The Holocaust and World History: Raphael Lemkin and comparative methodology
Title: The Holocaust and World History: Raphael Lemkin and comparative methodology
Author: MOSES, A. Dirk
Citation: Dan STONE (ed.), The Holocaust and Historical Methodology, New York/Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2012, Making Sense of History, 16, 272-289
ISBN: 978-0-85745-492-8; 978-0-85745-493-5
How does one avoid the competitive discourse of Holocaust uniqueness and counter-uniqueness with their overshadowing geopolitical stakes and unsatisfactory methodological implications? Showing that the underlying bone of contention is metahistorical claim-making about the Holocaust is the first task. The second task is to conceive of a viable methodology for historians writing about the Holocaust in world history. I do so by reconstructing the first serious attempt to address this question: that of Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the term “genocide” in 1943 and wrote an unpublished world history of genocide after the Second World War. How did this complex figure, proud Jew and non-Zionist Polish patriot, conceive of world history and the Holocaust’s place in it? We will see that he extricated himself from these metahistorical discourses in two ways: first, by proposing an immanent and cosmopolitan discourse that, by extending empathy to all victims of genocide and persecution, applied social scientific explanations to both victims and perpetrators; and second, by proposing a comparative approach that did not take any particular genocide as the prototype, model or paradigm against which all the other are judged. He linked his moral purpose—to prevent and criminalize genocide by seeking to explain its occurrence throughout history—with the latest scholarly tools, deployed in an even-handed manner. Consequently, this chapter does not contextualize the Holocaust in world history, an impossible undertaking in a short contribution. Instead, it explicates Lemkin’s methodology as a guide for current and future research, which is thematized in the last section.
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