Can there be a political science of the Holocaust? Evgeny Finkel, in his new book Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust(Princeton University Press, 2017), answers Charles King's question with a resounding yes.
Finkel is interested in a very specific question: What made individual Jews choose from a variety of different strategies in responding to the threat posed by German violence. He lays out several possible strategies for survival, ranging from cooperation and collaboration to coping and compliance to evasion and resistance. Each of these strategies offered very real possibilities and risked very real dangers. Jews in every location adopted some combination of these strategies. But the mix of strategies adopted varied widely from place to place.
Finkel's research helps us understand why specific communities tended to employ a distinctive mix of strategies. He argues that the nature of the prewar environment in which Jews lived--the way local governments treated Jews, the degree of assimilation and interaction between Jews and non-Jews, the historical experiences of violence and oppression, all shaped wartime choices. By doing so, he argues, we remember that Jews had choices (even though ones with significant constraints and with limited possible outcomes) and it is important for us to understand how individuals made these choices.
Beyond this, though, FInkel hopes to show that a political science of the Holocaust is not simply possible, but that it offers new and important answers. It's a important and persuasive claim, one that all researchers should wrestle with and respond to.
Kelly McFall is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Newman University. He’s the author of four modules in the Reacting to the Past series, including The Needs of Others: Human Rights, International Organizations and Intervention in Rwanda, 1994, published by W. W. Norton Press.
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