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  • Toward a General Theory of Action in Total War and Genocide: Evgeny Finkel on Choice and Survival during the Holocaust
  • Mark Edele (bio)

Holocaust studies have long been a field of fruitful exchange between historians and social scientists. One of the founders of the field, Raul Hilberg, was a political scientist, trained by Franz Neumann, a legal scholar connected to the Frankfurt School. Their analysis of the complexity of the Nazi system of domination inspired an entire school of historians.1 Hilberg’s insights into the “destruction process” were later formalized by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman into one of the most widely cited sociological studies in the field.2 Modernity and the Holocaust, in turn, has stimulated historians well beyond Holocaust studies.3

The cross-fertilization between history and social science thus went both ways. To cite another example: The experience of National Socialism and the Holocaust prompted a controversial set of psychological experiments about deference to authority.4 Their results have been used by historians to explain perpetrator choices,5 while providing a case study to others, who contextualized the “Milgram experiment” itself and provided an incisive, even scathing critique of its presuppositions.6 Such interdisciplinarity thus has the potential to turn acrimonious, as it did in one of the most recent clashes between political scientists and historians.7 Mostly, however, the exchange of ideas, concepts, and approaches has been fruitful and served to drive along both historical and social scientific research.

Evgeny Finkel’s ambition to write “a political science of the Holocaust”8 stands in this tradition of mutually beneficent crossing of disciplinary boundaries. Bringing the eye of a political scientist to a literature dominated by historians focused, more often than not, on the perpetrators, Finkel argues that we need to take the actions of the [End Page 190] victims seriously. He develops a detailed typology of reactions to the German policies, with particular attention to the wide field between outright “collaboration” and armed “resistance.” Adding “cooperation,” “compliance,” “coping,” and “evasion” to our conceptual armory, Finkel helps to think about the “menu of overall strategies”9 the victims could adopt in a more fine-grained way than is common in the literature.10

Ordinary Jews is both a work of history and of social science, a distinction based largely on emphasis. Historians tend to focus on the specific, on “getting the facts right.” Social scientists, meanwhile, aspire to much more universalistic conclusions. Hence, the test for Finkel’s conceptual apparatus will be its wider applicability. Consider Polish Jews who escaped the Holocaust because, voluntarily or not, they found themselves in Soviet-controlled territory.11 A descendant of one of them, Finkel does not consider his grandfather a “Holocaust survivor,” and hence not a subject of his political science. Hailing from the formerly Habsburg part of Poland annexed by the Soviets in 1939, Lev Finkel was drafted into the Red Army. “His family, parents, and sisters, stayed behind. A decorated artillery officer, he returned home from the war in 1945. None of his relatives were alive.”12 His was not an untypical path to survival. As we point out in a just published collection of essays, a large number of Polish Jews lived to see the end of World War II because, as refugees, deportees, political prisoners, Red Army soldiers, or annexed citizens, they had found an often involuntary and extremely harsh shelter from the German genocidal machine in Stalin’s inhospitable Soviet Union.13

Obviously, the situation Polish Jews faced in the Soviet hinterland was quite different from those in the ghettos in German-controlled territory. Nevertheless, Finkel’s typology works equally well for the stories of survival in the Soviet Union. Here, too, decisions needed to be made about how to relate to a frequently violent state. Collaboration and cooperation with Stalin’s regime could be driven by ideological commitment to this socialism. They could also serve as ways to finally become empowered to resist the Nazis, weapon in hand, and exact revenge. To do so, however, often required circumventing Soviet rules and regulations, not infrequently at considerable risk. Coping, thus, was an integral [End Page 191] part of the tactics employed by formerly Polish Jews...


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pp. 190-199
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