In: Beyond "Ordinary Men"
Gerhard L. Weinberg
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While it is customary for books published in honour and memory of distinguished university professors to consist of pieces written by those who worked on their doctoral degrees under the direction of the honouree, this volume is different. It does include essays by several of Christopher R. Browning’s PhD students, but most of the chapters are by distinguished scholars whose academic careers began under other professors including some whose dissertations I directed. The thrust of the volume is to illustrate and illuminate the impact of an individual scholar on a field of study in general beyond the graduate training of specific students.

When I informed the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that I would be retiring at the end of the academic year 1998-99, a search committee was appointed to look for a successor. It so happened that when the committee reported at a department meeting its recommendation of Professor Christopher R. Browning, then at Pacific Lutheran University, for the position, I was present and able to engage the one substantive question raised at the meeting by a member of the department. Since the position was expected to include the directing of doctoral students, did it make sense to appoint someone who had taught for many years in a history department that did not have a PhD program? Having read two books Browning had published by that time, I was in a position to assure those present that Browning had had considerable experience in working in relevant archives and could direct graduate students to them. I had also heard him give an excellent paper at a scholarly meeting and respond thoughtfully and effectively to the numerous questions that followed his presentation. That experience had confirmed my assessment of his suitability for a position of the Chapel Hill type. Furthermore, in many archives in Europe the generally helpful archivists were likely to be especially helpful to scholars working under someone whose name they recognized, and that was likely to benefit any student working on a dissertation under Browning’s direction. The members of the department present voted for the committee’s recommendation. Having some years before for the first time offered a course on the Holocaust at Chapel Hill, I could easily see in this action a departmental emphasis on a field of study that in many ways had been inaugurated by Raul Hilberg in the early fifties when we were colleagues in the War Documentation Project.

Over the decades since Hilberg published a revised version of his dissertation,1 the field has developed and changed though two facets remain largely unexplored: the April 1920 public call of Adolf Hitler for total extermination of the Jews and the intended world-wide as opposed to European concept of the Holocaust.2 What is indeed a critical and fascinating aspect of this volume is the way it illuminates how the work of one scholar, Christopher R. Browning, has influenced not only those working on their dissertations under his direction but also – and perhaps more important – the way the whole field of Holocaust scholarship has been influenced by his approach to the subject since the publication in English and German of his book Ordinary Men.

Because the reports of the Einsatzgruppen, the special killing squads, became available right after the war, these naturally provided a focus for early examination of what came to be called the Holocaust. Where Browning opened a new avenue for study of this field was his interest in the individual killers as contrasted with the prior perfectly proper but inherently limited focus on the statistics of killing and the origin of the order to kill. Whether it is the issue of gender of those participating in the killing process or the memories of surviving victims and onlookers, the essays in this book reflect the influence of Browning on the selection of paths into the past by distinguished scholars in the field over the last decades. Readers will find a great variety of approaches but a sense of indebtedness to Browning in the essays.

Trial testimony came to be a significant source for Holocaust scholars, but it was with the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem that the testimony of victims came to be included to a substantial extent in this category of evidence. Hanna Arendt’s insistence in her work on the trial on the “banality of evil” made that expression famous but was fundamentally distorting. As the chapters of this book show, the terrible events of those years were not banal but a series of individual acts and fates, each with human actors as perpetrators or victims with an enormous variety of situations, motives, fates, and recollections if alive after the events.

Any reader of the pieces in this book will benefit in two different but related ways. In the first place, there is the great variety of aspects and issues in Holocaust history that are illuminated by the essays. That aspect in itself will not only open new perspectives on the general subject and possible ways to examine and hopefully understand them better. It will also provide some insight into the variety of ways the subject can be analysed and how Browning influenced the developing engagement with it by those who have decided to make it a major focus of their scholarly work. This is the origin of the other way in which the reader’s view of the Holocaust is enriched. Anyone who reads the pieces will in the process come to be acquainted with a very substantial proportion of the leading scholars in the field of Holocaust Studies in the United States, Canada, and Germany. That fact in itself will open further routes into a subject of enormous importance for the history of humanity. While not all works published by the contributors are listed, an insertion of the name of any of them into a computer and/or a university catalogue will produce additional items. The author of this foreword may serve as an example. The majority of his books are not listed nor are any of his articles, which show him to be an “intentionalist” and not a “functionalist” as those working in the field are at times described.

There cannot be any doubt that the subject of the Holocaust will continue to attract attention both from at least portions of the public and of the scholarly community. As individuals in the future make the decision to engage the topic as a part or as the main focus of their scholarly work, whether in graduate school or in post-graduate years, they are very likely to profit intellectually from reading Browning’s work and gain substantial further suggestions and insights from the variety of serious and stimulating essays in this volume.

Gerhard L. Weinberg


Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961). The third revised edition of this book appeared in three volumes published by Yale University Press in 2008.


The argument that the way to deal with Jews is to “exterminate root and branch” (mit Stumpf und Stiel auszurotten) is in his speech of 6 April 1920; Eberhard Jäckel, ed., Hitler: Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905-1924 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1980), 121-22.

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Beyond "Ordinary Men"

Christopher R. Browning and Holocaust Historiography


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