Children in Jerusalem look at a brochure with images of the Holocaust, 1961. Photograph: Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood