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The Future of Holocaust Studies

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Holocaust awareness has become a worldwide phenomenon, and an international free republic of Holocaust researchers has emerged. Among long-term trends in the field of Holocaust studies are the universalization of victimhood and the extension of the circle of perpetrators. Present trends include Holocaust history as local history, the integration of perpetrator and victim histories, and the explanation of perpetrator behavior in ideological terms. Anticipated future developments include greater discussion of the outlawing of Holocaust denial, and the return of the explanation of perpetrator behavior in terms of disposition. The term genocide has come to be used too often. It is not only used a shield, but also as a sword in new quests for utopia.

The History of the Field of Holocaust Research

The field of Holocaust research became truly international in the 1970s.[1] The single most important development since then has been the growth of a worldwide free republic of researchers, which now includes scholars from Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, both Western and Eastern Europe, Canada, and Australia. There is some research by scholars from South America, but it mostly deals with Jewish emigration to that part of the world during the 1930s, not with the Holocaust proper. Not yet included are scholars from Africa and Asia. The boundaries of this republic of Holocaust research are essentially the boundaries of the part of the world that during the Cold War, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, constituted the free West – along with Eastern Europe.

This points to the fact that Holocaust awareness is a way to discuss core political values of the West such as democracy, responsibility, and solidarity. It also is an instrument to strengthen the democratic ethos in Eastern Europe. As Omer Bartov has put it, “in a century characterized by a quest for perfection,” Holocaust awareness deals with “the narrow path between utopia and hell.” The murderous pursuit of utopian politics has “been the engine of our epoch’s aspirations and disillusionments, violence and annihilation…. In essence our century has tried to define what and who is human, and then to set rules as to how human beings should live in society and who must be excluded from it altogether.”[2]

In keeping with Yehuda Bauer’s outlook, the basis for these discussions is the idea of the universalization of victimhood, that is, the idea that everybody is a potential victim of genocide.[3] In other words, identity is not only an unfailing source of empowerment; the Holocaust makes abundantly clear that identity is also a risk, and possibly a fatal one. As Bauer wrote: “What happened before, can happen again. We all are possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders…. The Holocaust is a warning. It adds three commandments to the ten of the Jewish-Christian tradition: Thou shalt not be a perpetrator; Thou shalt not be a passive victim; and Thou most certainly shalt not be a bystander.”[4]

This universality of the importance of the Holocaust by no means contradicts the specificity of the Holocaust; the two notions are two sides of the same coin. Holocaust educators across the globe prove this every day. To quote Bauer once more: “This menace is universal and at the same time – because it is founded on the experience of the Holocaust – very specifically connected with the Jews. The specific and the universal cannot be separated.” And as Bauer also observed: “as a symbol of evil the awareness of the Holocaust is spreading all over the world.”[5]

Division of Labor

In the somewhat smaller republic of Holocaust researchers there is – or perhaps was – an implicit division of labor. American and German scholars specialize(d) in studies of the perpetrators; Israelis have strongly focused on the victims. In the past these two types of research were not connected. There is not yet sufficient input by younger scholars from Eastern Europe, although some of the younger researchers from Ukraine appear promising. Within Eastern Europe, however, Poland stands apart, as scholars from that country such as Waclaw Dlugoborski, Czeslaw Madajczyk, Feliks Tych, Franciszek Piper, and Jan T. Gross have been doing distinguished work since the 1980s at the latest.[6] Not all East European political elites support Holocaust studies and Holocaust education. They tend to regard the states they govern as victims of Stalinist terror and not as accomplices in the Holocaust; Ukraine is a case in point. Not many institutions actively support the younger East European researchers. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, however, is doing so.

Overall, the field is internationalizing because researchers from new “member states” have entered the research republic. Sometimes this was a result of the debates on the restitution of Holocaust assets. The Scandinavian countries, Belgium, and Greece are examples of this tendency.[7]

Worldwide, perhaps 250 PhD students are now in the later phases of their work on the Holocaust. In April 2009, the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of Clark University (USA) organized its First International Graduate Students’ Conference on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. One hundred twenty graduate students applied; 53 delivered speeches, 80 percent of them dealing with the Holocaust.[8] Genocide research, however, is not dominated by historians but by social scientists and experts in international humanitarian law. Some of the young European scholars working on the Holocaust have secured international funding for their research, in particular at American and British universities. But there seem to be too few possibilities for them to remain in this field because, in Europe at least, the number of available post-doc scholarships appears to be limited.

The methodology of this research is not unlike that of medieval studies. One needs to be multilingual to enter the field successfully. The researchers study the documents that have not been destroyed by the Nazis. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they discovered that many East European civil servants and individuals were just as implicated in the largest and most total mass murder in history as were German society and other West European societies and bureaucracies.[9]

The Perpetrators

Thus, the universalization of victimhood has been one long-term trend, and the steady extension of the circle of perpetrators has been another. Important studies by Yaakov Lozowick and Michael Wildt, for example,[10] have disproved Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil[11] and have proved that many higher German bureaucrats were very much ideologically motivated. The rich post-Cold War harvest of regional studies of the Holocaust in Europe has now become meager.[12] This, however, may well be a temporary setback. In addition to Bauer’s forthcoming book on the shtetls in eastern Poland, one of his leading students is now working on the Carpatho-Ukraine. And as the abovementioned Strassler Center gathering in April 2009 made clear, the regional approach remains to be selected by young researchers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.[13]

There was a long and fruitful debate on the decision-making that led to the Holocaust, but it has ended.[14] Following the famous psychological experiments performed by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram,[15] there has been widespread agreement that the behavior of the ordinary perpetrators, those doing the actual killing, was determined by the situation they were put in, not by their psychological makeup.[16] As Bauer put it in his speech to the German parliament in 1998: “the most horrible thing about the Shoah is in fact not that the Nazis were inhuman – the most horrible thing about it is that they were indeed human, just as human as you and I are.”[17] This notion has been extended to research on other genocides. Donald J. Bloxham has maintained that “the very existence of mass participation in most genocides shows that the context is generally more important than the disposition and beliefs of the individual perpetrator, since in the ‘right’ situation so many people of demonstrably different characters and values participate….”[18]

This agreement on the normality of the ordinary, lower-level perpetrators, however, perhaps belongs to the past. There seems to be a strong contrast between the conviction that, if the situation is “right,” everybody is a potential perpetrator, and the results of recent research on the evolutionary and neuroscientific aspects of morality and on the links between (recidivistic) crime and genetic factors.[19] This will lead to a new focus on the disposition of perpetrators.

Present Trends

Certain present trends appear to be here to stay, at least for the immediate future. One is the rise of “Holocaust history as local history.” That was the title of a major conference held in Thessaloniki in June 2008, and it was apt.[20] Historians are attempting to tell the large story of the Holocaust through the perspective of the history, not of one region but of one single city, or even in one major labor camp. As Christopher Browning recently pointed out, this local research will show the need for a new vocabulary on Jewish resistance as well.[21]

Another trend is the integration of perpetrator and victim histories, as Saul Friedländer has done successfully in his recent synthesis.[22] The writers of the new local histories are putting the Holocaust in the perspective of the longer-term history of the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in these localities and regions. In other words, Holocaust history, Jewish studies, and East European history are moving in each other’s direction.

Another development, as seen in works by Michael Wildt, David Cesarani, and Saul Friedländer,[23] is the return of the explanation of perpetrator behavior in ideological terms. There also is a new focus on the history of the different types of camps, following larger German research projects on the camps.[24] The use of personal documents, particularly diaries, has become widespread, not only as a source for the social history of the persecuted Jews, as done by Friedländer, but as a topic in its own right, in order to study how the persecuted Jews dealt with this. As Dan Michman has noted, the future use of these “Jewish voices” as expressions of Jewish societies and their structures (and not as the voices of mere individuals) also offers an opportunity to bring Holocaust history and Jewish studies more closely together.[25]


There is a strong focus on post-Holocaust studies, dealing with how European societies have in one way or another repressed their memories of the Holocaust. Some of these studies, however, are not yet fully integrated into the broader picture of postwar political and cultural history of these countries. In a number of countries – but by no means everywhere – a strong interaction has emerged between Holocaust research and research on other modern genocides.

The Holocaust, however, remains the paradigmatic genocide, if only because of the ideological radicalism of Nazism and the sheer number of its Jewish victims. Since Rwanda, for example, there has been a strong focus on open-air executions in the Holocaust. Scholars of modern genocides draw heavily on the highly sophisticated historiography of the Holocaust, and in doing so have made great progress. This is especially evident in the research on the Armenian and Rwandan genocides.[26]

Thanks to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research,[27] and as represented by the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem, the gap between the research output and Holocaust education has been narrowed.

Future Developments

Some future developments may be safely predicted. There will be more discussions on the outlawing of Holocaust and genocide denial in European countries. One of the most fundamental current political problems concerns the dangers of unbounded freedom of expression, which have become apparent.[28] Another future tendency will be the return of the explanation of perpetrator behavior in terms of disposition.

As for the needs of researchers, one is for more research on bystanders of the Holocaust and other modern genocides – that is, not on foreign governments but on the passivity of those who have chosen not to get involved. As a reviewer of a recent study on the passivity of the United Nations during the Rwandan genocide accurately remarked: “in seeking to blame western actors, [this book] twists logic to excuse those who most obviously caused the tragedy….” Research on the passivity of the foreign bystanders is useless if it blinds to the “responsibility of the local actors who author their own tragedies.”[29]

There is a pronounced need to support the younger researchers from Eastern Europe in their efforts to enter the field. A still stronger integration of Holocaust and post-Holocaust studies in the more general history of the (East) European countries is another necessity. The need to secure more international funding in Europe for post-doc fellowships is also obvious, and perhaps European universities should offer more opportunities to young researchers from other countries.

Finally, there are good grounds for prudence as far as the frequency of the use of the term genocide is concerned. As the denotation of absolute evil, genocide is perhaps taking the place of the Holocaust. As Jacques Semelin put it recently in a book focusing on the Holocaust and the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica: “The term has been applied, aptly or not, to all sorts of violent situations:… from Cambodia to Chechnya, including Burundi, Rwanda, Guatemala, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia and Sudan.” Retrospectively the term genocide has been used to characterize the “massacres by the Greeks of the inhabitants of Melos in the 5th century BC,” the killing of the native Americans, the Soviet-induced famine in Ukraine, and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In short: “Any group today that wants to construct itself as a victim in the eyes of the entire world claims to have been a victim…of genocide.” And as, for example, Arab delegates proved when they accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians during the Durban Conference in South Africa in September 2001, “given the powerful emotional charge the word genocide generates it can be used and re-used to heap international opprobrium on whoever is accused of genocidal intent.”

The term genocide is used as much as “a symbolic shield to claim victim status for one’s people, as a sword raised against one’s deadly enemy.”[30] This is a feature of currents efforts to shatter reality in the quest for political utopia and racial purity.


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* This article is a slightly redrafted and extended version of a lecture presented by this author in Jerusalem in August 2009. Previous versions of this text were read by Yehuda Bauer, Dan Michman, and Manfred Gerstenfeld, whom I thank for their friendship. Any errors, however, are mine and mine alone. The works referred to in the following notes are selected.

[1] Johannes Houwink ten Cate, “The Enlargement of the Circle of Perpetrators of the Holocaust,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2008): 52.

[2] Omer Bartov, Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide and Modern Identity (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 4-5.

[3] “In fact, all of humanity is likely to be a victim, given the current state of possibilities of destruction and unrest”; Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), xv.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 267, x-xi.

[6] The high level of Polish scholarship is, for instance, demonstrated by the five-volume history of Auschwitz that was published by Waclaw Dlugoborski and Franciszek Piper, eds., Auschwitz 1940-1945. Studien zur Geschichte des Konzentrations- und Vernichtungslager Auschwitz (Oświęcim: Verlag des Staatlichen Museums Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1999) [German]. The first excellent Polish historian in this field was Czeslaw Madajczyk, Die Okkupationspolitik Nazideutschlands in Polen 1939-1945 (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1988) [German]. His successors include: Feliks Tych, see Beate Kosmala and Feliks Tych, eds., Facing the Nazi Genocide: Non-Jews and Jews in Europe (Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2004) and Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[7] See, e.g., Stéphane Bruchfeld and Paul Levine, Tell Ye Your Children: A Book about the Holocaust in Europe 1933-1945 (Stockholm: Swedish Goverment Offices, 1998); Rudi van Doorslaer, ed., Gewillig België. Overheid en Jodenvervolging tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Antwerpen/Amsterdam: Meulenhoff/Manteau en Soma, 2007) [Dutch]; Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[8] For the conference program, see:

[9] Houwink ten Cate, “Enlargement,” 53.

[10] Yaakov Lozowick, Hitler’s Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil (London and New York: Continuum, 2002); Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

[11] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, rev. ed. (New York: Viking, 1968).

[12] Houwink ten Cate, “Enlargement,” 67, n. 16.

[13] See note 8.

[14] Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln/Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press/Yad Vashem, 2004).

[15] Philip Zimbardo, The Psychology of Imprisonment: Privation, Power and Pathology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972); Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental Approach (New York: Harpercollins, first ed. 1973, latest ed. 2009).

[16] Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harpercollins, 1992); Harald Welzer, Täter. Wie aus ganz normalen Männern Massenmörder werden (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 2005). [German]

[17] Bauer, Rethinking, 264.

[18] Donald J. Bloxham, “The Organisation of Genocide: Perpetration in Comparative Perspective,” in Olaf Jensen and Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann, eds., Ordinary People as Mass Murderers: Perpetrators in Comparative Perspective (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 187.

[19] See, e.g., Jan Verplaetse, Jelle de Schrijver, Sven Vanneste, and Johan Braeckman, eds., The Moral Brain: Essays on the Evolutionary and Neuroscientific Aspects of Morality (Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, and New York: Springer Sciences and Business Media, 2009).

Although it has been previously argued that genetics play no part in shaping antisocial and criminal behaviour a growing literature base has served to substantiate that genetic factors are as important to the development of some forms of criminal activity as are environmental factors. First, there are simply too many studies, in too many countries, using different methodologies that converge on the same conclusion: genes do play a role. Second, other potentially less controversial fields of behavioural trait research have not only identified heritability in psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and reading disability, but also in personality traits such as political conservatism. Thus it would be surprising, if criminal behaviour – particularly recidivistic crime – was not in some way influenced by genetic factors.

Sharon S. Ishikawa and Adrian Raine, “Behavioural Genetics and Crime,” in Joseph Glicksohn, ed., The Neurobiology of Criminal Behaviour (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 81-82.

[20] Conference on “The Holocaust as Local History: Past and Present of a Complex Relation,” University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, June 2008. For the program, see:

[21] Christopher R. Browning, “The Holocaust as Local History: Survivor Memories of the Starachowice Factory Slave Labor Camp,” lecture presented in Thessaloniki (see ibid.).

[22] Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945 (New York: Harpercollins, 2007).

[23] David Cesarani, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (London: Heinemann, 2003).

[24] Ulrich Herbert, Karin Orth and Christoph Dieckmann., eds., Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, 2 vols. (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1998) [German]; Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, eds., Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern, 9 vols. (Munich: C. H. Beck Verlag, 2005-2009) [German]. For the current state of the art in English, see Jane Caplan and Nikolaus Wachsmann, eds., Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories (New York: Routledge, 2010). Despite the progress in this field, it remains largely true – as the current trial in Munich against the alleged Sobibor guard John/Iwan Demjanjuk also shows – that (as noted by Margers Vestermanis and Michael Wildt in 1998) while there is a large body of scholarly literature on Auschwitz, the scholarship on the death camps Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor has been far too limited. It is also true that virtually nothing is known about the camps in the Nazi-occupied territories further east, in the Baltic states and in the occupied Soviet Union; Michael Wildt, “Die Lager im Osten. Kommentierende Bemerkungen,” in Herbert, Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 1, 508. Notable exceptions are Witold Chrostowski, Extermination Camp Treblinka (London: Valentine Mitchell, 2004) and Jules Schelvis (and Bob Moore), Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp (London: Berg, 2007).

[25] This was the essential point of a draft lecture that Prof. Dan Michman prepared for the World Congress on Jewish Studies that took place in Jerusalem in August 2009.

[26] Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008); Ugor U. Üngör, Young Turk Social Engineering, Mass Violence and the Nation State in Eastern Turkey, 1913-1950, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2009; Scot Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power and War in Rwanda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[27] The website of the Task Force is:

[28] Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA on combating racism and xenophobia, 28 November 2008, Official Journal of the European Union, 6.12.2008, I.328/55-58.

[29] Alan J. Kuperman, book review of Daniela Korslak, The Role of France in the Rwandan Genocide (London: C. Hurst, 2007) and of Fred Grünfeld and Anke Huijboom, The Failure to Prevent Genocide in Rwanda: The Role of Bystanders (Leiden and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2007), in Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 11, No. 4 (December 2009): 541.

[30] Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide (New York: Columbia     University Press, 2007), 308-313.

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Prof. Johannes Houwink ten Cate studied contemporary and socioeconomic history at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. From 1985 to 2002 he worked as a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. Since 1989 his primary topic of interest has been the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the occupied Dutch territories. Since 2002 he has been professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam.