the persons and collectivities of the Holocaust, and to paint them “in such a way that they would remain portraits, to be absorbed in an instant just like a canvas that is seen at a glance.”

Hilberg believes that anyone who aspires “to portray the Holocaust … has to create a work of art. To recreate the event, be it on film or in a book, one must be a consummate artist, for such recreation is an act of creation in and of itself.” He realizes, of course, that to equate the writing of Holocaust history with Da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa or Mozart’s composing of the Divertimento in D must seem “presumptuous, but it is,” he insists, “unavoidable.” “The specific content” of the history of Auschwitz might be “given … primarily by the records that the Germans … left behind,” but the realization of this history “is a problem of rendition.” Nor, as Hilberg is quick to add, is this notion of the inescapable aestheticism of historical representation “limited to [his] subject. It is applicable to all historiography.”

At a conference on “Writing and the Holocaust” in 1987 Hilberg acknowledged that the construction of history as analogous to painting and music inevitably posed the problem of history’s relation to literature, the problem he called the “fact-fiction dichotomy or the business of footnote writers, social scientists on the one hand, and those who produce imaginative literature on the other.” Face-to-face with the question whether “historiography itself is a kind of fiction … a kind of representation or model”—face-to-face, that is, with a question that has haunted Bartov, Evans, Appleby et al., and Himmelfarb among others—Hilberg summoned up Heinrich Heine. Heine, he recollected, had “once said, that to write prose one should first learn how to write poetry.” His own response to the fear of the assimilation of history to literature was that “to write” about the Holocaust one should perhaps first, even if one happens to be a historian or a footnote writer, know how to write a story.”

The artist to whom Hilberg assigns both the history of the Holocaust and history writ large does not, in his view, enjoy a license to free expression. Just as Beethoven was subject to the rules of tonality and harmony, and Cranach and Holbein to the rules of perspective, so the historian who would narrate the past is bound by the rules of historical composition. With specific regard to the depiction of the gas chambers, Hilberg identifies three such rules. The first—”paradoxically”—is the rule of “silence,” a rule Hilberg finds exemplified by the “long painful lapse” in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah when the barber of Treblinka “is admonished to speak of the days when he had to practice his craft on Jewish women about to be gassed.” Hilberg’s second rule for fashioning the history of the Holocaust is the rule of “minimalism … the art of using a minimum of words to say the maximum.” Here he instances the scene in Elie Wiesel’s Night where the author “draws his famous apotheosis of a young boy being hanged [at Auschwitz], next to or flanked by two hanging adults. Where is God? asks one voice. It is the boy, answers another.”

The third law that governs the art of Holocaust history is epitomized for Hilberg in Wiesel’s declaration that “if it is a novel, it is not about Auschwitz … and if it is about Auschwitz, it is not a novel.” This is the law that “prohibits trivialization” or what Hilberg also calls “counterfactuality.” It is the commandment that there be no “deliberate bending of known facts to cajole the reader.” Hilberg finds the violation of this edict almost everywhere: “In the sculpture … in the center of Warsaw” that memorializes “Jewish resistance fighters … by a large heroic statue in Stalinist style;” in an “international best-seller” in which the author “presented fictional texts of bureaucratic correspondence that he had made up to complete his amalgam of history and fantasy”; in a “serious film,” The Wannsee Conference, that “also took liberties with the facts;” and in “Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy,” where “the names … are real, but many invented words are put in their mouths, … situations are created that did not occur and could not have occurred … [and] the sheer fact that as late as 1944 [the “Protestant SS-Officer” Kurt] Gerstein delivered gas to Auschwitz” is “not mentioned.” So strict is Hilberg’s interpretation of the dictum that historical facts not be “altered deliberately for the sake of plot and adventure” that he even takes exception to poetry with “graves in the sky”—an unmistakable repudiation of no less an achievement that Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge.”

The ferocity of Hilberg’s application of the stricture against trivialization suggests that, for him, the artifacts the past has bequeathed to posterity are sacrosanct, and the language with which he writes about them is certainly infused with the inflections of awe. Returning to the research for his dissertation, he remembers how he began “to understand what a document really is … it is … an artifact, immediately recognizable as a relic. It is the original paper that once upon a time was handled by a bureaucrat and signed or initialed by him. More than that, the words on the page constituted an action: the performance of a function.” In his pursuit of these precious survivals from prior times, the author of The Destruction of the European Jews proved himself a fetishist: “In the gathering of my sources I … remained a brute-force man. My watchwords [were] comprehensiveness and quantity. The more agencies whose materials I could examine the better, and the more papers in the files, all the better.” As the curator of these relics, Hilberg flagellates himself with a litany of confessions: “Inattention to the value of a document was bad enough. Misconstruing the content of a communication, especially one that I regarded as pivotal, was worse.” “But I did not always recognize the importance of every single document, nor was I consistently successful in interpreting key pieces of paper. Such failures were galling to me.” What Hilberg demanded of himself as a historian, then, was nothing less than a “faithful rendition” of the “documents and testimony” surviving from the Jewish catastrophe, and this demanded in turn a posture of reverence before the sacred remains of the past.

For all the sanctity with which Hilberg invests the original documents, they are no more for him than “fragments” that need to “be interpreted or explained.” By themselves they are “pure texts” devoid of “intelligibility” and it is only by their integration as the “ingredients of a coherent account,” after selection, excerption, and arrangement, that “meaning” can be imposed upon them. The artistry with which the documents are made meaningful by their synthesis into one or another of the genres that represent the past—history, film, sculpture, drama, painting, literature—is at least as prone, Hilberg makes clear, to the deformations to which creative endeavors in general are susceptible as any other aesthetic undertaking: the “commonplace,” the “platitudes,” the “cliches,” and the “debasement” of “kitsch.” Yet, objectivity, the posture historians routinely claim to secure the integrity of their inquiries, has no place in Hilberg’s delineation of the aesthetics of creating the past.

“Objectivity and neutral or value-free words” appear in Hilberg’s historiographical reflections as anachronisms from “the methodological literature” that he read as part of his “training in the social sciences … in the 1940s.” Adherence to these conventions does not figure among the rules he prescribes for Holocaust historians now, and his tale of his youthful efforts to embody them in his early work exhibits both the excesses of the innocent and the accomplished scholar’s pleasure in the cunning weakness of the novice. “I was an observer,” Hilberg relates sardonically, “and it was most important to me that I write accordingly. At one time I said … that when, if ever, my manuscript appeared as a book, nothing should be said on the dust jacket about the personal experiences of the author. Needless to say, no publisher allowed me such anonymity,” but neither did the strenuous effort the young Hilberg made to restrict “the printed pages … to the subject, [and] not to the person who wrote them,” by “banishing accusatory terms like ‘murder’ as well as such exculpatory words as ‘executions’ … or ‘extermination'” succeed in effacing the scholar who had fashioned the story. Even as he added “charts and numbers” to “give an air of cool detachment to [his] writing,” the first-time author yielded “to some temptations.” As a result, the work that later came to stand as a monument of empiricist historiography contained, Hilberg proudly recalls, what the novelist Herman Wouk recognized as “a suppressed irony, in other words, an irony visibly suppressed.”

If it is the figurative aspect that recommends The Destruction of the European Jews to its author now, the theoretical position he has come to occupy bears little affinity to the reconstructivist historiography of those who call Auschwitz forth as the antidote to postmodernist understandings. Hilberg writes slightingly of “reportage, a kind of writing that hews close to the primary sources to portray an event, but which submerges these sources in the story that is told.” Such works, he maintains, “espouse actuality, but that is not to say that they have replicated it.” What the Holocaust historian who obeys the rules of silence, minimalism, and trivialization accomplishes instead is the usurpation of “the actuality, substituting a text for a reality that is fading fast. The words that are thus written take the place of the past.” The more successfully the historian represents the death camps, the greater is this usurpation—and the greater the likelihood that “some people might read” what she or he has written and think that “on [the] printed pages, they will find the true ultimate Holocaust as it really happened.” This, Hilberg insists, would be a “mistaken belief.” So too would be the hope that we can comprehend the tragedy of European Jewry. “‘For Hilberg, there is only recognition, perhaps also a grasp, but certainly no understanding.'”

Raul Hilberg’s historian is an artist who works in documents just as a sculptor works in marble, a painter works in oils, and a musician works in tones. “Their art … in its very nature [may be] much less disguised than” historians’, but they craft the world anew—even worlds departed—just as other artists do. The art of history likewise demands observance of the rules of composition that govern it no less than the other arts impose their own laws of representation. Moreover, just as their art comes to stand in place of the moments that occasioned it, it is the “words” of the historian, “rather than the events themselves, [that] will be remembered.” Remembrance, then, is what the work of Hilberg’s historian is all about; this is as true of the historian of the French Revolution and the American Civil War as of the historian of the Holocaust, for, in Hilberg’s view, no history can help but supplant the past with creations wrought from the very relics of the past itself. No history can hope to attain either to the actuality of erstwhile events or to their understanding. Here, born from the most intimate, determined, and sustained of engagements with the artifacts of Auschwitz, is a historiography of documentarist aestheticism that denies the premises of comprehensibility and reconstructibility on the basis of which the gas chambers have been invoked as the test of post-linguistic-turn historiographical theory.


Raul Hilberg, Dominick LaCapra, and Saul Friedlander are three very different historians. They have written quite different histories of the Holocaust. They have employed markedly different discourses to talk about historical inquiry. LaCapra’s language is the language of psychoanalytic theory, Hilberg’s that of the creative arts. Where the one invokes Freud, the other cites Heine. Friedlander’s metahistorical address displays a fluency in the vocabularies of both psychoanalysis and art, but neither defines his historiographical speech.

By no stretch of the imagination could LaCapra, Friedlander, and Hilberg be thought a school either of Holocaust history or of historiographical understanding. Nor could one hope to synthesize their theoretical reflections into a single coherent account of the study of the past. Yet, the conclusions at which these three historians arrive about what we can know of the past and how we can know it through their individual engagements with Holocaust history all work to the same effect. They raise the most searching doubts about the suitability of Auschwitz as an epistemological limit case for historiographical theory. They do so by calling the adequacy, indeed the very possibility, of its reconstruction into question.

Friedlander and LaCapra both acknowledge faithful reconstruction as a necessary component of Holocaust history, but neither accepts reconstruction as the Holocaust historian’s raison d’etre. Nor does either LaCapra or Friedlander consider reconstruction as tantamount to, or sufficient for, historical knowledge of the gas chambers. Each takes it as no more than a preliminary to a historical understanding of Auschwitz. Hilberg rules reconstruction out entirely: past events are forever beyond the historian’s reach. The burden of Holocaust history, as he construes it, is the fabrication of artworks powerful enough to compel remembrance of what cannot be reconstructed.

Historical comprehension, for LaCapra, ought never to be an end in itself. It should be but an element in the solution of present problems for the good of the future, and where problem-solving entails mourning, as it must in the case of the Holocaust, the historian’s dedication to knowing through reconstruction must be enlarged to accommodate ritual as well as the articulation of ethical positions in contemporary social and political contexts. Neither Hilberg nor Friedlander retains any hope that Auschwitz will admit of historical understanding. Both turn in the face of its unknowability to the aesthetic, Here Friedlander finds the rhetorical repertoire necessary for representing the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust. Here Hilberg finds the crafts of expression for memorializing what cannot be understood.

If scholars as conversant with writing the history of the death camps as Friedlander, Hilberg, and LaCapra are to be credited, the fixity the Holocaust possesses for the testing of historiographical theory must lie outside the cognitive domain. For how can the gas chambers determine whether a specific account of historical inquiry does justice to the aim of reconstructive accuracy if they signify an event whose actuality we can’t recover and in whose stead we can only place markers of remembrance? And how can Auschwitz verify that a given historiographical theory satisfactorily accommodates the knowability of the past if it defies our comprehension?

After Hilberg, LaCapra, and Friedlander, the point of reference the Holocaust provides for the assessment of historiographical theory can only be a moral one deriving from the ethical enormity of the gas chambers. Indeed, it may well have been its unquestionable moral weight that recommended Auschwitz as the most appropriate touchstone for determining the legitimacy of postmodernist historiographical interventions. After all, there would seem to have been no shortage of historical events of an equivalent existential magnitude available for the task. The last two centuries alone offer up the Russian, French, and American Revolutions, the First World War and the American Civil War, and the invention and diffusion of the computer, air travel, and the internal combustion engine. Nor would events as well documented and intensively studied as the Holocaust have been far to seek. It may well be too that the indisputable ethical import of the death camps explains why their appropriation as the proving ground of historiographical theory has been a matter of ritualistic invocation rather than reasoned argumentation. Their moral enormity is unquestionable.

In any case, the slippage from an epistemological to an ethical discourse in texts hostile to post-linguistic-turn historiographical thinking shows clearly the working of moral sentiment in the constitution of the Holocaust as the limit case of historiographical theory. The story Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob are determined to tell may be about “the purposes” of history and “the possibility of achieving truth and objectivity in human knowledge of the past,” but the terms in which they tell it include “integrity” and the “responsibilities of history.” Similarly, when they reach the pivotal moment in their tale of the West’s passage from the faith “that truths about the past are possible, even if they are not absolute” to “a pervasive lack of confidence in the ability to find the truth or even to establish that there is such a thing as truth,” the idioms of scientific inquiry give way to a language of “absolute moral standards.” The same conflation of the cognitive with the ethical is evident in Richard Evans’s angst at the prospect of a “Nazi or fascist interpretation of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ which conceded it actually happened.” Write though he does in an epistemological vein of “objective criteria by which [such] views of history could be falsified,” his characterization of these views as “fascist or racist” reveals the moral repugnance that makes their value-free invalidation imperative for him.

The unacknowledged resort to a moral discourse in historiographical polemics against the linguistic turn is symptomatic of the equivocation between the epistemological and the ethical that has characterized history since its translation from a moral to a social science. The enunciation of a terminology of integrity, responsibilities, and absolute moral standards in defense of a historiography of accurate reconstruction cannot be read but as the return of the repressed ethical to a discipline that has long fantasized that the confinement of the moral exclusively to the plane of method freed its findings from any taint of the normative. The inescapability of such language, the sheer necessity of moral talk when the constitution of historical inquiry is at stake, together with the apparent absence of any scruple about putting the six million dead to historiographical use, bespeak how thoroughly ethical the project of studying the past is, and how disabling has been its banishment from the waking life of working historians.

The way forward from here is for all the participants in the conversation about historiographical theory to accept the prominence of the Holocaust in historiographical controversy after the linguistic turn as irrefutable evidence of the centrality of questions of good and evil to the historical enterprise and to begin to consider the study of the past as a project of the should and the ought as well as the did and the was. To recognize right and wrong as the long forgotten other of history’s tree and false by no means consigns students of the past to the abyss that terrifies Bartov and Evans. Rather, it holds out the promise of emancipation from epistemological ambitions at once unedifyingly narrow and, as years of historiographical investigation have shown, inherently unstable, and it enables historians to embrace without embarrassment the ethical force that has always animated the best historical narratives. In any event, the point is not to relax the scrupulous regard for historical artifacts and documents that is the crowning glory of the historiography of faithful reconstruction. It is to combine this ethic of honest dealing with the rigorous reading protocols of the linguistic turn and to join both to the truth that our portrayals of prior times and places are only as powerful as the morals we inscribe in them.

Taking purposefully the ethical mm that the opponents of postmodernist historiography have unwittingly effected would open up the life-affirming possibilities of a post-linguistic-turn approach to historical inquiry. By directing historical narration to the representation of the good as well as the tree, the historian’s moral imagination would be empowered to speak in its own voice and not just through epistemological surrogates that blunt its authority. This would then make possible a more robust condemnation of the Holocaust deniers, both by liberating the full strength of our moral outrage for their repudiation, and by freeing us from all hypocrisy in disclosing how far the negationist’s shameful demand for eyewitness testimony from inside the gas chambers is from the ethics of genuine historical inquiry. Last, but not least, the reconfiguration of history as an avowedly moral discipline just might make the history professional historians write meaningful to the history-hungry public that has abandoned the history of historians for the cinema and the theme park.