Aug 14, 2007

A Hero's Life: Raul Hilberg

I still remember coming out of Schindler's List with my father a decade ago. "Well, what did you think?" And strangely we both agreed, although a well done movie, it is, in my opinion, and in truth a little too Capra-esque to ever be sited as the definitive movie on "the Holocaust". Shoah belongs to Peckinpah. Maybe Scorsece. Or if you get right down to the bones it belongs to a Jerry Bruckenheimer or a Michael Bay (the later 2 renowned for their formulaic style). In a world where many refuse to look at the documented truths of the events occurring in Europe during the WWII it is great that Hollywood and America embraced Spielberg's opus. It was just a little too romantic.... a little too heroic to tell the story of THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN JEWS.
I hope all who stop here will indulge me a moment. I'd like to share a few words about maybe the smartest man I ever knew and absolutely one of the bravest. Raul Hilberg was one of the most important political scientists of the second half of the 20th century. He died in his home last week but he left a past many who stop at Crimespree will appreciate.

I have many heroes in my life. Countless people who have, with words of fiction, written truths that have stunned me, plots that have amazed me and detail that inspires every time out. Another group have written Entertainments that have distressed, amused and indulged me.

1945: At the age of 20 a young American soldier stationed in Europe read many of Hitler's papers. He began to collect information.
1961: when THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN JEWS was released the Holocaust had been investigated not as the work of a few evil people but as the mechanizations of a society to systematically make the murder of millions of people possible. For the first time.If you haven't read this book I suggest that you do.

You can google Hilberg's name this week and find 1,000 obituaries citing him as the Father of Holocaust research. Many state that this tome was his master achievement. I would say that that is wrong. When the work was released it was not well received by the academic society here in the States and the book has only recently been available in Israel. Hilberg's greatest contribution was that he continued to research this event and write definitive essays, papers and books until his reality could not be questioned. For a glimpse of his influence I suggest What kind of God? : Essays in honor of Richard L. Rubenstein

I remember Raul (Professor Hilberg to me) as a somewhat gruff man, with an uncanny likeness to Edward G. Robinson (minus the cigar). He also periodically produced the heartiest laugh I've ever heard. He gave me an early belief in Absolute Truth and the strength of words to tell the truth. He gave the world a history that cannot be ignored and he did it with timetables and work schedules. I'll leave you with a quote I've lifted from sign and sight from the man himself. A statement that explains why he continued to fight the good fight and what he hopes humanity can learn from his life's work And I'll say goodnight to a hero.

Hilberg, for his part, left no doubt about the significance of his topic for human history. "A basic drive had appeared among Western nations, set free by their machines. From this moment onwards, the underlying preconditions of our civilization and culture no longer reigned supreme, because although the events themselves have past, the phenomenon as such remains." Hilberg stressed this drive, but above all his stress lay on machines: "Before the advent of the 20th century and its technology, minds bent on destruction could not have come up with the Nazi agenda, even in their wildest dreams. Past administrators simply didn't have the means. They lacked today's communication network, and had no access to automatic weapons or highly toxic poisonous gases. Tomorrow's bureaucrat would not have this problem; he is better equipped than the German Nazis. Killing is no longer as difficult as it once was." That is Hilberg's terribly sober lesson for the future. It's hard to endure, but it bears a clue to the hardship and late success of this scholar's career: Killing is no longer as difficult as it was.


Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

As on a worldwide scale, so on a small one. I was surprised a few months back when a conservative newspaper columnist seemed to be making provocatively unconservative arguments about the Virginia Tech killings. But then he offered the patently absurd statement that if Seung-Hui Cho had not had access to guns, he would have found another way to kill 32 people.

The answer to that is obvious: No, he would not have. People still refuse to believe the monstrous extenstions of evil thoughts that machines make possible.

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"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"