The Holocaust Historiography Project


Historians Wrangle over the Destruction of European Jewry


Translated by Waltraud Martin

  • Commentary on the Congess of Historians in Stuttgart, 1984.

International historical conventions dealing with the question of the “destruction of the Jews during World War II” have been rare up to now, the consensus being that such events were superfluous. On that subject, historians had fundamentally adhered to what had been pronounced as “historical fact” at the various show trials held by the victorious powers in Nuremberg and elsewhere soon after the end of hostilities. Furthermore, it was arranged that in divided Germany the same “findings” should also be ratified by German judges. This state of affairs. assuredly ideal for certain circles, appears to be gradually coming in its deserved end due to the increasing influence of historical Revisionism. As early as 1982 an international convention on the subject “Nazi Germany and the destruction of the Jews” was held at the Sorbonne University in Paris. [1] This was followed by yet another assembly of prominent historians from Germany and abroad which convened in Stuttgart on May 3-5, 1984, dealing with the same topic. The conclusions reached were published by Professors Jaeckel and Rohwer in 1985, in the form of a book consisting of the lectures presented at the congress, augmented and annotated as well as other edited contributions to the discussions insofar as these purported to contain new insights. [2]

However, one who hopes to find that the complex issues of World War II had finally been subjected to an exhaustive examination and that, in particular, the matter of the technical aspects relative to the alleged murder of several million Jews, without leaving any trace at all, has even been remotely clarified, must feel disappointment at the outcome of this expensive meeting of historians from all over the world. As Eberhard Jäckel (Stuttgart) introductorily explained in the foreground of this congress stood the “formation of the decision as an historical problem,” in other words: the question of how, when, where and, as applicable, by whom the decisions were made to kill the Jews, in which order of sequence, and by what means. However, this was putting the cart before the horse. Still lacking is a thorough impartial investigation as to what had become of the Jews who were deported to the East. The alleged gas chamber killings are particularly questionable in more than one respect. as numerous Revisionist works have long since shown. For that reason the complaining Jewish organizations and others were unable to refute convincingly the theses of Professor Faurisson during the Faurisson trial in France. [3] Likewise, in January 1985, the “U.S. authority on the Holocaust” Raul Hilberg had to admit before a Canadian court in Toronto that to date, “no scientific study…has ever been done to prove the existence of Nazi gas chambers.” In Germany this sensational admission went largely unreported, of course. Even though the Canadian press did give an account of this event, [4] the German historians continue to feign ignorance of this matter. Even the participants at the Stuttgart congress acted as if everything had already been clarified — with the exception of the “formation of the decision.” They agreed, in essence, that the destruction of the Jews did take place consistent with the propaganda which has been broadcast day after day, year after year since the trials by the victors of the vanquished at Nuremberg.

Insofar as they even mentioned it, the various lecturers repeated like trained parrots the dogma of the “gassings” in the so-called “extermination camps” without touching upon any of the relevant details.

Nevertheless, the congress did offer a surprise. For the first time the German public was made aware that the establishment historians had taken up two different positions recently, the one being described as the “intentionalist” and the other as the “functionalist” school. The previously unchallenged intentionalist school — represented at this convention by Raul Hilberg (Burlington, USA), Andreas Hillgruber (Cologne), Yehuda Bauer (Jerusalem), Wolfgang Scheffler (Berlin), and Helmut Krausnick (Stuttgart) — still continues to adhere to the “purist teaching” that was produced at the Nuremberg trials, which — to summarize briefly — asserts that the extermination of the Jews originated exclusively from Hitler’s initiative. The functionalists, however, hold the position that the alleged exterminations had occurred and progressively increased, as it were by force of circumstance. To be sure, Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitism was the indispensable ingredient for this, although Hitler had issued neither a verbal, nor a written order to exterminate the Jews. The functionalists also reject the still prevailing opinion that, at the so-called Wannsee conference of January 20, 1942, a kind of general plan for the extermination of the Jews had been formulated. According to their theory the alleged exterminations supposedly occurred out of the local necessity, such as the critical food shortages within the Polish ghettos after the start of the deportation of Jews. It reportedly began with mass executions by the Einsatzgruppen, proceeding to its terrible climax, the “gassings” in “extermination camps,” evolving progressively through a process of “cumulative radicalization” (Friedländer) rather than on account of anything planned in detail. Thus the “extermination of the Jews” was not — as the intentionalists claim — the direct consequence of a long range plan of Hitler's, but the result of a gradual escalation of ruthlessness brought about by the desperate circumstances of the war.

At the congress, Professors Broszat (Munich) and Mommsen (Bochum) represented the “functionalist school,” although they were not scheduled to present any major lectures. They could state their positions clearly only during the various rounds of discussions. It should be noted, however, that credit is due to Saul Friedländer (Tel Aviv) who in his keynote address at the beginning of the seminar did make a serious effort to objectively portray in detail the “functionalist thesis,” although he for his own part was, as were all the other Jewish participants, clearly committed to the “intentionalist school.” For example, he quoted verbatim the significant conclusion of Professor Mommsen (1983):

In historical research the notion still holds that Hitler himself had considered the feasibility of the destruction of Jewry from the beginning, and had drawn up a long range plan for its implementation. The carefully chronicled remarks of the later dictator addressing this problem certainly do not convincingly support this view.

Friedländer also referred to the thesis already formulated by Professor Broszat in 1977, that “no general all encompassing directive for the extermination had existed at all, that the 'program' for the destruction of the Jews had, until spring of 1942 beginning with individual actions rather gradually evolved institutionally and factually, acquiring its determining character after the establishment of the extermination camps in Poland…”

Such remarks closely approach the position outlined in my book Der Auschwitz Mythos, that any “possible killings of Jews, including those by gassings… could have occurred only through the arbitrary actions of subordinate agencies” and “in that case, one could not speak of a 'planned' termination of Jews.” [5] However, the functionalists have yet to draw the logical inference that the special development and technical ramifications of the various killing actions must be scientifically clarified beyond all doubt before they can qualify as “historical fact.” To continue to rely, as do the intentionalists, essentially upon the pronouncements of sundry courts cannot be regarded as a scientifically comprehensive and conclusive clarification of the events concerned, quite apart from the questionable nature of their basis. The list of references of contemporary historical works is sufficient evidence of this, insofar as it concerns the question of the gas chambers. After all, the “gas chambers” must have been the real “instruments of genocide” (Faurisson), if one is to believe the official versions.

Thus, even if the controversy over the “formation of the decision” has changed little in the overall evaluation of the entire event, the divergences between intentionalists and functionalists reveal the rise of a certain insecurity among the historians, even at the above mentioned international Colloquium at the Sorbonne. This insecurity is based, at least partly, on the apparent absence of any discernible connection between these alleged killing operations; all previous attempts to establish and trace them back to a central directive appear to be more or less contrived. Broszat’s comment, made during the discussion, is significant. He wondered, “whether the rather passionately conducted discussion with the noteworthy participation of Israeli and other Jewish scholars, might have had ulterior motives, transcending purely objective and scholarly inquiry into the facts at issue.” Mommsen went even further, bluntly designating an “illusion” the assumption that “the final solution of the European or world Jewish question had been systematically discussed at any time within the higher circle of leadership.”

Indeed, it is difficult to believe there could have been such direction, when one considers that the various alleged killing operations, occurring in part parallel to each other, were completely different in the manner of their implementation. In addition to the mass shootings by the Einsatzgruppen, “gas wagons,” “gas showers,” “gassings” by means of exhaust fumes of diesel engines and “gassings” with the insecticide “Zyklon B” in special designated “gas chambers,” as well as “phenol injections” were to have been employed as means of killing. The war propaganda alleged even more fantastic methods of killing, which were no longer discussed even at the Nuremberg trials. No doubt, a Hitler with a purpose and plan would not have proceeded in such a confused and disorderly manner. The very fact that innumerable Jews were never caught up in this alleged genocide speaks against the thesis of the intentionalists.

On the other hand, the functionalists will not, or cannot, see that at least some of the features of the alleged killings, such as the use of diesel engines for the “gassings” (Gerstein report) or the use of Zyklon B, as is described in reports of alleged eyewitnesses, seem doubtful or even impossible in their practical application. Evidence other than these alleged “eyewitness testimonies” has not been produced thus far. The effort was not even made — no doubt for good reasons — to conduct any kind of tests to ascertain the presence of any traces of Zyklon B in the ruins of the alleged gas chambers of Birkenau. At any rate, nothing was ever made public about any positive findings of any scientific tests. In recent years, non-German Revisionists have submitted well-founded doubts on the possibility of the central role of the “gassings” in the context of the alleged genocide. Thus, sooner or later, the establishment historians will be compelled to respond to the Revisionist arguments, if they do not wish to lose their credibility altogether.

Today already one thing is certain: Those judicical pronouncements which, as is the rule, have as their basis that that the “planned, organized physical extermination of Jews in German occupied Europe,” allegedly ordered by Hitler, is a “historical fact,” a “matter of historical record,” or even a “publicly accepted fact,” and have rejected evidence to the contrary as inadmissible On those grounds, are misjudgments resting on misclaimed competence or incorrect opinions of admittedly biased experts. For their foundation is a state of affairs which is still, or is now in any event, in dispute. Thus the truth of an already very old admonition by Professor Ernst von Beling, the highly esteemed teacher of jurisprudence during the Weimar era is reaffirmed. Beling cautioned against a “too rash judgment on contemporary events” by means of judicial decree. He opined that it would be “presumptuous of a judge to cast himself into the role of a historical writer” and referred to, inter alia, the difficulties involved in historical research and the unreliability of source material. He declared further, that a historical assertion could only be treated by the courts as “publicly accepted fact” if “historical research unanimously precluded all and every doubt as to its truth.” [6] It is about time that German judges reflect upon this!

The historians, however, should at last muster up the courage to detach themselves from the previous thought patterns and begin to delve into the real causes of the deaths of those Jews who did perish during World War II insofar as that is still possible. The declaration by Professor Helmut Diwald still holds true that the fate of the lews who were deported to the East “is despite all literature still unclarified on central questions.” [7]


[1] Deutschland in Geschichte und Gegenwart 1/84, p.18.
[2] Jaeckel/Rohwer. Der Mord an den Juden im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt Stuttgart,1985, 253 pp. Paperback.
[3] P. 815ff.
[4] Toronto Sun, 1/18/85.
[5] Der Auschwitz Mythos, p. 22, op. cit.
[6] Deutsche Strafrechtzeitung, 1918, pp.199ff.
[7] Geschichte der Deutschen, first edition, p.165.