Dr. Dan Michman, Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, came to share with Cohort V earlier this month. His seminar included three topics. This blog is about the third topic: “Twelve Years of the Nazi Regime, Eight Decades of Research: The History of Holocaust Research from a Bird’s Eye View, 1933-2015.”
For the final session of Dr. Michman’s seminar, we discussed the periodization of the Holocaust. Here are some various starting dates: 1939 (the beginning of the WWII), 1941 (the beginning of the Final Solution), 1942 (Auschwitz begins mass murdering), 1789 (Jews are emancipated under the French Empire), or 1933 (Hitler becomes Chancellor); and some ending dates: 1945 (End of WWII), or 1948 (Creation of the State of Israel).
1789 is included because some think the only reason Jews were emancipated was to push them toward acculturation. When the Jewish community continued in their culture and tradition, there is said to be a pendulum swing reaction in that the rest of Christian Europe started to heavily persecute Jews as punishment for not assimilating. The definition of periodization can be broad. Should the period of the Holocaust include so much? Any historian can provide documents and arguments for their own definition.
Another issue we discussed is what the term should include. The Shoah was not only the murder of six million Jews, it was also the destruction of their communities, the destruction of Synagogues, Torah Scroll, and books. So what limits can we set as we discuss the Shoah? Do we have to set limits, or can it be all inclusive?
We also discussed the popular view of Auschwitz representing the Holocaust. Dr. Michman says it is not a proper representation of the Holocaust. One-million-one-hundred-thousand Jews were murdered at Auschwitz which is not to be downplayed, but it represents ⅙ of the Holocaust. It does not represent the Jews murdered in Concentration Camps, Death Pits or by hard labor. Auschwitz is a factor that defines the Holocaust, but in of itself it cannot describe the totality of horrors.
The next question we discussed was how do historians define the Holocaust. Dr. Michman suggested two paths of historiography: the Jewish Historiography and Perpetrator Historiography. After the Holocaust survivors began writing about their experiences and collecting stories to make a history of the Shoah. The center of this study was not Nazism but rather the Jewish experience.
The other path was the study of Nazism. The foremost question in perpetrator historiography research was “What went wrong with Germany?” Their research included very little Jewish testimony, but relied heavily on Nazi documentation. Immediately, the research was used in the Nuremberg Trials. In a sense it was also used as a coping mechanism for Germany. Their research often started in 19th century Germany to understand trends of German culture, that may have lead to the acceptance of Nazism.
The next generation of Holocaust research in Germany lead to the Historikerstreit (Historians Fight/argument). The children of the perpetrators started asking their parents “What did you do?” Which lead to student uprisings in 1968 in both Germany and France. Their research started broadening the scope of bystanders to German, French etc citizens. (Before the term bystander applied to Eisenhower and Churchill.) Historian, Götz Aly, belongs to this younger group of historians.
The definition of the Holocaust is complicated. But each definition adds to the greater understanding of what happened. It is important to take each of these perspectives into consideration when defining the Shoah for yourself.
We want to thank Dr. Dan Michman for his insightful seminar, and we look forward to meeting with him again in the Spring Semester!
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website