Explaining the Holocaust

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Explaining the Holocaust


   There was a time when history could not be separated from legend and when historians uncritically included all kinds of suppositions and guesses into their books. However, the great German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) placed history on a scientific basis with his History of Latin and Teutonic Nations when, in 1824, he demanded that history be written “Wie Es eigentlich gewesen ist” or “as it truly happened.”

    Since then, historical writing has changed considerably, using methods which are reliable and which seek to portray an accurate picture of an epoch or event. This does not mean that the Heisenberg “Principle of Uncertainty” does not also apply to history. Heisenberg recognized that any observation of a phenomenon, in physics, alters the phenomenon. So it is in history as well.

   Therefore, if we wish to explain the Holocaust we recognize that any explanation depends, at least in part, on the observer and the elucidator. Nevertheless, almost all historical events have an explanation acceptable to students of those events, despite minor differences in interpretation. That would be true of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or the American Revolution or the rise of science or the First World War.

   The only exception to that rule is the Holocaust. There is no explanation for that event despite the efforts of a number of writers to explain it.

    One of the most common and popular explanations of the Holocaust is that “Hitler was crazy.” That is simply not true. It is indeed the case that at the end of his life he ranted and raved incoherently. However, in his early years he clearly set forth his program for the annihilation of the Jews of this world and based his opinions and intentions on the common consent of almost all Christians of that day, who agreed that Jews were “Christ Killers” and therefore deserved death. Someone who agrees with the culture in which he is raised and reflects its values is hardly “crazy” any more than it is “crazy” to speak Chinese in China.

   That raises the question of Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. I have discussed this at length in my book entitled The Jew in Christian Theology.  The sum of that research is that while such responsibility cannot be evaded, it is also true that a large number of anti-Jewish Christian countries did not mass murder Jews. There is little doubt that the Jewish population of Poland and Russia were treated like the blacks in Mississippi before the civil rights movement. Even now, when there are no Jews in Poland because all have been murdered, Poles accuse non-Jewish political opponents of being “Jews”, a tactic which leads to the defeat of the so-called Jewish candidate. Yet, the Poles, despite their enthusiastic support of the mass murder of Polish Jews by the Germans, did not set up the gas ovens in their country. The Germans did that. Likewise, the Russian Jew-haters provided that the Jewish community was largely sent to the Soviet east during the Nazi invasion so as to escape the murders.

   Daniel Goldhagen, in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, gives us an accurate portrayal of the attitude of the average German towards the 580,000 Jews living among the German population of 65 million. Those of us who were there will agree that Goldhagen got it right. Yet, his explanation that German anti-Semitism differed from all other anti-Semitism because it was “eliminationist anti-Semitism” does not really explain why Germans differed in that respect from all the other-Jew haters and persecutors around the world.

   Then there is the “explanation” for the Holocaust given by Raoul Hilberg in his The Destruction of the European Jews. Here Hilberg argues that the German bureaucracy which murdered so many Jews “had moral scruples” which had to be overcome. That makes little sense because the evidence is that the German bureaucracy had no moral scruples at all when it came to murdering Jews. It is equally ridiculous to argue that anyone was forced to participate in the mass murder of Jews. The contrary is the case. There were millions of volunteers. It is also untrue that the German population did not know the magnitude of their crime. They knew it full well and this can be documented.

   There are a number of other explanations of the Holocaust which are equally unsatisfactory.  One of these raised a furor in Israel and the Jewish world when, on August 8, 2000, it was reported that a leading orthodox Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, reputedly  said in Jerusalem that the six million were slaughtered because in a previous life they had sinned in abandoning the orthodox view of Torah-true Judaism. It seemed to many that with that thesis, the rabbi and his followers are blaming the victims.

  Much more could be said on this topic. Suffice it to say here that there is not now a well grounded and solid explanation for the Holocaust. It may be that we will never know the answer to that question but that it will always be one of history’s mysteries.

Shalom u’vracha. 


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