The Revised Hilberg

by Christopher R. Browning

Raul Hilberg. The Destruction of the European Jews. Rev. ed., 3 vols. continuously paginated. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985. xii, 1274 pages.

In the preface to the 1961 edition of The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg wrote that the topic of his book had "not yet been absorbed as a historical event." Mere acknowledgment of the destruction of the European Jews did "not signify its acceptance in an academic sense. Unprecedented occurrences of such magnitude are accepted academically only when they are studied as tests of existing conceptions about force, about relations between cultures, about society as a whole." For such academic acceptance to occur, for the Holocaust (as it subsequently became known) to serve "as a test of social and political theories," one first had to "grasp how this deed was done."1 That was the primary task Hilberg set for himself-to analyze systematically how the Jews of Europe had been destroyed.

One measure of the importance and success of this phenomenal book is that 25 years later, with the publication of a revised and expanded edition, Hilberg can omit from his new preface the remark noted above. The Holocaust is no longer viewed as an aberration, as a freakish event irrelevant to mankind's self-understanding. The destruction of the European Jews has been accepted as a historical event in Hilberg's sense, that is, it has become "a test of social and political theories" based upon our increasing awareness of "how this deed was done." While many factors have contributed to this development, no single scholar and no single book have been more instrumental than Raul Hilberg and The Destruction of the European Jews.

If one measure of a book's greatness is its impact, a second is its longevity. For 25 years The Destruction of the European Jews has been recognized as the unsurpassed work in its field. While monographic studies of particular aspects of the Final Solution, utilizing archival sources and court records not available to Hilberg before 1961, have extended our knowledge in many areas, The Destruction of the European Jews still stands as the preeminent synthesis, the book that put it all together in the framework of an overarching and unified analysis. Indeed, there are qualities to the work, both in its vast scale and in the pattern of dividing each topic into its constituent parts while never losing sight of the whole, that bring to mind the great achievement of Thomas Aquinas. It comes the closest of any work in print to being the Summa of Holocaust studies.

In addition to its vast scope and synthetic power, The Destruction of the European Jews has also endured through its anticipation of the future agenda for Holocaust studies. Hilberg's primary focus was upon the German perpetrators, but inevitably he touched upon and, in the process, helped define other major areas of subsequent research. Foremost in this regard was the question of Jewish response, about which more will be said later. But Hilberg also raised the whole question of the behavior of the bystanders and the problem of rescue. While this aspect of Holocaust studies did not become prominent until the late 1960s with the appearance of the books by Morse and Feingold,2 one finds in Hilberg little-noted references to the famous Riegner telegram, the obstruction of the State Department, the Morgenthau Report leading to the creation of the War Refugee Board, the failure to bomb Auschwitz or the rail lines, the Brand mission and the Saly Mayer-Kurt Becher negotiations, and a questioning of the adequacy of the American Jewish leadership's response.3 In short, virtually every topic of the subsequent debate on the "bystanders" was touched upon by Hilberg. Reading the revised edition, I often came upon sections that struck me as seemingly new reactions by Hilberg to recent debates and research, only to find upon consulting the original edition that I was reading insights and remarks that Hilberg had made 25 years ago!

The 1961 edition has had a stormy career. Rejected by a number of prominent academic presses, it was finally printed by an obscure midwestern publisher with the help of a generous benefactor. Initially not reviewed in any major academic journal, it subsequently became the center of heated controversy due to both its use and misuse in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem and to Hilberg's own treatment of Jewish response. The reaction in this regard often went beyond the academic pale, as in Nathan Eck's conclusion that The Destruction of the European Jews was "not a serious study" and Hilberg's "slander on the Jews" was possibly motivated by "hate of himself or the whole people."4 Such reactions are now past. The greatness of the book is accepted, and it is routinely referred to as "magisterial," "monumental" and "a classic" even by its critics. But what about the new and revised edition?

Revising a classic work is a delicate operation. How much does one change or seek to improve without in effect writing a different book? Hilberg's decision was on the conservative side. He has sought to change as little as possible. Before discussing what is new and different about the revised edition, therefore, it is important to emphasize what is the same.

The structure and organization of the book remain intact, as does its central thesis. The destruction of the European Jews is still portrayed as "an administrative process carried out by bureaucrats in a network of offices spanning a continent."5 The bureaucracy is divided into four components or hierarchies-party, civil service, industry, and military-but their cooperation is viewed as "so complete that we may truly speak of their fusion into a machinery of destruction."6 The German perpetrators who staffed this machinery of destruction were "not a special kind of German" but rather "a remarkable cross-section of the German population."7 The administrative process was so complex and wide-ranging that it required specialists of all kinds, coming from every facet of life. "The machinery of destruction, then, was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole; the difference was only one of function. The machinery of destruction was the organized community in one of its specialized roles."8

Hilberg asserts that this bureaucracy "had no master plan, no fundamental blueprint, no clear-cut view of its actions."9 Yet he writes "that the German administration knew what it was doing. With an unfailing sense of direction and with an uncanny pathfinding ability, the German bureaucracy found the shortest road to the final goal."10 How does Hilberg reconcile these seemingly conflicting views? The answer is a kind of structural determinism. For Hilberg "a destruction process has an inherent pattern" and the "sequence of steps in a destruction process is thus determined." If a bureaucracy is moved "to inflict maximum damage upon a group of people," it is "inevitable," no matter how unplanned, that it push its victims through specific stages of a destruction process. These are: definition, expropriation, concentration, and annihilation.11 The bulk of the new book, like the old, is devoted to analyzing how the four German hierarchies carried out these four basic steps of the destruction sequence in all corners of the German empire.

What is new in the revised edition? The changes are of four kinds. The first is an updating of bibliographical reference; the second an updating of content. The third is a significant change of interpretation concerning the decision-making process and the role of Adolf Hitler therein. The last is a moderate change of tone in how Hilberg speaks of the delicate and controversial issue of the Jewish response.

In many sections Hilberg is content with the 1961 narrative and analysis based for the most part on the Nuremberg documents. He therefore leaves the text unchanged but adds references in the footnotes to monographs that have appeared subsequently. Thus the work of Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton on Vichy France, Leni Yahil on Denmark, Fredrick Chary on Bulgaria, Helmut Krausnick and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm on the Einsatzgruppen, and my work on Serbia are noted but not really incorporated into the new volume. In particular, Hilberg has chosen to remain above the historiographical fray and not to engage in debating opposing interpretations. The view of Marrus and Paxton, for instance, that weighs Vichy initiatives far more heavily in contrast to German demands than does Hilberg's, is not mentioned. The existence of debates over the specificity of the pre-invasion orders given to the Einsatzgruppen, alleged Polish Home Army readiness to help the Warsaw uprising, and the respective roles of Arthur Sommer and Eduard Schulte in relaying secret information on the German plan for the Final Solution is mentioned in footnotes but Hilberg does not join these debates.12

In sections where Hilberg was not content with the state of research in the first edition, he has sought to expand and update it through both his own archival work and the research of others. Many of these additions and revisions are short but skillfully and unobtrusively woven into the original text. Hilberg is a very effective stylist, and without constantly consulting the footnotes the reader is unaware that new material has been introduced. These minor additions cover a multitude of topics: the dismissal of Jewish civil servants; the Reichsvertretung and Reichsvereinigung; the Riga and Kovno massacres of November-December 1941; the role of the ubiquitous Ordnungspolizei; the liquidation of the Vilna, Lodz, Bialystok, and Galician ghettos; the deportations from Norway; the Dutch Jewish council; the fate of Jewish children in France; the events in Italy of 1943-44; the whole course of the Holocaust in Croatia; the roles of the Catholic Church and Jewish council in Slovakia; increased use of the Cartea Negra for events in Romania; the evacuation of the Polish camps and the death marches at the end of the war; the postwar trials in Germany; and the remembrance and memorialization of the Holocaust.

In addition to these numerous short additions, there are a number of lengthy ones. Three entirely new chapters have been added. One concerns the "central agencies of deportation" covering Eichmann's bureau (IV B 4) and the German railways. (Additional material on the railways is in fact interspersed throughout the chapters on deportations, notably for France, Slovakia and Hungary. The role of the railways has been, of course, one of the areas that Hilberg has intensively researched since 1961.) A second new chapter deals with "ghetto maintenance." Both this new chapter and extensive additions to the sections on ghetto formation, labor, and food supply reflect Hilberg's research on the Warsaw ghetto that he undertook while preparing the publication of the diaries of Adam Czerniakow. Warsaw now exceeds Lodz as the most fully described and analyzed ghetto. Finally, there is an entirely new 20-page statistical appendix, in which Hilberg explains in great detail how he arrives at the figure of 5.1 million Jewish dead from the Holocaust.

In addition to these new chapters, other sections have been so entirely reworked and expanded as to constitute new chapters. The new study of the deportations from Germany, focusing on Frankfurt, Vienna, and Berlin, is a great improvement over the old edition. The hitherto obscure course of the Holocaust in Odessa and Transnistria is now carefully traced. The extermination camps of Kulmhof, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Maidanek- that is to say all but Auschwitzwere terra incognita in 1961. Using subsequent German court proceedings, Hilberg has now achieved a balanced portrayal of this most hideous chapter in the destruction process. Through a skillful use of survivor testimonies and interrogations from the extermination camp trials, Hilberg has also written a moving section on the "physical layout and psychological technique" of "conveyer belt" mass murder.13 Concerning the origins of the killing centers, a short but perceptive section concludes that "'euthanasia' was a conceptual as well as technological and administrative prefiguration of the 'final solution' in the death camps."14

The chapter on outside awareness of the Holocaust and rescue has also been greatly expanded. Some of Hilberg's material in this regard is startling. He cites a Polish report, now found in the National Archives, that was written in August 1943, reached London in January 1944, was in the hands of American Military Intelligence in March, and was forwarded to William Langer in the OSS in April. This Polish document gave extensive information on the arrival in Auschwitz of Jewish deportees from Greece, Slovakia, the Protectorate, Holland, Belgium, and France as well as Poland. It reported the gas chamber murder and cremation of nearly one-half million Jews in Birkenau by midsummer 1943, and even gave the names of many of the commanding German officers there.15 In short, several months before the Vrba-Wetzler report reached Allied hands and before the Hungarian deportations had begun, the Allies already had detailed information on Auschwitz, but it was apparently not digested or widely shared.

These new materials and bibliographical references update and fill lacunae in The Destruction of the European Jews, but they do not alter Hilberg's basic interpretation. There is one major interpretational change, however, concerning the role of Hitler in the decisionmaking process. In the first edition the image of the impersonal machinery of destruction was dominant, but this image was at least partially tempered by Hitler as ultimate decision-maker.16 In the new edition, all references in the text to a Hitler decision or Hitler order for the "Final Solution" have been systematically excised.17 Buried at the bottom of a single footnote stands the solitary reference: "Chronology and circumstances point to a Hitler decision before the summer ended."18 In the new edition, decisions were not made and orders were not given. The Fiihrer prophesied, commented, and wished; within the bureaucracy ideas crystallized, thinking converged, and atmosphere and expectation facilitated initiative at every level. Adolf Hitler does not disappear from the scene, but he appears only infrequently as catalyst, not decision-maker. In 1933 "Adolf Hitler's ascendency to the chancellorship was a signal to the bureaucracy that it could begin to take action against the Jews."19 In 1939 Hitler prophesied and threatened that war would bring the annihilation of the European Jews, creating an atmosphere of imminence and expectation. In the summer of 1941 the Germans realized that the time had come to cross over the dividing-line to systematic mass murder. "Pivotal in this crystallization was the role of Adolf Hitler himself, his stance before the world and, more specifically, his wishes or expectations voiced in an inner circle."20 But it was left to others to cite his promises and invoke his authority.

In several new sections Hilberg develops the powerful conceptual insight that as the persecution of the Jews escalated, the modus operandi of the Nazi regime changed. A formal structure of public laws and written regulations dissolved into an increasingly opaque and formless network of secret directives, vague authorizations, oral communications, and "basic understandings of officials resulting in decisions not requiring orders or explanations."

In essence, then, there was an atrophy of laws and a corresponding multiplication of measures for which the sources of authority were more and more ethereal. Valves were being opened for a decision flow. The experienced functionary was coming into his own. A middleranking bureaucrat, no less than his highest superior, was aware of currents and possibilities. In small ways as well as large, he recognized what was ripe for the time. Most often it was he who initiated action.

Hilberg concludes succinctly: "In the final analysis, the destruction of the Jews was not so much a product of laws and commands as it was a matter of spirit, of shared comprehension, of consonance and synchronization." (italics mine)21

Hilberg's interpretation straddles the recent controversy between so-called "intentionalists" and "functionalists" over the decisionmaking process leading to the Final Solution.22 The "intentionalists" emphasize the continuity of Nazi Jewish policy derived from the centrality of Hitler and his ideology within the Third Reich. What happened to the Jews was simply the implementation or at least the logical result of the "unalterable program" that Hitler had envisaged since the 1920s and clung to with unshakeable consistency thereafter. The "functionalists" deemphasize the centrality of Hitler, characterizing his role as that of a mobilizing and integrating agent rather than decision-maker consciously calculating how to realize his long- held goals. In this view the destructive dynamism of the Third Reich derived not so much from Hitler's ideology as from the structure of the Nazi movement. This ramshackle coalition of disparate and irreconcilable elements could not reach consensus on constructive measures or form the basis of a stable state. It was held together only by perpetual radicalization focusing on the most destructive elements of Nazi ideology. The Final Solution was the improvised response of this chaotic and anarchical system to the intractable situation in which it found itself in late 1941.

Like the functionalists, Hilberg deemphasizes the role of Hitler and his ideology. He denies the existence of any long-held plan. His description of the dissolving formal structures of government and the increasingly amorphous "decision flow" within the Nazi regime will be music to functionalist ears. On the other hand, Hilberg notes that "continuity is one of the crucial characteristics of Nazi Jewish policy"23 It was not the chaos, anarchy, and internal competition of the Nazi regime that radicalized Jewish policy in Hilberg's view, but rather the "fusion" of its four hierarchies into a single machinery of destruction that operated according to the inevitable logic of the destruction process. "Consonance" and "synchronization," not chaos and internal competition-an "inherent pattern," not improvisation-hold center stage in Hilberg' s view. For the functionalists the Nazi regime was an inefficient machine out of control. For Hilberg it was a machine that was all too efficient and in control of both itself and its victims.

In Hilberg's view the "German administrators were driven to accomplishment."24 But the source of this drive was neither Hitler's ideology, which merely sanctioned what they wanted to do anyhow, nor frustration at the cul-de-sac into which they had haplessly maneuvered themselves. For the perpetrators the Final Solution was "an undertaking for its own sake, an event experienced as Erlebnis-lived through by its participants . . . . The German bureaucrats . . . all shared in this experience .... They could sense the enormity of the operation from its smallest fragments. . . . they understood each other."25 In short, they were driven by a kind of hubris, intoxicated by daring to do what had never been done before. The machinery of destruction was self-propelled.

If Hilberg has significantly altered his views on the role of Adolf Hitler in the Final Solution, he has changed far less in his views regarding the role of the Jews. Here the shift is not one of interpretation but of tone. Hilberg omits inflammatory terms such as "collaboratorsf"26 and "Jewish self-destructive machinery."27 Murmelstein of Vienna no longer has "the ambition to become a modern Josephus Flavius."28 Hilberg no longer states that his book is "not about the Jews" while proceeding to make broad generalizations about Jewish history and behavior.29 Now the Jewish community is "viewed in terms of what it did and did not do in response to the German assault" for "the very progress of the operation and its ultimate success depended on the mode of the Jewish response."30

Such moderating of tone is not likely to placate those who objected to the first edition, for in substance Hilberg sticks to his original interpretation. The terms "ghetto Jews," "Diaspora Jews," and 'Jews of Europe" are used interchangeably. Denying significant differences between assimilationists and Zionists, unorthodox and religious, capitalist and socialist, East and West, Hilberg asserts emphatically that these Jews shared a common reaction pattern that had been "remarkably constant over the centuries." In the face of persecution, alleviation and compliance were the preferred options that had proven their worth over the past 2,000 years of life in exile. Resistance (seen by Hilberg strictly as armed resistance, not in the wider sense defined by Yehuda Bauer as concerted action intended to thwart German purposes) was eschewed as counterproductive. It was the action of only a very few and was always the "last (never first) resort."31 Moreover, it changed nothing. "The Germans brushed that resistance aside as a minor obstacle, and in the totality of the destruction process it was of no consequence."32

In an important new section Hilberg divides "Jewish compliance" into two categories. One was the "purely reflexive observance of German instructions" by masses of individuals. The other was the "institutional compliance by Jewish councils" that "placed Jewish resources into German hands, thereby increasing the leverage of the perpetrator in significant ways."33 Unlike Hannah Arendt, Hilberg does not explain the behavior of Jewish councils in terms of a moral collapse, of men corrupted by the taste and trappings of apparent power. These were men whose best intentions were insidiously turned against their own people.

Members of the Jewish councils were genuine if not always representative leaders who strove to protect the Jewish community.... They were officiating with the authority conferred upon them by the Germans but also with the authenticity they derived from Jewry.... The councils could not subvert the continuing process of constriction and annihilation. The ghetto as a whole was a German creation. Everything that was designed to maintain its viability was simultaneously promoting a German goal.

Jewish efficiency became an extension of German effectiveness, Jewish rigor a reinforcement of German stringency.

... even Jewish incorruptibility could be a tool of German administration. In short, the Jewish councils were assisting the Germans with their good qualities as well as their bad, and the very best accomplishments of a Jewish bureaucracy were ultimately appropriated by the Germans for the all- consuming destruction process.34

In the final analysis the Jews fell victim to a perceptual, not a moral, failure. The Jewish leadership was helpless to break out of the trap as long as it could not overcome past habits. But rather than trying to break with the past, "European Jewry . . . made every effort to reinforce its traditional behavior. . . . The Jews, like the Germans, developed psychic mechanisms for suppressing unbearable truths and for rationalizing extreme decisions." The Germans used "very crude deceptions and ruses," making it appear "that one of the most gigantic hoaxes in world history was perpetrated on five million people noted for their intellect." Hilberg concludes, however, that for the most part the Jews were not fooled by the Germans but rather by themselves. "The Jewish repressive mechanism was largely selfadministered and it could operate automatically, without any misleading statements or promises by German functionaries...35

Thus on the question of Jewish response, Hilberg has amplified some of his views and moderated some of his language. But for those offended by the first edition-with its undifferentiated view and broad generalizations about 2,000 years of Jewish exile, its narrow conception of Jewish resistance, and its staunchly functional view of the Jewish councils-his conclusions will remain unpalatable. With justification his critics will note the contrast between Hilberg's careful and nuanced conclusions about German actions based on a lifetime of exhaustive, indeed unsurpassed, research in the German documents, and his broader, more sweeping generalizations about Jewish reactions derived from a much scanter documentary base.

In summary, The Destruction of the European Jews remains in structure and organization nearly identical to the 1961 edition. The general interpretive thrust is the same, with only one major change regarding Hitler and the decision-making process and a more moderate change in tone and attitude concerning the Jewish response. Both in content and bibliographical reference, the book has been significantly updated and expanded. Raul Hilberg has improved a classic, not an easy task, though various readers will undoubtedly find things they wish he had done differently. I for one wish he had changed more concerning the Jewish response, changed less concerning Hitler's role in the decision-making process, and entered more vigorously into some of the historiographical controversies of the past two decades. But as before, such criticisms cannot alter the fact that we are dealing with a truly great book.


1. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1961), p. v [henceforth cited as First Edition].

2. Arthur Morse, While Six Million Died (New York, 1967), and Henry Feingold, The Politics of Rescue (New Brunswick, 1970).

3. For this last point, see First Edition, p. 719.

4. Nathan Eck in Yad Vashem Studies 6 (1967): 430.

5. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, rev. ed. (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985), p. ix [henceforth cited as Revised Edition].

6. Revised Edition, p. 56.

7. Ibid., p. 1011.

8. Ibid., p. 994.

9. Ibid., p. 998.

10. Ibid., p. 9.

11. Ibid., pp. 998-99.

12. Ibid., pp. 290, 503-4, 1118.

13. Ibid., pp. 967-77.

14. Ibid., p. 873.

15. Ibid., pp. 1126-27. In contrast, Martin Gilbert in his Auschwitz and the Allies (New York, 1981), pp. 339-40, states that the Auschwitz gas chambers "kept their secret" until the Vrba-Wetzler report reached the West in June 1944.

16. First Edition, pp. 177, 257-58, 261-62.

17. Revised Edition, esp. corresponding sections on pp. 273, 393-94, 399-402.

18. Ibid., p. 402.

19. Ibid., p. 31.

20. Ibid., p. 402.

21. Ibid., pp. 54-55, 995-98.

22. Tim Mason, "Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism," in Der Fahrerstaat: Mythos und Realitat, ed. Gerhard Hirschfeld and Lothar Kettenacker (Stuttgart, 1981), pp. 21-40; Saul Friedlander, "From Anti-Sernitism to Extermination: A Historiographical Study of Nazi Policies Toward the Jews and an Essay in Interpretations," Yad Vashem Studies 16 (1984): 1-50; Christopher R. Browning, Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution (New York, 1985), pp. 8-38. See also the proceedings of the international conference devoted to this controversy that was held in Stuttgart in May 1984: Der Mord an den Juden im Zweiten Weltkrieg, ed. Eberhard Jackal and Jurgen Rohwer (Stuttgart, 1985).

23. Revised Edition, p. 994.

24. Ibid., p. 1004.

25. Ibid., p. 993.

26. First Edition, p. 666.

27. [bid., p. 291.

28. Ibid., p. 283.

29. Ibid., p. v.

30. Revised Edition, pp. ix, 22.

31. Ibid., p. 23.

32. Ibid., p. 1031.

33. Ibid., pp. 1036-37.

34. Ibid., pp. 1037-38.

35. Ibid., pp. 1039, 1041.

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