By DOUGLAS MARTIN
The New York Times
August 7, 2007
Raul Hilberg, a Jewish émigré from Nazi-occupied Vienna who helped begin the field of Holocaust studies with his long and minutely detailed 1961 study of the massacre of European Jews, died Saturday in Williston, Vt. He was 81.
The cause was lung cancer, said Jeffrey R. Wakefield, a spokesman for the University of Vermont, where Mr. Hilberg had taught for 35 years.
In his landmark work, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” Mr. Hilberg said the Holocaust had been the result of a huge bureaucratic machine with thousands of participants, not the fulfillment of a preconceived plan or a single order by Hitler.
As uncountable separate instructions were passed on, formally and informally, to a range of actors that included train schedulers and gas chamber architects, responsibility became ever more diluted, he argued, even as the machinery of death churned inexorably ahead.
“For these reasons, an administrator, clerk or uniformed guard never referred to himself as a perpetrator,” Mr. Hilberg said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1992. “He realized, however, that the process of destruction was deliberate, and that once he had stepped into this maelstrom, his deed would be indelible.”
Though some critics said Mr. Hilberg had understated the impact of historic German anti-Semitism, his broad conclusions were based on painstaking research. He examined microfilm of thousands upon thousands of prosaic documents like train schedules and memorandums between minor officials.
“This head-against-the-wall technique is the only virtue I can parade without blushing,” he said last year when Germany gave him its Order of Merit, the highest tribute it can pay to someone who is not a German citizen.
The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote that Mr. Hilberg’s book “reveals, methodically, fully and clearly, the development of both the technical and psychological process; the machinery and mentality whereby one whole society sought to isolate and destroy another, which, for centuries, had lived in its midst.”
Mr. Trevor-Roper called the book’s most surprising revelation, and its least welcome one, its suggestion that at least some Jews cooperated in their own annihilation. Examples included Jews who had helped organize deportations or led victims to gas chambers. Mr. Hilberg argued that Jews had a long history of passivity and that some had mistakenly calculated that the Nazis would not destroy what they could economically exploit.
Many historians, survivors and Jewish leaders disagreed, pointing to examples of Jewish resistance. But Holocaust historians of all views began using terminology Mr. Hilberg had devised, including that of calling the Holocaust’s principals perpetrators, victims and bystanders.
Raul Hilberg was born on June 2, 1926, in Vienna. In his memoir, “The Politics of Memory: Journey of a Holocaust Historian” (1996), he said his father, Michael, had been a “middleman,” someone who bought household goods for people needing credit and paid him in installments. In 1938, the occupying Nazis arrested him but released him because he was a World War I veteran.
The Hilbergs emigrated to Brooklyn, where Michael worked in a factory and Raul attended Lincoln High School. His studies at Brooklyn College were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. His unit was housed in the Nazi Party’s former offices in Munich, where Mr. Hilberg was fascinated by crates containing Hitler’s personal library.
He returned to Brooklyn College, where he quit chemistry for political science and history. He went on to Columbia, where he insisted on writing his doctoral dissertation on the Holocaust, which few academics were studying. His adviser, Franz Neumann, warned him that his choice of subject might be his academic funeral.
At least five publishers rejected his major book. It was published by a small Chicago house after a wealthy patron agreed to buy 1,300 copies to go to libraries.
His caustic personal style, which contrasted with the monotone of his histories, did not always help. When academics asked about his subject area, Mr. Hilberg was prone to reply, “I study dead Jews.”
He next taught at Hunter College and landed a federal job helping to catalog documents being released from German archives. He copied material by hand so he could use it for his own research.
Mr. Hilberg started teaching at Vermont in 1956 and retired in 1991. In addition to writing and editing five books besides “The Destruction of the European Jews” and his memoirs, Mr. Hilberg produced two more editions of that book (1985 and 2003), adding considerable material.
Mr. Hilberg’s first marriage, to Christine Hemenway, ended in divorce. He is survived by two children from that marriage, David, of Brooklyn, and Deborah, of Jerusalem, and his wife, the former Gwendolyn Montgomery.
The multitudinous materials Mr. Hilberg examined convinced him that those very documents were the strongest argument against those who contended the Holocaust had never happened, he told The International Herald Tribune in 1996.
“These individuals are not familiar with the archives, or they would see that nobody could forge these millions of documents,” he said.