Raul Hilberg: "A Mind of a Different Order"

Historians in the News

[Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. ]

In December 2000 I had the privilege of meeting Raul Hilberg at a conference in Berlin.

The conference celebrated the 100th anniversary of Franz Neumann's birth. Franz Neumann was at first a politically engaged legal theorist, close to the German Social Democratic Party. Forced into exile by the Nazis, he gained respect for his work Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, for his teaching at Columbia University, and for a few influential articles in political theory. I was there because I am his son. Hilberg was there because his great work, The Destruction of the European Jews, began as a doctoral thesis under my father's supervision.

The conference consisted mainly of scholars, some young, some older and established. Among the older scholars were several well respected figures, but none had Hilberg's reputation. There were, of course, papers presented, pretty good ones, I thought. They were supposed to be twenty minutes but often, as usual, the text was much longer than that and the talks went overtime. Nevertheless they were carefully prepared and their length was no great burden on the audience.

When Hilberg's turn came round, he stepped up to the podium with a single scrap of paper. Oh, I said to myself, a star: one of those famous guys too good to do actual work for a little gathering like this one.

Hilberg's talk was the most beautifully clear, the most carefully organized and the most illuminating, by far. Near the end it had a subtly dramatic flair. When American intelligence came to organize the vast store of Nazi government documents they had collected, he said, they organized them into broad categories corresponding to the fundamental areas in which the Nazi state deployed its efforts. He described the categories. Where did they come from, he asked? It turns out they came from Neumann's Behemoth.

That, I believe, was Hilberg to a T. No fine words about Neumann's influence or intellect, no narrowly academic disquisitions on the evolution of modern German political theory, no funny stories about his old professor, not historical footnotes, nor - my own sin - a presentation of pet ideas whose relevance to the conference remained a mystery. He paid tribute by getting right down to the business of explaining exactly how Neumann's thought had impact on the business of the world. It was stylish, instructive, and would have been self-effacing had we not sat stunned at the intellectual power of what had been so succinctly laid before us....
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