Shavuot: A Night of (Unhappy) Learning

Shavuot: A Night of (Unhappy) Learning

Shavuot, which starts tonight, is all about learning. Jews are supposed to stay up all night reading in celebration of God giving Jews the Torah. What makes the holiday rare, though, isn’t the reading part–what Jewish holiday doesn’t involve that? It’s that there’s no bad guys in the story. Unlike Passover, we don’t commemorate Jews escaping a pharaoh in Egypt, or, as in Hanukkah, a revolt against the Romans. No matzah, no latkes, just books and books and books.

So in that spirit of book-learning, I’m posting a link to a provocative book review by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. But be forewarned: none of the books under review are happy ones; all are about the Holocaust. But it’s a topic worth exploring, especially since all we Jews are supposed to make the time to read tonight. Here’s the link.

But if you get tired, here’s a crib sheet: Snyder describes several new scholarly books that undermine the popular conception of the Holocaust was the inevitable result of Hitler gaining power. The popular conception holds that, once Hitler was in power, with his viscious anti-semitism so well-known, it was unavoidalbe that he would attempt to murder all Europe’s Jews. Why then did we do nothing to stop him earlier?

Scholars have for years not only been highly skeptical of this notion, but have also tried in vain to pinpoint an exact date when the Final Solution–that is, the expressed intent to murder every last Jew in Europe–became a reality. The books Snyder reviews, however, avoid the trap of trying to find an exact date of that decision, or the Holy Grail of Hitler research: some kind of document expressedly written or signed by Hitler that shows he ordered the murder of Jews.

For the general public, this is all insignificant. Hitler was a rabid anti-semite who everyone knew premised his idealized utopia of a pure Aryan race on the willed removal of lesser races, chief among them, Jews. But it’s not that simple, since, after all, the evidence of Hitler’s plan for the Jews runs directly counter that. The only evidence historians do have for what to do with the Jews was Hitler’s vaguely sketched out idea to send all Jews he conquered to a German-controlled part of Madagascar; and once he invaded Eastern Europe, he’d deport those millions of Jews to mainland Russia.

But, as the Holocaust books under review show, as the war changed, so did Hitler’s plans. Stalin didn’t want to have anything to do with the East European Jews either, which led to the infamous Wannsee conference, when Nazi officials decided–on January 20, 1942–that any Jews who fall under German rule would be killed. That decision too, Snyder writes, entirely so clear-cut, as many Nazi underlings had begun killing Jews in occupied Eastern Europe not in death camps, but in roving gas trucks or point-blank massacres.

Many worry that historical interpretations that seek to push back the date of the Final Solution, or even mention the idea that Hitler did not immediately plan to kill Jews, is blasphemy. But that’s an idea based on deeply flawed logic, which runs like this: if Hitler did not making the killing of Jews a priority from his first day in power, the logic goes, then he must have never wanted to kill Jews. But that’s ridiculous. Hitler could have wanted a world free of Jews–he always, in fact, did–but not envisioned death camps or gas vans. Eventually of course he did. But that grim strategy evolved after many other plans for the removal of Jews to far-away lands failed. We are not making Hitler more "humane" but saying he didn’t always plan to kill Jews–becaus the fact is, he eventually knowingly did. By showing how that happens we do a much greater service to our understanding of how villains became that who they are.

Just as important, acknowledging the evolution of Hitler’s anti-semitism into death camps requires an appreciation of the many other people that were required to make the Holocaust happen. To put it all on Hitler denies the massive social input required for such a human travesty. Many of Hitler’s other political plans were either shelved or not enacted because they became impossible to implement, or changing circumstancess made previous aims moot. The death of the Jews required widespread complicity, from people willing to put Jews on trains to camps where everyone knew no one came back, to the legions of S.S. gaurds who went on a ruthless pursuit of Jews. Hitler may have loved the Holocaust, but don’t believe he was alone in making it.

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