Commemorative Causality
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Commemorative Causality

Without Hitler’s anti-Semitism, his understanding and presentation of Jews as a global threat to Germany, the Holocaust would not have happened. To say so is to specify a necessary condition for the German attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. But a plausible historical explanation of any significant historical event must be plural, entangling in prose multiple lines of causality that together are not only necessary but sufficient. For the purposes of explaining the Holocaust, then, anti-Semitism is not enough; for the purposes of its commemoration, however, it is: and the bad news is that ours is an age of memory rather than history. Commemoration requires no adequate explanation of the catastrophe, only an aesthetically realizable image of its victims. As cultures of memory supplant concern for history, the danger is that historians will find themselves drawn to explanations that are the simplest to convey.1

Before these last two decades, during which the Holocaust has come to be seen as the central event of modern European history, that place was held for two centuries by the French Revolution. François Furet, the great historian of its social and intellectual reception, wrote of the dangers of “commemorative history,” wherein that which is most elegantly commemorated becomes that which is most felicitously narrated.2 In the case of the Holocaust, the danger is what might be called “commemorative causality,” whereby that which is most effectively and frequently commemorated becomes that which it is most convenient to present as causal in synthetic histories. The danger will be, and indeed already is, that commemorative causality will reduce the history of the Holocaust, as Hannah Arendt predicted, to a reflection of contemporary emotions.3 [End Page 77]

The Colonial Epistemic

In the early postwar decades, the history of the Holocaust was a minor issue in the national history of Germany. The debate among German historians of the 1970s and 1980s was between “intentionalists” and “functionalists,” who stressed, respectively, the contingent nature of Hitler’s rise to power and the importance of his choices, or the continuities and creativity of German state institutions. The debate continued in the 1990s, as the Holocaust came to define the Nazi period. By then the crucial question seemed to be the role of Hitler and other Nazi leaders in the initiation of an ideologically-determined mass killing of Jews, as opposed to the initiatives taken within institutions in response to economic or military problems. These earlier and later forms of the intentionalist-functionalist disputes found highly satisfying resolutions, within the framework of German history, in the work of Ian Kershaw and Peter Longerich.4

Although intentionalists and functionalists seem to be on the opposite sides of a dispute, their apparent discord disguises a fundamental unity: the preference for internal, psychological, and national history over external, sociological, and transnational history. Even as intentionalists and functionalists disagreed as to how Germans came to rule over a good deal of Europe, they all assumed that these issues could be resolved on the basis of sources that, even in the best of cases and the wisest of interpretations, were limited by the German worldviews in which they arose and which they expressed.

Because most participants in these debates relied on official German sources, the discourse took on an implicitly psychological character. It is one thing to record and interpret how Germans saw the world and thought they were remaking it; it is another actually to describe and interpret this world. Especially after September 1939, German leaders and institutions encountered actors and forces that were not of their making, beyond their control, and untethered from their predictions. To be sure, a Polish government that refuses an alliance in 1939 or a Red Army that defends Moscow in 1941 appear in German sources; but no historians using only German sources can reconstruct the world from which those sources arose. Indeed, even the subjective side of the matter, the question of German aims and sentiments, remains opaque without an independent understanding of some of the surprising and unmistakable reality that the Germans confronted and considered but did not always themselves intelligibly record.

Though it would be a rare...