The historiography of the Holocaust

historiography of the holocaust

The Jewish historian Hannah Arendt, who fled from Germany to the US in the 1930s.

Ever since the barbarism and genocide of the Holocaust was exposed to the world, commentators and historians have tried to assemble its pieces and make sense of them. The historiography of the Holocaust has sought to form conclusions about why it happened, how it evolved, who was responsible and who carried it out. These questions have proved difficult to answer. The Holocaust was an extraordinarily complex event with a myriad of contributing people, groups and factors. It occurred not in a city, a state or even a nation but across an entire continent. It was not outlined in one definitive order or policy but in thousands. It had many perpetrators, not all of them Nazis or Germans; it had many victims, not all of them Jews. The Nazi state that encouraged and oversaw the Final Solution was itself a hotchpotch of people, departments, ideas, motives and interests. Historians have had to delve into this quagmire of people, places, ideas, interests and events and connect a million dots.

Some of the critical questions that have underpinned research into the Holocaust include:

  • What personal role did Adolf Hitler play in the evolution of the Holocaust? Did he give the order and/or guidelines for the extermination of European Jews? Or did he simply endorse or allow the decisions of subordinates?
  • Did Hitler and/or the Nazis have a long-term plan to extermination European Jews? Or did this policy emerge in 1941, shaped by wartime difficulties and challenges?
  • Was the development and implementation of the Final Solution a centralised or decentralised event? In other words, was it controlled chiefly from Berlin – or was it mainly driven by local conditions or prejudices, shaped by different individuals in different locations?
  • The SS was chiefly responsible for the Final Solution – but to what extent were other Nazi groups or agencies involved? What role was played by the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and civilian bureaucrats? Were German civilians aware of the mass killings and, if so, to what extent were they involved?
  • To what extent were external groups like the Allies, the Catholic church, the Red Cross and anti-Nazi partisans aware of the Holocaust? Why were there so few concerted attempts to disrupt or resist the Final Solution?

The first three of these stem from broader questions about Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Historians have long debated the nature of Hitler’s leadership. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought about how Hitler ruled both the NSDAP and Germany. Intentionalist historians like Karl Dietrich Bracher, Lucy Dawidowicz and Eberhard Jackal endorse the ‘strong fuhrer‘ theory about Hitler’s leadership. They argue that Hitler wielded enormous power over both the Nazi Party and the national government; his dominance was so strong that Hitler’s personal ideas and prejudices became the official ideas and prejudices of the state. Most intentionalist historians believe Hitler and his inner circle had a long-standing ‘master plan’ to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. Dawidowicz, for example, believes Hitler’s plan for liquidating European Jews dates back to the early 1920s.

Most intentionalist historians belong to a school of thought known as the Sonderweg (‘special path’). They argue that Germany’s fascination with authoritarianism, military conquest, racial purity and anti-Semitism pre-dated the Nazis by generations, back to mid-1800s Prussia. These ideas and values not only survived, they shaped the newly unified Germany and contributed to the outbreak of World War I (1914), post-war radical nationalism and the rise of Nazism. According to Sonderweg historians, Nazism and the Holocaust were not significant deviations from the course of German history, they were its predictable end points.

“Although the structuralist argument – that there was no blueprint for genocide and that the road to Auschwitz was ‘twisted’ – is correct, one must also note the genocidal fantasy that lay at the heart of Nazism from its inception. While a simplistic internationalist position that sees the Holocaust as the realisation of a plan held by Hitler since 1919, 1925 or 1933 is not tenable, the more we discover about the penetration of Nazi anti-Semitic indoctrination into every sphere of life in the Third Reich, the more it becomes clear [that there was] a framework of vicious, paranoid Jew-hatred.”
Dan Stone, historian

Another group of historians, known as functionalists or structuralists, support the ‘weak fuhrer theory’. Hitler’s power over the Nazi Party, they argue, has been considerably overstated. They contend that Hitler made decisions spontaneously, haphazardly and unpredictably; he had few if any long term plans. Sometimes Hitler acted to maintain his position at the helm of the party, which was not as secure as is commonly believed. His introduction of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, for example, was done to appease hardcore anti-Semites in the NSDAP. From this theory if follows that the Holocaust was the product of anti-Semitic forces in the Nazi movement, as much as it was a manifestation of Hitler’s personal will. Ian Kershaw, the leading functionalist historian of recent times, has also claimed the existence of a ‘Hitler myth’. Kershaw argues that the perception of Hitler as a dominant, all-powerful leader, ruling both party and state with an iron fist, was the product of Nazi propaganda rather than reality.

The nature of Hitler’s leadership is central to the question of who actually ordered the Holocaust. Given what we know, it is likely that the Final Solution was either ordered by Hitler personally – or ordered by Goering or Himmler at Hitler’s suggestion. It seems unlikely that it could have occurred without Hitler’s knowledge or endorsement. A complicating factor in this issue is that no historian, researcher or archivist has ever located a Fuhrerbefehl: a document containing evidence of a direct order from Hitler. This missing jigsaw piece has fuelled speculation about Hitler’s role in the evolution of the Holocaust. It has also been fed numerous denialists who claim there was no organised nationwide policy of genocide, only localised or spontaneous mass killings.

Some historiography of the Holocaust focuses on individuals who facilitated its mass murder but did not participate in killings themselves. Hannah Arendt’s 1963 biography of Adolf Eichmann was one of the first histories to consider the bureaucratic nature and “banality” of the Final Solution. According to Arendt, the men who organised and perpetuated the extermination of six million people considered themselves normal people who were undertaking a difficult but necessary job. They were obsessed with paperwork, statistics, transportation, timetables, efficiency, resource allocation and outcomes. Some, like Eichmann, were almost completely divorced from the grim realities of their work. Arendt also reached the conclusion that the Nazis did not formulate the Final Solution until 1941, when they realised the resettling or deporting Europe’s nine million Jews would be an impossible task.

Other historians have considered factors other than the Nazis. There have been in-depth studies of reactions and responses of Jewish victims; the attitudes and actions of German civilians; and various forms of resistance to the Final Solution. American historian David Wyman’s 1984 book The Abandonment of the Jews claimed the US government was aware of the unfolding Holocaust but did little to prevent or disrupt it. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men looks at how propaganda, ideology and peer pressure drew thousands of otherwise ordinary civilians into participating in mass killing. Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners argues that German civilians, imbued with centuries of anti-Semitism, either supported the elimination of the Jews or were apathetic to it.

Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. This content may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use. This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn & S. Thompson, “The historiography of the Holocaust”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],