The historiography of the Holocaust

historiography of the holocaust
The Jewish historian Hannah Arendt, who fled Germany in the 1930s.

Ever since the barbarism of the Holocaust was exposed to the world, historians have tried to assemble its vast array of pieces and make some sense of them. The historiography of the Holocaust, a field of study now ongoing for 75 years, has sought to form conclusions about how it evolved, who was responsible, who carried it out and why it happened.

Joining the dots

These questions are not as simple as one might assume. The Holocaust was an extraordinarily complex event with millions of contributing people, groups and factors. It was not confined to a city, a state or even a nation but unfolded across an entire continent. It was not ordered or organised in one definitive policy but in many. It had many perpetrators, not all of them Nazis or Germans. It had many victims, not all of them Jews.

Though the Nazi regime was undoubtedly the main driver of the Final Solution, the Nazi state was itself a hotchpotch of people, departments, ideas, motives and interests. Adolf Hitler was clearly the leader but the extent of his power over the state has been greatly debated. Nazi departments and agencies wielded significant power but their authority often overlapped or even competed with other parts of the government.

Historians have had to explore this quagmire of people, places, ideas, interests and events. Developing cogent arguments about why the Holocaust happened and who was responsible requires joining millions of dots.

Some key questions

Some of the key questions found in the historiography of the Holocaust include:

  • What personal role did Hitler play in the evolution of the Holocaust? Did he give a direct order or guidelines for the extermination of European Jews? Or did he simply allow or endorse the decisions of his subordinates?
  • Did Hitler and/or the Nazis have a long-term plan to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population? Or did this policy emerge in 1941, shaped or necessitated 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 Schutzstaffel (SS) was chiefly responsible for the Final Solution and its death camps – 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?

Intentionalist historians

The first three of these stem from broader questions about Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Contributors to the historiography of Nazi German and the Holocaust 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.

Sonderweg historians

Most intentionalist historians belong to a school of thought known as the Sonderweg (‘special path’). They argue that Nazism was the logical outcome of Germany’s historical development, particularly its fascination with authoritarianism, military conquest, racial purity and anti-Semitism.

These ideas and values, Sonderweg historians argue, pre-dated the Nazis by generations, even centuries. They not only survived into the modern era but shaped early 20th-century German government, contributing to the outbreak of World War I (1914), post-war radical nationalism and the rise of Nazism.

According to Sonderweg historians, this meant that Nazism and the Holocaust were not significant deviations from the course of German history; they were its predictable endpoints.

Functionalist historians

Another group of historians, known as functionalists or structuralists, supported a ‘weak fuhrer theory’. Hitler’s power over the Nazi Party, they argue, has been considerably overstated.

These historians contend that Hitler made decisions spontaneously, haphazardly and unpredictably. He had few long term plans, beyond restoring military strength and expanding German territory. Sometimes Hitler acted to maintain his position at the helm of the party, which was not as secure as is often believed. His introduction of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, for example, was done to appease hardcore anti-Semites in the NSDAP.

From this theory, it follows that the Holocaust was the product of anti-Semitic forces in the Nazi movement as much as any 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.

Who ordered the Holocaust?

In the historiography of Nazi Germany, 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 Hermann Goering or Heinrich Himmler at Hitler’s suggestion. It is almost impossible 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 a direct order from Hitler relating to the mass killing of Jews. Where these orders can be found, they were given by Hitler’s subordinates.

This missing piece of the jigsaw has fuelled speculation about Hitler’s role in the evolution of the Holocaust. It has also been fed numerous Holocaust denialists, many of who claim there was no organised nationwide policy of genocide but only localised or spontaneous mass killings.

Bureaucrats and functionaries

Some historiography of the Holocaust focuses on individuals who facilitated its mass murder but had no direct involvement in the killing of Jews or other minorities. Men like Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann consigned millions to death with the mere sweep of a pen.

Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on Eichmann’s trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was one of the first histories to consider the Final Solution as a bureaucratically driven event. According to Arendt, men like Eichmann considered themselves normal people undertaking a difficult but necessary job. They were obsessed with paperwork, statistics, transportation, timetables, efficiency, resource allocation and outcomes. In Eichmann’s case, he gave little consideration to the grim realities of his 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 perspectives

Other contributors to this historiography 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.

“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

Citation information
Title: “The historiography of the Holocaust”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: July 20, 2020
Date accessed: May 30, 2024
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.