The functionalist view of the Holocaust is not a revisionist view

For a detailed analysis of the intentionalist-versus-functionalist debate in Holocaust historiography, see my essay about the Nazis’ Madagascar Plan

A Hollywood conservative has been outed as a Holocaust revisionist from the ’90s. He had changed his name from David Cole to David Stein to cover up his unsavory past, but after he and a friend had had a falling out, this friend approached the media with the revelation. David Cole, a Jew, still holds his revisionist reviews even while he, as David Stein, has produced respected documentaries on the Holocaust. He cynically explains that he produced these documentaries because the public wanted them and because he needed an income. Other Hollywood conservatives who had fraternized with Stein have since abandoned him.  (

However, this Guardian article should have taken better care in summarizing Cole’s positions, as it manages to associate a valid historiographical interpretation of the Holocaust with Cole’s revisionist views. Specifically, reporting on Cole’s views, the article states “that there was no overarching, genocidal plan, but an evolving, morphing policy which claimed perhaps 4 million, rather than 6 million, Jewish lives.”  Cole’s reworking of the death toll is in fact a common revisionist tactic that reeks of pseudo-scholarly analysis; but certain Holocaust historians, called functionalists, have subjected primary source material to rigorous scholarly analysis to conclude that the Holocaust resulted from the evolving policies implemented by Nazi bureaucrats who had continually failed to solve the Jewish Question in Europe by other means, such as forced emigration and mass resettlement. Other historians, called intentionalists, disagree with the functionalist notion that the genocide resulted from the compounding failures of the Nazi bureaucracy. Intentionalists instead maintain that the genocide was a top-down affair implemented in accord with Hitler’s absolute will.

I would be willing to bet that most people who reflect upon the Holocaust understand it in intentionalist terms (even while they’ve never heard of intentionalism). Networks such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, when they cover the Holocaust specifically and World War II in general, focus on the personalities of Hitler, Himmler, Goering, and Goebbels, a focus which thereby conditions people to approach the Holocaust from a perspective that is positively intentionalist. The functionalist view, because it de-emphasizes ideology and analyzes the Nazi bureaucrats motivated by banal careerism, does not lend itself to the sensationalism that ratings-based television demands.

It seems then that functionalism is academic to a fault, whereas intentionalism, notwithstanding its theoretical merits and its basis in scholarship, lends itself more readily to popular audiences who have a hard time appreciating arguments and conclusions that do not focus exclusively on Hitler, his so-called henchmen, and their impetuses. In fact, if others do not likewise focus exclusively on the same personalities and on the same causal factors behind the Final Solution, then they must be in the business of apologizing for National Socialism and its ideological underpinnings. So goes the logic.

At the risk of being presumptuous, I suspect that the Guardian article’s writer, having no exposure to the nuanced historiographical interpretations surrounding the Holocaust, has been conditioned by this pervasive intentionalist position and tends to view anything short of this position as revisionist. Otherwise, he would have taken care to explain that while the revisionist David Cole in part promulgates a functionalist view of the Holocaust, this functionalist view is not a species of revisionism.



Filed under Academic, Genocide, History, Holocaust

2 responses to “The functionalist view of the Holocaust is not a revisionist view

  1. James Z.

    I might add that there was a popular German and Polish impetus to remove the Jews by any means possible regardless of any top-down or lateral bureaucratic direction, or lack thereof. While the people were generally unwilling to get blood on their own hands, they were more than willing to establish 40,000 concentration camps, turn in their friends and neighbors, and call the Wehrmacht and the SS over knowing damn well that they were going to humiliate, torture and shoot the Jews on the spot (until the ammo got too expensive, and the bureaucracy told them to stop shooting them and put them on the train to Auswitch). This kind of behavior started as soon as Germany invaded Poland, and continued throughout the war. It wasn’t uncommon after the war for the Poles to openly praise Hitler for killing the Jews. Before the war neither the Germans nor the Poles were particularly more racist against the Jews than Americans were against Blacks or Mexicans (although way more than we were against the Japanese before Pearl Harbor), but the war gave them a smokescreen to hide behind and us a reason to steal a huge amount of farmland and a massive fishing fleet from American citizens that happened to be Japanese. A little bit of racism mixed with a little bit of chaos goes a long way.

    • Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Ordinary Germans, would disagree with you and me on the point that there was nothing exceptional about the German variety of anti-Semitism. He makes a flimsy, unfalsifiable case for a concept he calls eliminationist anti-Semitism, unethically basing his readings of the source material on the thesis he so wanted to advance. It disgusts me that this book has done so well among popular audiences, but at least actual Holocaust historians have put him in his place over the whole matter. He actually wrote Ordinary Germans as a rebuttal to the much-better Ordinary Men, written by Christopher Browning. Both base their arguments on the same source material surrounding the Ordnungspolizei operating in Poland, but it’s Browning who applies the historical method to his readings. Goldhagen, who only wants to be sensational, uses barely any method at all.

      Honestly, I do tend to view German anti-Semitism as something unexceptional and “un-genocidal” up until the loosing of the Einsatzgruppen in 1941. I took this view with me into the research I did for my thesis on the Madagascar Plan. But reading the source material centered on the plan and comparing it to other European studies of Madagascar for Jewish settlement, I did have to concede that there was something peculiar about the Germans’ persistence in wanting to use Madagascar despite the fact that these other studies deemed the island unsuitable for Jewish settlement. Well before things became manifestly genocidal in Europe, Germany, knowing full well that the plan would have been an abject failure resulting in mass starvation and disease, sold the plan for all its illusionary benefits. Where other nations put the brakes on the Madagascar scheme, the Germans had no such reservations. And it’s telling that the Nazis continued pushing for Madagascar well into the deployment of the Einsatzgruppen, when things were becoming genocidal beyond all doubt; in fact, the plan continued to be official Jewish policy a month into the Final Solution vis-à-vis the Wannsee Protocol. My point is this: I find it illogical that the Germans would have halted their genocidal intentions had they finally acquired Madagascar from Vichy France. I had to concede the possibly that the plan had been genocidal from its inception.

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