The Holo­caust Con­tro­ver­sy: The Tre­blin­ka Affair in Post­war France

Samuel Moyn
  • Review
By – May 25, 2012

The focus of this book is a Holo­caust con­tro­ver­sy that embroiled French and French-Jew­ish soci­ety in the mid 1960’s, set off by the pub­li­ca­tion of Jean-François Steiner’s book, Tre­blin­ka: The Revolt of an Exter­mi­na­tion Camp. In a metic­u­lous­ly researched and clear­ly and cogent­ly writ­ten study, Moyn demon­strates how this intel­lec­tu­al con­tro­ver­sy had far reach­ing con­se­quences that trans­formed Holo­caust aware­ness and that still res­onates today in issues sur­round­ing the uses and abus­es of the Holo­caust. Steiner’s best-sell­ing text depict­ed Tre­blin­ka, one of the prin­ci­pal Nazi death camps, erect­ed in 1942 as part of Aktion Rein­hard where approx­i­mate­ly 800,000 Jews were mur­dered over the year and a half of the camp’s exis­tence. The book also described the August 2, 1943, insur­rec­tion by the Jew­ish inmates of the camp. 

The con­tro­ver­sy essen­tial­ly piv­ot­ed on three the­ses offered by Stein­er. The first argued — offen­sive­ly for many — that the vic­tims were essen­tial­ly com­plic­it in their own deaths and the sec­ond, for the need to con­nect the hero­ism of the revolt as being, in a fash­ion, a response by the resisters to that shame­ful com­plic­i­ty. Third­ly, Steiner’s book her­ald­ed a shift in post-Holo­caust under­stand­ing from a broad­ly uni­ver­sal­is­tic par­a­digm that con­nect­ed the Holo­caust to oth­er Nazi crimes, to a new stan­dard of mem­o­ry in which the Holo­caust received spe­cif­ic atten­tion as a phe­nom­e­non in its own right, with a focused Nazi agen­da of Jew­ish anni­hi­la­tion. The book was also con­tro­ver­sial because Stein­er made it a prin­ci­ple of research to base his account not on the his­tor­i­cal and gov­ern­men­tal sources that illu­mi­nate Nazi ter­ror from the point of view of its per­pe­tra­tors and its orga­ni­za­tion— as Raul Hilberg did — but instead relied almost exclu­sive­ly on the tes­ti­mo­ni­al sources of the vic­tims. Iron­i­cal­ly, some of Steiner’s sur­vivor sources would lat­er repu­di­ate the book, claim­ing that Stein­er mis­rep­re­sent­ed their tes­ti­monies in order to make his point about Jew­ish complicity. 

In uncov­er­ing and ana­lyz­ing the con­tro­ver­sy for con­tem­po­rary read­ers, Moyn pro­vides an entry for pro­duc­tive exam­i­na­tion of some of the com­pelling issues still ani­mat­ing Holo­caust schol­ar­ship, includ­ing how best to con­cep­tu­al­ize Nazi crim­i­nal­i­ty, the ques­tion of Holo­caust par­tic­u­lar­i­ty, the issues of Jew­ish com­plic­i­ty and resis­tance, the effect the Holo­caust should have on fram­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and the uses and abus­es of the Holo­caust to fur­ther oth­er agen­das. The book is time­ly, impor­tant and quite suggestive.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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