Rethinking the Nazi nightmare

Two historians challenge the idea that the Holocaust was unique, describe how anti-Semitism was worse in prewar America than in Germany and compare Hitler & Co. to the '60s generation.

Published October 2, 2002 9:07PM (EDT)

In "Holocaust: A History," authors Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt recount a 1941 conversation between an Italian journalist named Curzio Malaparte and high-ranking Nazi officials shortly after Malaparte toured the Warsaw ghetto. Malaparte asked the Germans about the massacre earlier that year of 7,000 Jews by Romanian police and soldiers. One Nazi, Gov. Gen. Hans Frank, replied, "I share and I understand your horror at the Jassy massacres. As a man, a German and as Governor-General of Poland I disapprove of pogroms ... We Germans are guided by reason and method and not by bestial instincts; we always act scientifically ... Have you perchance even seen a massacre of Jews in the streets of a German city? ... Yet, within a short time, not a single Jew will be left in Germany."

As Dwork and van Pelt show, many Nazis, and especially the architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, believed themselves to be "decent" and "surgical" murderers, performing a great and laborious sacrifice for the good of Germany. Throughout their absorbing history, Dwork and van Pelt reveal the dark complexities behind the Nazis' war crimes -- the rationalization of mass murder, the emergence of the "final solution," the small events that drive an ordinary man to commit acts of genocide, the equally small events that turn other ordinary men into heroes. As Dwork explained to Salon in a recent phone interview, the Holocaust was a phenomenon that evolved as the war progressed, rather than something that was meticulously planned. Each decision and act built on the last, and ultimately constructed a catastrophe.

Dwork, a professor of history at Clark University, and van Pelt, a professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo, are also the authors of "Auschwitz." In this latest effort, they have plowed through mountains of source material in order to place the Holocaust, often treated as a singular event in human history, within the framework of the history of Western civilization -- with surprising and fascinating results.

What's different about this history of the Holocaust? What were you aiming for when you conceived it?

Debórah Dwork: We were aiming to step back, widen the lens. Often people think about the Holocaust as something that was outside of time, an aberration. If you ask, "When did the Holocaust start?" [most people] don't know. Our goal was to fit the history of the Holocaust into the context of Western civilization so that people could begin to look at it as part of a larger piece.

So you don't think that the Holocaust was an aberration?

Dwork: No, I don't.


Robert Jan van Pelt: [In our book] we look at the nature of European racism in the 19th century. A combination of racist fury and nationalism had a deep and profound emotional reverberation in the collective imagination of people. Both of those created a very strong sense that there was an in group and an out group. The emancipation of the Jews just happened to happen right at that time. If it had happened a century earlier, maybe it wouldn't have been the Jews who were selected for the Holocaust.

Second, the First World War was a catastrophic and cataclysmic event which really shook up all the values and certainties in European society. The war introduced the idea of mass death and mass murder -- as in the Armenian genocide -- as permanent parts of the European imagination, certainly the German imagination. Both of these things created a landscape in which ultimately the Holocaust could be contemplated by someone like Hitler in 1941.

You write that Hitler said, "Whoever thinks about the Armenians anymore?" Do you think that that genocide had a great effect on him?

Dwork: Yes, I do. It was a powerful model for him.

You also argue that the Inquisition and the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution were precedents for the Holocaust. Can you explain?

Van Pelt: The Inquisition and the French Revolution rejected the idea that those who live in a society have a right to live there. What the Inquisition formulates is that there is a group [of people] that stands between us and salvation and that group has to be removed if it cannot be converted. The French Revolution did the same thing. It broke with a traditionalist idea that what is inherited -- even things that we can't really cope with, like, for example, Jews -- deserves a place because God wants it to be there. Both the Inquisition and the French Revolution had this revolutionary idea that people can radically change society and that will bring them to the Promised Land. That is something which the Nazis -- and for that matter the Communists in the Soviet Union in the 1920s -- adopted. Ultimately, it's going to be the Jews or it's going to be the Kulaks or any other group that's perceived to stand in the way. They will become the victim. And it has genocidal implications.

Dwork: Why is it that hundreds of thousands of people are persuaded to get up every morning and go out and kill people? It's not because they are bloodthirsty creatures. It's because they believe they have embraced an ideology of salvation. In the case of the Inquisition, it's a religious salvation: "We can achieve salvation and we have to get rid of the Jews to do it." In the case of the French Revolution, it's a secular salvation: "We can create a new society." The same is true with the Nazi era. The reason why all these Germans were persuaded to act as they did was not because of sadistic delight, or the sexual pleasure of bloodthirstiness. It was built on this ideology of creating the perfect Germany.

So you don't believe that anti-Semitism is a special type of racism? Some would argue that extreme anti-Semitism has existed for so many centuries and that the Holocaust was in some way inevitable. Or were the Jews just a group that was chosen at that time?

Dwork: Anti-Semitism was a necessary but not sufficient factor. It's not an either/or but an and/and. Certainly, anti-Semitism played a very important role but we have lots of examples of incredibly anti-Semitic societies that did not murder Jews.

In the book, you write, "Were the Jews a separate people, a nation unto themselves, or could they be integrated into the new state?" How big of a role did nationalism play?

Van Pelt: The problem was: How does the nation define itself? The nation was defined [as some place] where people have done things in the past together. At a certain moment, Jews fit in that picture. If in any country the emancipation of the Jews had the greatest possible chance, it was in France on the basis of this kind of definition: "We've done things in the past together and we will do great things in the future together."

The great problem was that most countries, and especially Germany, [relied on] the idea of racial descent. The idea was: "We descend from an original group, we are the descendents of the original Germans, and we have this original language in common." Language becomes central in the definition of a nation. The people who speak German are Germans; the people who speak English are the Brits.

Of course, the question is: Is language natural to someone or not? Then, you get this absolutely absurd debate about whether a Jew can ever learn German. Wagner writes whole treatises on the idea that Jews destroy the language the way they pronounce it, and hence they destroy the inner values of the nation. A fantasy emerges of the Jew as a corrupter of the inner values. In most of 19th-century Europe, the idea of a common descent and a common language became the dominant ideological core of nationalism. It was very difficult for Jews to be integrated in that idea.

Why did these ideas appeal to Germany so much? I know that some Holocaust scholars say that it was something exceptional about Germany and their specific strain of eliminationist anti-Semitism. Do you agree that there was something special about Germany?

Dwork: Robert Jan, you take that one. We don't actually agree on this 100 percent.

Van Pelt: The Romanians and others were quite happy to join. Let's not only focus on the Germans as the sole perpetrators. We quote Georg Hermann [a German Jewish novelist who fled to the Netherlands when Hitler came to power] who writes in the 1930s about his memories of the First World War. Hermann says that before the First World War, anti-Semitism existed but it wasn't really a problem: "Antisemitism was present, irritating as a gnat in a summer evening, but one frightened it away and found it quite pleasant out there, mild and warm." For example, quite a lot of research is being done right now comparing anti-Semitism in 1910 at German universities and at Oxford. The anti-Semitism at Oxford was more pervasive than that at German universities which were the centers of German nationalism. What makes the Germans take the lead in this is very clearly based on the contingency of the First World War -- the incredible defeat, what war means to the Germans, and then, the result of defeat.

[Debórah and I] certainly disagree with any person who says that the Germans have made themselves into the kind of perfect genocidal, eliminationist anti-Semites. The First World War and the very tough period after the First World War created the seeds. However, that doesn't mean that the Holocaust was then unavoidable. German democracy seemed to work in the late 1920s. But then there's the Depression and everything that follows from there. In our book, we try to reintroduce a sense of the historicity of the various elements that bring us to the Holocaust instead of engaging in the kind of essentialist discourse [that says that] the Germans were born to be genocidal maniacs.

Dwork: If we had to write one big sentence across the whole of our book it would be "Nothing is inevitable." It's step-by-step, and it's a contingency. Many factors come together by accident, fortuitous circumstance, either with positive effect in some cases, or with negative, disastrous, horrific effect in others.

Can you explain why gentiles turned on Jews in Germany? In the 1930s, it happened so quickly -- laws were passed banning Jewish business and suddenly little gentile kids were taunting Jewish kids on the playground. What foundations were there and why?

Van Pelt: When Germany found itself in a stalemate after 1915, a number of things happened very quickly. Before 1914, Germany as a nation-state was a very problematic thing. It was actually a collection of independent states like Bavaria and Prussia, etc. When the unified German state went to war, it was obvious that the dynasties could not answer why this war was going to be fought. An ideology was created that there was this other Germany, this inner Germany which was not embodied in the idea of the state. Instead, it was a mystical bond that united Germans of all different ranks and of all the different regions together. Who belongs to this [bond] and who does not starts to acquire very critical importance.

As the Germans were formulating this ideology, they started to exclude the Jews from that definition. That was based on these 19th century ideas of belonging to a nation because of language, etc. So it was only in the First World War that these 19th century ideas started to come to fruition. You get this idea that the Jews don't share in this mystical union.

One German historian named Oswald Spengler basically says that the Jew can don a German army uniform, the Jew can die in the trenches, he can even earn a medal, but the Jew will never really understand what it means. He will never share with his comrades what it means to die on behalf of this nation. In some way, despite all his sacrifices, he's not really part of this. Now, if a person who is "sympathetic" says that, think about all the other people who start asking, "Are Jews really fighting on the front? Or are they sitting comfortably in the offices of the army?" Those kind of rumors start to increase. It was that mystical, theological redefinition of the nation that drove the Jews out of the collective, at least in the imagination of the people.

Then, when the Nazis came to power, or when Hitler started disseminating his beliefs, were Germans fearful of him? Or did he make sense to them because of how they'd defined themselves?

Dwork: Absolutely. There is evidence of that. But I want to give you the countervailing position [to the notion of a special form of German anti-Semitism]. We know what the end result -- the Holocaust -- is when we hear the words of Spengler. But a recent historical study shows what was happening in the United States in terms of anti-Semitism and what was happening in Germany. In 1930, anti-Semitism was much more visible and blatant in the United States than in Germany. More hotels, country clubs and restaurants excluded Jews in the United States than in Germany. In 1930, going through upstate New York, it was common to see signs that said "No Jews, no Negroes, no dogs," whereas in Germany those signs were nowhere to be seen in 1930.

Van Pelt: You asked about the fear of Hitler. In some way, Hitler was very attractive to many people. And that was because he was young. Ten years after the First World War there was a real sense of failure in Germany, a sense that the older generation had failed and that the young would be able to do what the old had failed. A little bit like 1968 in the United States. It's strange for us to imagine when we look at the pictures, but Hitler and all of his guys were young people. That attractiveness of a fresh new beginning was really there. We forget that compared to all the other politicians and all the other people who were actually running the country, [the Nazi leaders] were half their age.

Dwork: They were exciting after such lackluster politicians before them.

And at the same time, the Germans were desperate.

Dwork: They were desperate. They had ricocheted from one disaster to the next. The Weimar Republic had a shaky start, then gained its stride in the mid-'20s. But it just couldn't catch a break. The worldwide Depression had a devastating effect. One lackluster German government after the next took power, and achingly rigid and conservative politicians tried to enforce solutions that were not acceptable to the people. When Hitler came on the scene, people turned to him with a sense of relief. They looked to the experience of the Italians under Mussolini. They saw Italy on the rise again since 1922.

In fact, there were liberal-minded Dutch businessmen -- the Netherlands wasn't doing well at that time either -- who went over the border into Germany in the mid-1930s to look at the German economy under Hitler. I interviewed one such man and he said, "The racist politics were not something I could accept, but the economic part of it was quite attractive to me at the time." So it's not just Germans who thought that this was acceptable. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Western newspapers reported rather favorably.

Did the Western papers express any outrage to Hitler's racist politics?

Dwork: Well, remember the United States in 1933 was a profoundly racist society. We had segregation. Racism was not a big shock for Americans. Strict racist policies against Jews as opposed to just exclusionary practices -- that was a little surprising. But the United States was a different place then too.

Looking back, people might think: Why couldn't more Jews and others leave right away? In the early 1930s, did they not think it would get that bad? How much did they feel the threat? Or was it that they simply couldn't?

Dwork: Jews were desperate to leave in the 1930s. The problem was -- who would take them in? The problem was not at all what was wrong with the Jews. What was wrong with the governments of the other countries?

But I'm wondering -- did they perceive early that anything really awful was actually going to happen?

Dwork: It depends. Certainly, there were Jews who knew themselves to be at risk, and understood that if the Nazis came to power, then they had to flee. For example, communists of every persuasion, Jewish social democrats, but also other social democrats, people who had been critical of the Nazi regime. This pertained particularly to men. People generally thought that a regime would target men as political enemies, but that a regime would not target women and children. That was something completely new. So the first wave of refugees out were men.

When was this?

Dwork: Immediately, 1933. Some of them took their families with them but it was very complicated because there was a worldwide Depression and borders were closed. It was very difficult to get entry permits for Jewish refugees.

And America made immigration nearly impossible, didn't it?

Dwork: That is correct. The State Department was profoundly anti-Semitic and wouldn't even permit the fulfillment of the legal quota, let alone increase the quota to meet this need.

They made it difficult in terms of paperwork too.

Dwork: Absolutely. In the days before computers, fax machines and photocopying, people had to do 6-feet-long documents and 10 copies of it.

So Germans in general -- gentiles and Jews -- did understand the Nazi party's threat?

Dwork: When you say "threat," again, you're saying that with the benefit of hindsight. The people who knew that they would be at risk -- they knew to leave. But Jews, simply because they were Jews, did not understand immediately that they had to leave. They thought that anti-Semitic movements come and go, and that Hitler, now that he was in power, would have to moderate his tone. In 1933, 50 percent of all marriages contracted by Jews were to non-Jewish partners in Germany. Jews felt very comfortable in Germany as Jews.

It really took 1938 with the November pogrom [Kristallnacht -- a massive coordinated attack on German Jews] for all illusion to be shattered. But the illusions disappeared one by one. It wasn't as if during 1933 to '38 nothing happened and then in 1938 all illusions shattered. In the meantime, it became increasingly difficult to get out. That's the point that needs to be made. Day after day, thousands of Jews lined up at consulate offices, at embassies, at shipping agent offices, at the tax offices to make sure their taxes were up-to-date. Even though the Germans wanted Jews to leave, they wanted to squeeze them dry before they left.

It took an enormous effort to clear all of those bureaucratic hurdles, and then the question was: Where to go? The great joke circulating between Jews in Germany at the time was: What language are you learning? The answer is: the wrong one.

Was anyone helpful?

Dwork: The only person who can really claim that is Trujillo in Santo Domingo, who for his own racist reasons was willing to admit Jews. He hoped that these Jewish refugees would intermarry with the native population and lighten up the skin color.

Were the gentiles married to Jews in Germany persecuted as well? Or were they sometimes humiliated but ultimately treated differently because they were gentiles?

Dwork: It depends on what you mean by persecution. It was certainly a policy to get the non-Jewish partner to divorce the Jewish partner. Life was made difficult, but [gentiles married to Jews] were not typically incarcerated in concentration camps. Typically, they were not deported. Certainly, they suffered what we would call persecution now. But not within the context of that time.

Van Pelt: One of the choices they had to face was sterilization. For a state to impose that choice on a couple was absurd and mad and criminal. The idea was, "OK, we're allowing the Jewish spouse to remain married and we will not persecute them if we can be assured that no children will come out of this marriage." I would call this persecution even when the life of that person isn't at stake at that moment. The life of the next generation is extinguished.

You also say that there was a climate at the beginning of the war throughout Europe where everyone was considered dangerous, everyone was a stranger. Did that have a lot to do with why many countries didn't let Jews in, or was it simply because they were Jews?

Dwork: I would say it was multifactorial.

Van Pelt: A very simple example. In 1939, England declares war on Germany and then starts rounding up German nationals to intern them. Most of the German Jews, at least men, are also interned, often with German Nazis. To the British, everyone who has a German passport is suspicious. It takes the British a year, sometimes even longer, to find out who is an anti-Nazi German, who is a Jewish anti-Nazi German and who is a Nazi German. Internees are ultimately brought to Canada for a year or two before they are released. In 1939 to 1940, the English had very few resources to sift through who is to be trusted and who, from a military point of view, should be considered enemy aliens.

You see this in France too. The French have all of these Spanish, German and Jewish refugees and then they are overrun by the German army. In the general panic, everyone who speaks the wrong language is picked up and held in a camp until they can start sifting through them.

What about Poland? You say that Germany wanted to eradicate Polish culture, and the gentile Poles were suffering, but they became more anti-Semitic as their suffering went on. Is that right?

Dwork: I don't know whether they became more anti-Semitic as they suffered. Poland has had a long history of anti-Semitism. They had an incredibly anti-Semitic government between 1935 and 1939. In fact, when we're talking about that refugee situation, the situation of Jews in Poland and Romania was even more desperate than the situation of German Jews in the mid-1930s. Then come the occupation years and a range of occupation regimes. The occupation regime in Poland was extraordinarily harsh. Ten percent of the Catholic Polish population alive in 1939 was dead by 1945. Life was difficult for them -- near-starvation to starvation conditions existed, their labor was exploited, children were not going to school. It was a situation in which giving aid to others was almost impossible. Also, the already extant anti-Semitism was inflamed by propaganda. Nevertheless, probably millions of Poles participated in one way or another in attempts to help Jews.

A lot of the questions about the Holocaust have been about ordinary people choosing or not choosing to perpetrate genocide. From your research, why do you think that some people do and some people don't.

Dwork: I don't think that people decide that they are going to perpetrate genocide. It's step by step. One decision changes the situation but also changes the person. And then the next decision is made. Rescuers weren't born to be rescuers -- they came to rescue. You've seen the movie "Schindler's List"? So you know exactly what I'm talking about. [Oscar Schindler, a German Nazi businessman who employed cheap Polish Jewish laborers in his factory to profit from the war, eventually saved 1,100 of them from Auschwitz.] The same thing with perpetrators of genocide.

What we look at too little in the Holocaust is the role of greed. Especially when you're talking about neighbors. Nazism very effectively destroyed social community. It destroyed neighborliness. It destroyed that social fabric with denunciations, with pitting people against each other, with creating the in group and the out group, with creating an ideology of exclusion and salvation through exclusion. Then, on top of that, those who were in the in group could benefit materially. That's not trivial.

And what about the S.S.? You call Himmler an "evil genius." How did he convince S.S. members to kill en masse? How did mass murder and extermination camps become palatable to these men?

Van Pelt: People don't go out in the morning to perpetrate genocide; they do it within another context. In this case, the context is striving for salvation. What was central to Himmler and the S.S. and the way they enacted the Holocaust was actually this Christian idea that they took the sin upon themselves. That's the way Himmler talks about it: "We have taken this burden upon ourselves so that the nation will not have to carry this. We are like Jesus Christ committing the crime on behalf of Germany. It needs to be done so that everyone else can live."

He sees himself as a hero. He sees the S.S. as heroes. He never says it's not a vile business. He says, "I've been there, I've seen what it means to kill people and it's horrible. But somebody has to do it and this is our honor." He talks about it in this medieval chivalric sense -- the knight who has to commit the crime in order to save the situation. That allows him to explain to himself and to others how he can do what he does and somehow remain moral in the act.

If everything happened in stages, then we can see that they went from wanting the Jews to go to Palestine, to then conceiving of Madagascar and ghettos, and then eventually to Auschwitz. How did it go from deportation to mass murder? And so quickly?

Dwork: We all know the term "final solution" to the Jewish problem, and we think, usually without thinking, that the final solution was there from the beginning. If you look closely at the history of Nazi policy and practice with regard to the Jews, one sees that the Nazis developed their solutions until ultimately they came to the final solution -- the annihilation of all the Jews in Nazi-occupied regions. The Nazis never wanted the Jews; they always wanted to get rid of the Jews. The question is: What does "get rid of" mean?

Initially, it meant sending them off, enforced emigration. Then, when the Germans conquered larger and larger tracts of Europe, millions more Jews came under their control. The original solution was no longer working. So they devised other solutions that took care of larger numbers of people and that are workable during wartime. The next solution is some kind of reservation. Such a reservation was created in the Lublin district [in Poland]. Then the Germans got this idea that they would send the Jews off to Madagascar. They really believed that might happen; it was on the drawing board.

And that was a reservation that they would control because they didn't believe in a Jewish state, right?

Dwork: They hadn't worked that out in such detail. But going back to your question about support for Zionism -- that support was rooted in two ideas. One was: Send the Jews out of Germany. The second was that Jews are not really Germans, Jews are not really Europeans, so if they believe in nationalism then logically the Jews deserve their own state in Palestine and that's where they can go.

The Nisko reservation in the Lublin district was a disaster; even the Nazis recognized that. The Madagascar option never materialized because Britain did not fall so the Germans never controlled Madagascar. They turned to other solutions. But the practice of killing Jews came before the policy decision to murder the Jews of Europe.

Meaning they were already killing them -- they were already being shot randomly, they were already dying in ghettos.

Dwork: Yes, so practice came before policy.

Van Pelt: The ghetto situation by 1941 -- many people were dying and German public health officials were talking about how to deal with that. They started to say, "Maybe we should kill all of them because that's going to be more humane. They're not going to survive the next winter." In the situation of mass death in the ghettos, you don't need a policy to kill all of them to be confronted with the fact that people are dying en masse.

Then, in June 1941, you get the attack on the Soviet Union and as a result of the incredible violence of the war you get massive killings in Romania, for example. That is why the Romanian story is so important because the Germans see what Romanians are doing. I don't want to say that they get inspired, but in some way it brings mass extermination by Einsatzgruppen [Germany's mobile units created to kill Jews] on the table. The Germans have Einsatzgruppen, but they have not been given the order to kill all Jews as of 1941. But when the Romanians start killing all the Jews -- starting with the Jassy massacre -- it introduces this new possibility. By August 1941, the Einsatzgruppen are killing women, children, as well as men.

In a situation of war, things become possible that were unimaginable maybe two, three months earlier. Practice does not necessarily imply a policy but then the policy follows very quickly. By late 1941, German administrators in Russia are still asking, "What are my instructions? I can't find them in the Brown Portfolio." [The Brown Portfolio contained the official guidelines for treatment of the Jews. At that time, it did not mention genocide.] While people are killing and deporting, the individual initiatives are being taken without there being a clear policy. Ultimately, the politicians catch up by December.

Did they get the idea of concentration camps from the Romanians -- a place of mass extermination?

Van Pelt: The Romanians were massacring Jews the old way in 1941. The Einsatzgruppen followed suit in late summer 1941. Then it becomes clear that what may work in Russia doesn't work in central Europe and the West. So the first extermination camps are devised because it's very difficult to continue killing people. The German soldiers can't take it, the S.S. can't take it. It's too bloody, people start drinking, they collapse as a result of the strain. At a certain moment Himmler says, "OK, we better start cleaning this operation up." That's when the camps are created where they can be killed in a clinical way that will not burden the executioners with their own deeds.

And the Allies knew that this was going on.

Van Pelt: From late 1942 onward. By then, some of them were in operation for a year.

How did they not know before that?

Van Pelt: How would you know? They hardly knew what was happening in Europe. It's a situation of war. There's an incredible amount of information going to the Allies by radio interception, and of course, the first thing they're looking for is information of military value to them. What's happening to Jews is of very little military significance. In 1942, you cannot fault the average intelligence officer for not paying attention to that kind of information.

I've gone through tons of these transcripts about Auschwitz. The information that's relevant is buried among other things. Now we are looking for it. At that time, no one was looking for it. The aerial photos of Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1944 -- the only reason they were taken was because Auschwitz was close by an important industrial target. But when the camera started rolling and started photographing Birkenau in the beginning of a bombing run on that industrial target, Birkenau was the unimportant part of the film. Now it is the only important part of the film.

After 1942, when they knew about the camps, the Allies believed that they needed to win the war first and that would save the Jews.

Van Pelt: Insofar that the Jews come into the policy at all. They didn't want to fight a war for Jews because it's not going to be a popular war. But, yes, the argument is victory at all costs and no negotiations. This was a policy set by Churchill in 1940: "We will not negotiate, this is a war between good and evil and only total victory is acceptable to us." Of course, this is to the detriment of the Jews because when no one wants to negotiate with the Germans on any issue, they also don't want to negotiate on behalf of the Jews. That very firm policy -- and the correct policy in the sense that it led to the ultimate destruction of the Third Reich -- was, of course, very bad for the Jews. Any opening that existed in 1944 for negotiations was effectively ignored by the Allies.

Did you want to write this book in terms of Western civilization because of the more recent acts of genocide. Did you want to put it in a context of genocide?

Van Pelt: Our approach is very clearly a criticism of the idea of the Holocaust as unique, or something that stands by itself or this otherworldly event. [That idea exists] especially among many survivors, and legitimately so because that's how they experienced it.

And also because so quickly after the war everyone tried to forget the Holocaust, or ignored the magnitude of it.

Van Pelt: Yes. We also feel that historians in general have not been able to place this event in the reading of history as such. In some way they are afraid of this topic. When you go to universities, Holocaust history is quite often banned to Jewish studies departments. It's not taught in the history or the philosophy or the sociology department.

Do you expect many historians to reject your book?

Van Pelt: Historians by nature want to integrate things, and others have tried it in different ways. It will be more difficult for Holocaust theologians. But we didn't want to create a controversy with this book. We wanted to approach this event with the same kind of historical tools and questions as we would approach another event and not put it in a historical ghetto of our imagination. Somehow bring it back to earth.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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