Thursday, August 09, 2007

R.I.P.: Raul Hilberg

Raul Hilberg, the historian who wrote the brilliant study The Destruction of the European Jews has died at the age of 81. Hilberg's book isn't just a magisterial work of historiography; it's also one of the founding texts of study into the Holocaust. It seems incredible today to think that, when Hilberg's book came out in 1961, there was almost no interest whatsoever in the Shoah, a fact which should remind us that it isn't just events or people that have a history; the memory of those events and people has a history of its own. We can also historicize memory, a fact that seems particularly dangerous when it comes to historicizing the memorialization of the Shoah.

Conversely, the memorialization of the Shoah is an effort to prevent it from becoming history. Memory is a living thing and history is a repository of the dead. When events pass from memory to history, the danger is that the preconditions that made them possible, which still exist, will be allowed to reap the same results. We memorialize to prevent history from repeating itself. To a certain extent, however, we historicize to mark off certain events as appropriate repositories of memory.

Hilberg understood this. He wrote: "A basic drive had appeared among Western nations, set free by their machines. From this moment onwards, the underlying preconditions of our civilisation and culture no longer reigned supreme, because although the events themselves have past, the phenomenon as such remains." Memory must be living in order to stave off living phenomena.

So, in a sense, with Hilberg's pathbreaking work, the Shoah passed the other way: it passed from history into memory.

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