How to assess—historically and morally—the actions of Jewish leaders and other functionaries who negotiated with or were appointed by the Nazis during the Holocaust has been one of the most contentious and enduring controversies of Holocaust historiography. The embittered and accusatory early testimonies of many survivors, the honor courts of the immediate postwar period in which Jewish collaborators were tried and censured, and the libel trial and assassination in Israel of Rudolph Kasztner—who negotiated with the Nazis to rescue Jews in Hungary—constituted only the first chapters of the fierce debate over this sensitive and painful topic.
The heat of the debate peaked in the early 1960s with Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, first in a series of articles in The New Yorker and then in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt criticized Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for hijacking the trial for the purposes of national and international politics at the expense of individual justice, and insofar as the trial had been designed for didactic purposes she particularly lamented its failure to educate the wider public about the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust, namely the “role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people.” In perhaps the single most infamous sentence in her provocative book, she wrote: “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people,” and she then endorsed the calculation that “about half of them could have saved themselves if they had not followed the instructions of the Jewish Councils.”1
As a target of vituperation, Arendt was immediately paired with Raul Hilberg, whose initially little-known The Destruction of the European Jews had been published in 1961. In a book focused on the Nazi “machinery of destruction,” Hilberg had argued that it was nevertheless “essential to analyze the role of the Jews in their own destruction.” Through centuries of exclusion and persecution, diaspora Jews had learned the survival value of what Hilberg called the “alleviation-compliance response,” which proved not only ineffective but insidiously self-destructive when faced with the unprecedented Nazi assault, for which no past experience could prepare them.2 In the heat of the moment, one key difference between Arendt and Hilberg was entirely ignored. For Arendt, the behavior of the Jewish leaders, who allegedly “enjoyed” the “enormous power” with which the Nazis temporarily vested them, constituted a colossal moral failure. For Hilberg, it was a systemic and perceptual failure of a leadership that sought to save its people but, “caught in the straitjacket of their own history,” could not understand and adjust to the incomprehensible assault quickly …
What Defense Was Possible? October 11, 2012