In 1977, the Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer offered a heartfelt warning “against the creation of ‘Holocaustology’ and the careerism of ‘Holocaustologians.”‘ At first glance, Bauer’s warning seems peculiar. After all, what could be more honorable and more important than the study of the systematic murder of 6 million Jews — a study undertaken for the purpose of preventing such an act in the future? In the past 20 years, Holocaust studies has become a glamorous and exciting field for American academics, as money from Steven Spielberg and others earmarked for Holocaust studies is flowing like cheap wine all across the world. The Holocaust, the most unspeakable event of the modern age, has become a career for some folks — the source of their livelihoods.
Now Bauer’s fears are being realized, because Holocaustologians have decided they are beyond reproach and that anyone who dares utter a word of criticism against them is essentially guilty of an intellectual crime against humanity.
The crime I speak of is Holocaust denial — the disgusting field of pseudo-scholarship dedicated to “proving” that the murder of the 6 million did not take place. Now, one of the founders of the Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches has accused the Jewish writer Gabriel Schoenfeld of “a subtle form of Holocaust denial.” The perpetrator of this assault on taste and reason is Franklin Littell, 81, who proves that you can spend 81 years on this earth and still be a damned fool.
In a series of brilliant articles last year, Schoenfeld took on the controversial topic of Holocaust scholarship and its inevitable descent into academic politicking. Far from denying the reality of the Holocaust, Schoenfeld argues that the Holocaust was the singular calamity of the modern age — and therefore that trying to use the Shoah to draw universal lessons about hatred and oppression is ignorant at best and intellectually corrupt at worst.
And yet the effort to draw comparisons between the Holocaust and other events is what motivates most Holocaustologians. Schoenfeld quotes a scholar named Joan Ringelheim as saying: “Women and minorities, the working class and the poor, prior to and after the Holocaust, have often lived in conditions similar in kind (although not always in degree) to those in the Holocaust.”
The conditions of the Holocaust were these: gigantic camps designed explicitly for the purpose of mass-murdering millions of people. Ringelheim knows this. But she cannot help comparing the plight of the working class to those consigned to the gas chambers.
This sort of thinking ought to have seen Ringelheim shunned by her fellow scholars. Instead, she runs the education department of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Today, not only are academic careers built on the Holocaust, but research into it has also been thoroughly academicized,” Schoenfeld wrote in Commentary, the monthly magazine where he works as executive editor (and which was edited by my father for 35 years). “The very language in which the murder of 6 million Jews is discussed has become in no way distinguishable from the language of agricultural macroeconomics or the sociology of chimpanzees — which is to say that even at its best, it is often full of the most egregious professional jargon.”
Outside the universities, the Holocaust has become the ultimate real-world horror-show that the whole family can enjoy. Schoenfeld writes of a list of “40 Fun Things To Do” offered to visitors in St. Petersburg, Fla. Number 11 is “Remember the Holocaust,” which you can do by visiting the city’s Holocaust museum — “where for $39.95 [you] can purchase a scale-model replica of a Polish boxcar used by the Nazis to transport Jews and others to the concentration camps.”
As a result, says Schoenfeld, “much of what goes by the name of Holocaust remembrance today … drains the nightmare of its horror, treating the most shattering event in modern history as a banality, or worse, an entertainment.”
With words like these, you would think the last thing people could accuse Schoenfeld of is Holocaust denial. But Littell, the 81-year-old fool, explicitly compares Schoenfeld with David Irving and Raymond Robert Faurisson, the world’s two leading Holocaust deniers. They are “vulgarians,” to be sure, whereas Schoenfeld is “more subtle” — but the impulse is the same, Littell says.
Another Holocaustologian, Stephen Feinstein of the University of Minnesota, says that Schoenfeld “has done as much damage as deniers.”
What can these men possibly mean? Simple: They now equate the field of Holocaust studies with the Holocaust itself. Thus, any effort to question Holocaust studies is itself a form of Holocaust denial in their eyes.
This was exactly what Yehuda Bauer feared when he expressed his concern with the rise of Holocaust studies — that the academics would confuse the scholarship with the Holocaust itself. That the effort to come to grips with an unimaginable horror would be replaced, in time, by the mundanities of academic life — careerism, corruption, naked ambition, and the thin-skinned inability to accept criticism.
Nobody would gainsay the inestimable value of the seminal scholarship about the Holocaust done by Raul Hilberg, Dorothy Rabinowitz and others. But they were not working in the field of Holocaust studies — they were historians trying to determine what happened and ensure that what happened would not be forgotten.
There is something indefinably questionable about making a permanent career out of the murder of 6 million people — especially when they themselves want to believe that they and their field of study are both beyond criticism.
New York Post, April 21, 1999