Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Yale University PressRethinking the Holocaust
Yehuda Bauer
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001

Reviewed by:
Robert Hutcheson

Webster Groves High School
Webster Groves, Missouri 


The cover of Yehuda Bauer’s Rethinking the Holocaust cites a New York Times Book Review describing it as “Eloquent . . . eye-opening.” While I did indeed often find Bauer’s perceptions and articulations “eye-opening,” a number of factors mitigate against my accepting the acclamation regarding eloquence. In many ways, the book needs careful editing; it too often reads like an oral script in need of pruning, in need of a healing for redundancy, and in need of functional and normative punctuation usage (especially commas). The informality of the writing style all too frequently diminishes the power and measured reasoning one would expect from Bauer and the Yale Press, although the book, in the end, remains a distinguished one. Only the final chapter was originally given as a speech, and that chapter was obviously pre-written. With these comments on the table, I can more easily share my experience with reading Bauer’s book. In his Introduction, the author clearly designates that “This is not another history of the Holocaust. Rather, it is an attempt to rethink categories and issues that arise out of the contemplation of that watershed event in human history” (ix), and that is essentially what Bauer achieves.

Chapter One (“What Was the Holocaust?”) shares some biases: that the Holocaust was not necessarily unique, but was indeed unprecedented (he advises that “we ought to do everything in our power to make sure it is a warning, not a precedent”); and that the author is certainly not neutral regarding anti-Semitism and racism (2-3). Bauer makes a number of effective, helpful distinctions, including reserving the word genocide for “partial” murder and Holocaust for “total destruction” (10).

Bauer’s aversion to rationally simplistic and loosely-employed language is evident in Chapter Two (“Is the Holocaust Explicable?”). He disagrees with Wiesel that the Holocaust is inexplicable and believes historians and others should examine and attempt to understand all driving dynamics. He believes that employing terms like beastly and bestiality to the Nazis is “an insult to the animal kingdom. . . because animals do not do things like that; the behavior of the perpetrators was all too human, not inhuman” (21). He examines both the functionalist and intentionalist approaches to articulating how the German people adopted murderous behaviors (28). Ultimately, he does not claim to speak the last word and admits that, though the Holocaust is explicable, this “does not imply any kind of closure” or monochrome answer (38).

In Chapter Three (“Comparisons with Other Genocides”), Bauer acknowledges (41) that “the civilization that I inherited also encompasses the call for genocide in its canon” (sacred books). Bauer distinguishes between the Holocaust and other genocides and asserts that “No genocide to date had been based so completely on myths, on hallucinations, on abstract, non-pragmatic, ideology” (48). In this chapter, the author devotes special attention to the Nazi view of the Jew as a member of a racial category and includes extensive discussion of the Nazi racial predicament over Gypsies (53-67). Several times in this book, Bauer honestly and reasonably assesses opinions like, “What happened before can happen again. We all are possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders” (67); and he adds three additional commandments to the normative biblical ten—he will return to these in his final chapter (273).

Chapters Four and Five examine “Overall Interpretations” of the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman, Jeffrey Herf, Goetz Aly, Daniel J. Goldhagen, John Weiss, and Saul Friedländer, and, while generally interesting, are not as striking nor germinal as many other chapters. Bauer spends a fair amount of energy in disputing with Goldhagen and, in a work like this, incorporates a bit of bad-mouthing of Goldhagen’s dissertation advisors at Harvard for not addressing and resolving his methodological errors (106).

The power of Chapter Six (“Jewish Resistance—Myth or Reality?”) particularly rests on Bauer’s personal not-totally-dichotomous distinction between Amidah and “sanctification of life,” a term that seems to predate the Warsaw ghetto (120). There is particular richness in his words on the search for “meaning” in the midst of suffering and mass death (126 ff.); these observations foreshadow Bauer’s examination of theology and theodicy in Chapter Nine. Chapter Seven is reserved for a study of “Unarmed Resistance and Other Responses.”

Chapter Eight “(The Problem of Gender: The Case of Gisi Fleischmann”) addresses the role of women in the perspective of the Nazis who “relegated German women to three areas: Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (170) in their antifeminist ideology, and looks at the limited positions of power of women in concentration and slave labor camps. Most of the chapter examines Gisi Fleischmann’s work in the Joint Distribution Committee in Bratislava. Bauer posits that hers and other Jewish women’s efforts were not feminist expressions but were rather their fight “for the survival of their group, for revenge, for Jewish honor, for their own survival” (185) and that, in truth, “women had almost no chance to show their leadership qualities” (184).

Chapter Nine (“Theology, or God the Surgeon”) confronts with considerable insight Orthodox Jewry's tendency to categorize the Holocaust as a divine punishment for Jewish sinfulness and makes some germinal theological perambulations. He begins with the standard response of the believer in looking with incomprehension at suffering and the nature of God by viewing the human/mortal as puny and incompetent to comprehend the ways of the Divine. He elaborates particularly on the writings of Menachem Mendel Schneersohn and seems on the path to elucidation of a novel response, but Bauer, arrogantly to this reader, dismisses theological approaches to the Holocaust as “a dead end” (212). This is frustrating in the light of his previous words on the Holocaust as “explicable” and appears to be a return to the “puny mortal” argument, in itself very satisfying for the sincere believer but without the spiritual humility that allows one to take it seriously as a legitimate conviction.

Chapter Seven (“Rescue Attempts: The Case of the Auschwitz Protocols”) tends to be “listy” and less readable as coherent text in many spots. Bauer does admit he was wrong on the issue of whether Auschwitz was known in 1944 (224). This chapter does offer some helpful assessment of various rescue attempts and ends with words on the general ineffectiveness and helplessness of Jewish groups worldwide. 

Chapter Eight (“From the Holocaust to the State of Israel”) examines White-House policies in the 1940’s and President Truman’s eventual (though unwilling) support of Jewish statehood (251). Bauer paints the link between the Holocaust and Israel as an indirect one, and he does not believe that statehood would have blocked the onslaught of the Nazis against the Jews.

The Appendix that concludes this book is the text of Bauer’s speech before the Bundestag on German Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 1998. In many ways, so many of the leitmotifs of this book are in evidence and so many of his dominant articulations are introduced that one may find the reading of the Appendix helpful as an introduction to the rest of the work rather than as Bauer’s last words. One might listen for such themes in passages like the following:

The Holocaust has assumed the role of universal symbol for all evil because it presents the most extreme form of genocide, because it contains elements that are without precedent, because that tragedy was a Jewish one and because the Jews—although they are neither better nor worse than others and although their sufferings were neither greater nor lesser than those of others—represent one of the sources of modern civilization (270).

In addressing his German audience, he does share his personal/professional assessments with such observations as: “I keep returning to the question of whether we have indeed learned anything, whether we do not still keep producing technically competent barbarians in our universities” (269) which seems to augur the reasonable possibility of a second Wannsee Konferenz. As the final words of his text before the extensive pages of documentary/explanatory notes, bibliography, and index, Bauer verbalizes his three extra commandments: memorable, blunt, and jarringly thoughtful injunctions that “you, your children, and your children’s children” never become perpetrators, victims, nor “passive onlookers to mass murder, genocide, or (may it never be repeated) a Holocaust-like tragedy” (273).


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