Children in Jerusalem look at a brochure with images of the Holocaust, 1961. Photograph: Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
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The ever-changing face of Holocaust studies

The road to ruin.

At meetings across the country on Holocaust Memorial Day, worthies intoned the “lessons of the Holocaust” and warned that we must “learn from the past”. But ask most historians and they will blanche at the thought of anything as static or as simple as “lessons”. Over the past five decades, “Holocaust studies” have altered almost beyond recognition and explanations for what occurred have changed significantly.

In the 1950s, most people regarded the Third Reich as a criminal regime that had been run by crazed sadists. Nazi anti-Semitism, it was thought, had been a device to distract the masses. And it was widely believed that few Germans or inhabitants of conquered countries had sympathised with the assault on the Jews. As for the Jews themselves, they had gone to the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter.

This narrative was both a legacy of the Nuremberg trials and a convenient fiction used to justify Cold War alliances and enmities. At Nuremberg, the surviving “top Nazis” took the fall for the crimes of the regime. Former Axis powers or belligerents now within the Nato fold were presented as having been unwilling or unwitting accomplices of the Nazis.

The first crack in this facade came with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961- 62. The Israeli authorities orchestrated the hearings to present every dimension of Jewish life under Nazi rule, with the emphasis on forms of resistance. They arranged for Nazi collaboration to be exposed, while “bystanders”, particularly the Allied powers and the Vatican, were shamed by evidence of their inaction.

However, the impact of the trial was shaped most decisively by the reporting of Hannah Arendt, who wrote about it for the New Yorker. She saw in Eichmann a living vindication of her earlier analysis of totalitarianism. His unthinking obedience was the reflex of totalitarian man, the “banality of evil”. Arendt’s (erroneous) description of Eichmann’s character irritated historians who detected rather more ideology and animosity in his conduct. And she provoked outrage with her claim that the Jewish leadership had colluded in their own destruction.

This allegation was strongly influenced by Raul Hilberg’s monumental study The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). Hilberg, whose Jewish family had fled Austria after the Anschluss, disparaged survivor testimony and drew almost exclusively on German documentation. But in the German record the Jews were always portrayed as outwitted and complaisant. Consequently, Hilberg’s work generated the impression of a bureaucratic machine that crushed hapless, silent victims.

The controversy that Hilberg’s book aroused marked the birth of what today we call “Holocaust studies”. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum, became an engine of research. During the 1970s and 1980s, Isaiah Trunk, Israel Gutman, Shmuel Krakowski, Dov Levin and Yitzhak Arad, all of whom had endured the ghettos and the camps, or else had fought as partisans, published histories of Jewish life under Nazi rule, with an emphasis on eastern Europe and varieties of resistance. The stereotype of Jews passively accepting their fate was shattered forever.

Meanwhile, German scholarship (mainly in West Germany) was galvanised by the trial of Auschwitz personnel that began in Frankfurt in 1963. And by the 1970s a division of labour had emerged: Israeli and Jewish historians wrote about the victims; the Germans inquired obsessively into the structure and functions of the Nazi state; while the Americans took a broader approach.

In 1970, the American historian Karl A Schleunes published The Twisted Road to Auschwitz, a pioneering work that challenged the idea that there was a direct route from Mein Kampf to the Final Solution. Schleunes argued that anti-Jewish policy was poorly developed when the Nazis came to power and jostled with other priorities. The regime, he insisted, had “stumbled” into genocide.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s research circled with increasing sterility around a narrow range of questions, drawing on the same limited range of sources. Had Hitler always intended to annihilate the Jews or did he drift into a murderous policy? Was there a single “Führer order” and if so, when was it issued? Was the genocide the result of planning or the consequence of “cumulative radicalisation”?

The principal figures in these exchanges were mostly West Germans: Eberhard Jäckel, a proponent of the “intentionalist” interpretation; Uwe Dietrich Adam, who followed Schleunes in arguing that the regime had lurched from one policy to another with no clear goal; and Martin Broszat, who exemplified the “functionalist” approach. It was an American, Christopher Browning, who blended the functionalist interpretation, in which human agency was downplayed, with a greater sensitivity to ideology and personality.

In 1982, the election of Helmut Kohl as West German chancellor opened the way to a controversial reassessment. Kohl wanted to “normalise” German history, treating the Nazi years as a phase in the longue durée of modernisation, and subsuming the Holocaust into a century of genocide. This agenda, and the efforts of Andreas Hillgruber and Ernst Nolte to tell a patriotic national story, triggered the “Historikerstreit”, a dispute about the singularity of Nazi crimes.

Kohl’s subsequent attempt to embrace the East Germans, following reunification, as victims of an undifferentiated totalitarianism that had lasted from 1933 to 1990 stimulated comparative studies. These in fact tended to underscore the specificity of Nazism. More significantly, the end of the Cold War allowed access to previously closed archives in the old Soviet bloc and enriched the corpus of available source material.

German reunification raised other unfinished business, such as the disposal of looted gold recovered from the Nazis in 1945. Swiss banks and German corporations, insurance firms, the art market and even railways were soon the subject of industrial-scale historical research by specially commissioned teams under the leadership of established scholars.

The resulting studies transformed the historical landscape. As Götz Aly concluded in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (2005), the transfer of wealth from Jews to Germans widened the circle of complicity to almost every German citizen. A similar dynamic extended across Europe and was summed up by Jan Gross in his recent book Golden Harvest. From France to Poland, non-Jews saw Jews as fair game, to be squeezed and then disposed of.

Meanwhile, explanations for the genocide were reshaped, first by postmodern theorists and then by the resurgence of national hatreds and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the collapse of communism.

In 1989, Zygmunt Bauman published Modernity and the Holocaust, in which he maintained that Nazi genocide was the apogee of Enlightenment rationality. Shortly afterwards, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman’s The Racial State sought to show how racial-biological thinking informed all official policy and infused everyday life in the Third Reich. The role of doctors, psychiatrists and demographers in applying eugenic ideas seemed to corroborate Bauman’s dark version of modernity.

Yet it was hard to think in such terms when the news was delivering images of slaughter from Bosnia and Rwanda. In Ordinary Men (1992), his study of a reserve police battalion that murdered tens of thousands of Jews in Poland, Browning had tilted in favour of situational factors such as peer pressure to explain the killers. By contrast, Daniel Goldhagen, whose book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) examined the same cadre, concluded that they were driven by crude Judaeophobia. In his version the killers revelled in tormenting Jews before killing them in ways far removed from the industrial mass murder conjured up by Bauman.

By the end of the 1990s, personal agency and beliefs had become central to explaining both “perpetrators” and “bystanders”. To some extent, this reflected a shift from German to American scholarship. Robert Gellatelly, Eric Johnson and Peter Fritzsche argued that the Third Reich had relied less on coercion and more on consent. The Nazi concept of an idealised people’s community, was no longer dismissed as propaganda.

A new generation of young German historians produced a number of studies that amended our understanding of the timing and character of the Final Solution. While Hitler’s role remained decisive, it became apparent that his minions and satraps had far more autonomy than was once thought.

Jewish historians had long bemoaned the absence of a Jewish dimension from such research and the availability of vast collections of testimony, notably the USC Shoah Foundation, rendered the omission ever more untenable. But how to use it? Saul Friedländer’s magnificent volumes on Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997 and 2007), finally offered a model of how to write an “integrated” history that combined the conduct of the perpetrators with Jewish responses.

Fifty years after Arendt and Hilberg ruffled feathers, the “lessons of the Holocaust” seem no clearer and efforts to comprehend the Jewish tragedy continue to provoke as much controversy as reflection.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror