I became interested in Hilberg after he defended Norman Finkelstein's controversial studies of the exploitation of the Holocaust and the cynical manipulation of the Israel lobby in exaggerating charges of `anti Semitism' to deflect criticism of Israel.
Hilberg stood by Finkelstein when he was being vilified by large sections of the academic and publishing establishment in America and Europe. Hilberg gave Finkelstein the stamp of authenticity and respectability, when his research was being attacked as `scandalous' and `anti Semitic.'
When readers saw Hilberg supporting Finkelstein -- they knew that Finkelstein was also to be trusted and believed.
Hilberg's autobiography is sparingly written, with a disciplined, unsentimental and unadorned style, yet with hints of dark humour and undertones of skepticism and detachment.
The narrative and prose give the reader insight into the immigrants' experience, as Hilberg describes his life as a young man who clearly enjoyed `being American', but never fully seems to have integrated into society. Throughout, he appears as an outsider, looking in on American culture as well as that of the immigrant, and also looking at a rootless diaspora consciousness, a state of being he occasionally gently mocks, and occasionally empathises with and relates to.
Throughout, the reader senses Hilberg's deep yearning, and a deep sense of loss: loss for his European identity (destroyed by the Nazis), loss of his German culture, which he clearly respects (Goethe, Heine, Kant) but no longer feels he can entirely accept; loss of his family (his entire family identity and role was altered after the Holocaust), and perhaps, one may speculate, loss of a full sense of belonging on the earth.
We get very little insight into life with his wife and children, who are barely mentioned in the book ( he makes passing reference to his divorce in his 40's, and his children reading his texts before publication ), though he gives us a lot of information about the psychological state of his parents, and how that effected him.
Hilberg dismisses nearly all the Holocaust studies as shallow, derivative and of little value, though he does repeatedly praise the World War Two studies of the English historians, emphasising their scrupulous research. Browning and Hugh Trevor Roper are noted as producing worthy studies. Hannah Arendt is dismissed as shallow and derivative in her work , and Hilberg appears surprised at her appeal, which he puts down to a need after the war to view Nazism and Communism as being almost identical forms of evil, albeit appearing to be opposites. Hilberg states that Arendt filled a need in people who wanted to understand how such evil could have arisen amongst such cultured and sophisticated people, but he is not satisfied with her explanations, and dismisses Arendt's notion of the `banality of evil' as being wholly insufficient. Hilberg is also somewhat critical of the attitude of many of the Holocaust study and memorial centres in Israel, many of whom seem to take exception to Hilberg's theories, writings and ideas.
Hilberg emerges from these pages as a very solitary figure, a lonely man with a stoic attitude to his fleeting life as it unfolds, aware of transience and the passing nature of things, but also determined to steer his existence as best he can toward a state of quiet dignity, and to ensure his life's work is faithful to those who died at the hands of the Nazis.
Norman Finkelstein wrote the following in tribute to Hilberg when he died in 2007 :
"Whenever I ventured to write something on the Nazi holocaust I would again peruse all the volumes ( of Hilberg's first book) cover to cover. They provided the psychological security I needed before daring to render a judgment of my own. Wanting to stand on the firmest possible intellectual foundations I reflexively reached for Hilberg...
Character not ideology... is the better measure of a person...Primo Levi originally titled his memoir of Auschwitz If This is a Man. Of Raul Hilberg it might be said, There went a man."
This work is semi-autobiographical in nature. It provides insights into how the Jewish author Hilberg developed and published his seminal study on the Holocaust. He also discusses notable Holocaust personages such as Bruno Bettelheim, Hannah Arendt, Gerald Reitlinger, Leon Poliakov, Lucy Dawidowicz, Jason Browning, and Warsaw Ghetto Council Chairman Adam Czerniakow.
Interestingly, Hilberg's roots are in Eastern Galicia, and his mother comes from a small village near Buczacz, Tarnopol (Ternopil) area. However, Hilberg does not discuss life in prewar Poland. However, he mentions the fact that the 17th-century Count Potocki had granted privileges to the Jews of Buczacz. (p. 32). He also realizes that Israel's national anthem, HA-TIKVAH ("The Hope") is derived from the Polish national anthem, which he translates: Polish Is Not Yet Lost. (p. 28). However, this translation is a bit misleading, as it seems to imply that Poland will yet be lost, or that Poland is on the verge of being lost. A better translation is: Poland Is Not Lost As Long As We Shall Live.
Hilberg was a lifelong atheist, and his Judaism had been strictly cultural in nature. In this, he followed his father, who had been a devotee of Baruch Spinoza. (pp. 36-37).
For a time, the child Hilberg lived in Austria. He witnessed the ANSCHLUSS and its aftermath. His family managed to immigrate, eventually to the USA.
Discrimination against Jews at universities was hardly limited to "backwards" pre-WWII Poland. While in the presumably-pluralistic USA in the 1950's, long after WWII, Hilberg, along with other Jews and also Catholics, experienced discrimination in academia. (e. g, p. 100).
Hilberg touches on the popularization of the Holocaust in American culture. This popularization did not become widespread until the 1970's. (p. 123).
The author supports the functionalist interpretation of Holocaust origin, in which the Nazi German decision to conduct genocide on the Jews did not occur until 1941. (p. 64). Lucy Dawidowicz, on the other hand, supports the intentionalist interpretation of Holocaust origin, going as far as suggesting that the Nazis already planned to murder the Jews as early as 1918. (pp. 144-145). Hilberg suggests that Lucy Dawidowicz is not particularly well regarded by historians, and has essentially no standing as an authority on the Holocaust. (p. 147).
Regardless of the exact Nazi timeline in precipitating the Holocaust, Hilberg is unambiguous about the perpetrators of the Holocaust, "The destruction of the Jews was a German deed. It was implemented in German offices, in a German culture." (p. 61). In our day and age of preoccupation about non-Germans and the Holocaust, Hilberg's arguably belaboring of the obvious is timely.
The author informs the author about Hannah Arendt and her controversial EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM. (p. 150). This caused a furor by raising the issue that Jews played a significant role in their own destruction. (pp. 154-155). In Germany, there at first were concerns about translating her work into German because it may lead to Germans feeling partly exonerated in their murderous conduct towards the Jews. (p. 162). [Applying Hilberg's reasoning to the more recent past, the reader may wonder if the enthusiastic reception of the Germans to the German-language edition of Jan T. Gross' NEIGHBORS is a realization of these very concerns.]
"Jewish passivity" has commonly been misunderstood as only the fact of Jews generally going to their deaths without resistance. [Actually, most members of virtually all nationalities cooperate in their forced deaths without attempting to flee or fight.] The real question of "Jewish passivity" is elucidated by Hilberg, who thus paraphrases Yad Vashem chairman Benzion Dinur, "...who stated in unvarnished language that the councils could not be considered in isolation because they constituted an `expression basically of what remained of the confidence Jews had in Germany even under the Nazi regime'. The Jews, he said, `carried out regulations' even if they could have evaded them at some risk to themselves. In the Netherlands they had `hurried with the luggage' to the trains that would carry them to the east, and `even in Warsaw and Vilna, in Bialystok and Lvov, reports of death journeys were discredited for a long time'." (p. 151).
Hilberg does not mention that the facts in the last paragraph help the reader understand why Poles commonly thought of Jews as too servile towards the Germans. It also makes it easier to see why the Polish Underground at first did not take the Jewish plans to fight the Germans, in the eventual Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, too seriously.
The author devotes a chapter to the diary of Adam Czerniakow. He presents some detail on the commonly-available censored versions of this diary. (pp. 176-on).