The Historical Journal

Historiographical Review



a1 European University Institute, Florence/University of Sydney


Recent literature on the Holocaust and (other) genocides reveals that on the whole differences in approach persist. For many historians, as for the public, the Holocaust is the prototypical genocide, such that mass violence must resemble the Holocaust to constitute genocide. Whereas ‘normal’ ethnic/national conflict is commonly believed to involve ‘real’ issues like land, resources, and political power, no such conflict is discernible in the Holocaust of European Jewry, whose victims were passive and agentless objects of the ‘hallucinatory’ ideology of the perpetrators. But is this distinction sustainable on closer inspection? This review suggests that genocide is mistakenly identified as a massive hate crime based entirely on ‘race’. In fact, it has a political logic: irrational or at least exaggerated fears about subversion and national or ‘ethnic’ security. Prejudices do not cause violence: they are mobilized in conditions of emergency. Recent research tends in this direction by emphasizing paranoia rather than racism in the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazis but does not transcend the customary distinction between the ‘delusional’ grounds for the former and ‘real’ ethnic conflict. This separation of categories feeds into the anxieties in some contributors to this literature about potential genocides in the present by forecasting apocalyptic scenarios unless drastic military action is taken against specified enemies. Scholarship is better served by deflating rather than inflating such anxieties.

(Online publication May 11 2011)


c1 Department of History and Civilization, European University Institute, Villa Schifanoia, via Boccaccio 121, 50133 Florence, Italy

* I thank the anonymous referees and following colleagues for advice on drafts: Peter Black, John Connelly, Geoff Eley, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Mark Levene, Wendy Lower, Samuel Moyn, Devin Pendas, H. Glenn Penny, Till van Rahden, Dan Stone, Lyndsey Stonebridge, Lorenzo Veracini, Natasha Wheately, and Gerhard Wolf. The usual qualifications apply.