and Judith Tydor Baumel

Any intellectual undertaking requiring the participation of more than 100 scholars from 11 different countries—especially the creation of an encyclopedia, a supposed fortress of objective fact—is bound to produce disagreement over the project’s contents, the means of analysis used to arrive at results, and, inevitably, the results themselves.

Such a task is made considerably more difficult when the subject at hand is the Holocaust, that fateful series of events that culminated in the attempted—and nearly successful—murder of every Jewish man, woman, and child in Europe by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Recent years have seen a remarkable proliferation of popular and academic studies of this bloody episode. Amid some islands of consensus, however, a sea of disagreement has arisen over basic terminological questions (Should “the Holocaust” refer exclusively to Jewish victims of Nazism? How do we define a “perpetrator” of the Holocaust?), some matters of fact (When and how was the order for the murder of the Jews given? How many Jews actually perished?), and, most especially, areas open to interpretation (How central was anti-Semitism to German acceptance of Nazism? Was Nazi Germany’s founder and absolute ruler, Adolf Hitler, evil—or just insane?).

Perhaps, then, the most commendable accomplishment of The Holocaust Encyclopedia, edited by Walter Laqueur and Judith Tydor Baumel, is the balance it brings to its treatment of such intellectually thorny—and still emotionally charged—issues. At 765 pages, featuring 19 maps and 276 photographs, many previously unpublished, The Holocaust Encyclopedia proclaims itself “the only comprehensive single-volume work of reference providing both a reflective overview of the subject and abundant detail concerning major events, policy decisions, cities, and individuals.”

As noted in the introductory essay by Laqueur, a Georgetown professor emeritus and co-chair of the International Research Council at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, compiling the facts of this singular human tragedy can prove inexact because “[t]he assignment, after all, was to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time, rather than to submit accurate figures.” One crucial empirical debate Laqueur seeks to resolve immediately and decisively, writing: “During the Third Reich between 5 million and 6 million Jews were killed.” Though some scholars place this number at 10 million, Laqueur dissents, saying the margin of error in this estimate “cannot be more than 10-15 percent, and it might well be less.”

Readers will find that the answers they get to such defining questions come from specific historians assigned to address specific, alphabetized topics. Although clearly Laqueur and his fellow editors strove for balance, the authors do not shy away from rendering verdicts. Thus, in the eight-page entry for “Hitler, Adolf,” Dick Geary, a professor at England’s University of Nottingham, essentially validates the view that Hitler is best seen as a clever and pragmatic politician, not a lunatic. “Volumes have been produced that attempt to identify Hitler as a madman,” Geary notes. “But to view Hitler as in the thrall of uncontrollable psychic processes is not wholly accurate.”

One of the most controversial lingering disputes from the Holocaust era focuses on the action—or inaction, as some would have it—of the United States during the killings. Tackling this subject is Richard Breitman, the American University professor responsible for both the definitive biography of Heinrich Himmler, the “architect” of Hitler’s Final Solution, and 1999’s Official Secrets, the most penetrating study to date of Allied intelligence agencies’ awareness of the extermination campaign. Though many factors accounted for America’s fitful and altogether middling record of intervention—including a determination that no resources should be diverted from the military defeat of Germany and Japan—Breitman concludes that anti-Semitism was not a major cause of U.S. inaction. Rather, he writes, the “most important barrier to support for intervention to save European Jews was psychological: the calculated murder of millions of civilians was not only illogical and unprecedented, it was literally inconceivable.”

Likewise, Breitman enters the fray over whether America should have attempted to bomb the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, murder scene for some 1.1 million victims, all but 100,000 of them Jews. Last year, the Washington-based United States Holocaust Memorial Museum published an entire volume of essays on this subject alone; yet Breitman sweepingly declares that such a mission “could not have been accomplished until the second half of 1944,” and adds that “studies of precision bombing suggest that there would not have been a high likelihood of a successful mission.” Even a direct hit, Breitman indicates, “would only have reduced the efficiency of the killing machinery,” not destroyed it.

Sprawling, visually dynamic—yet tastefully done—The Holocaust Encyclopedia bursts with assertions and conclusions sure to excite passions about genocide and its resonance today. Writing on “Antisemitism,” the University of Oxford’s Peter Pulzer observes that “Themes borrowed from European antisemitism have found their way into Arab or Islamic anti-Zionist discourse.”

Similarly, John S. Conway, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, defends Pope Pius XII against charges that he and the Catholic Church should have objected more strenuously to the Nazi slaughter. “No one,” Conway admits, “now defends the view that the Vatican was ignorant of the existence of concentration camps or the killing of Jews on an unprecedented scale.” Yet Conway argues that “Hitler’s intentions could not be altered by entreaties from Rome, however vigorous or frequent. On the contrary, there was evidence enough to fear that retaliation would fall not only on the Catholic Church but also on the victims for whom it was pleading.”

Perhaps the most plum assignment went to Michael R. Marrus, a prominent Holocaust scholar who serves as dean of the University of Toronto graduate school, who wrote the entry on “Historiography.” Reviewing the extant literature on almost every aspect of the Holocaust, Marrus gets to pass judgment on the work of his colleagues, including those involved in the encyclopedia’s preparation. Mostly, Marrus remains admirably fair, summarizing without hint of bias, for example, the critical debate between the “intentionalists” (who see Germany’s path to the Holocaust as a straight line predating Hitler’s rise to power) and “functionalists” (who see an evolving, “twisted” road to mass murder, adopted only after other policies, such as resettlement, had failed).

Soon, however, Marrus abandons the pretense of neutrality, pronouncing Raul Hilberg’s 1961 The Destruction of the European Jews “perhaps the most important single work ever written on the Holocaust,” praising Breitman and others for having “written cogently” on Allied responses, and using his space to assail, however gently, those books he considers to be somehow defective in their approach or conclusion. Marrus’ most striking rebuttal is of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who argues, Marrus tells us, that “the key to understanding the Holocaust lies in the ‘modernity’ of the Third Reich—the Nazis’ freedom from the constraints of traditional society, their forward-looking goals, and their use of the most up-to-date bureaucratic, scientific, and technological methods.” Marrus continues:

Close examination of the killing process, however, may not bear out the contention that the murder of European Jewry was a quintessentially modern phenomenon. As several writers have insisted, popular understanding of the Holocaust has been distracted by an excessive focus on gas chambers and crematoriums…But much of the murder of Jews in Eastern Europe, as [Daniel] Goldhagen in particular has reminded us, was conducted by firing squads—massacres that hardly benefited from the application of modern organizational methods or scientific technique—and many deaths resulted from beatings, disease, and starvation…Moreover, everything we have learned about the killing process in Auschwitz and the other death camps suggests that the murder machinery owed more to artisanal fabrication than to the kind of scientific and technological innovations that produced high-speed aircraft or the atomic bomb.

With its probing, sophisticated essays and its astonishing range and depth, The Holocaust Encyclopedia represents a landmark in the evolution of knowledge on its subject. Survivors of Nazism will have lived to see the same Information Age that gave Joseph Goebbels a worldwide platform produce a portable yet immovable monument of text and photographs to remind readers forever of the bankruptcy of Goebbels’ ideas. As study of the Holocaust intensifies in universities and secondary schools—and as a tiny but determined band clings to the farcical claim that the Holocaust is a hoax, or, at best, a massive campaign of exaggeration—The Holocaust Encyclopedia will prove an invaluable resource and a useful weapon. CP