What is left of the Hilberg’s triad “Perpetrators-Victims-Bystanders “?

Now already a classic literature by Raul Hilberg “Perpetrators-Victims-Bystanders” was a starting point of the discussion during the second day of the academic conference.

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Now already a classic literature by Raul Hilberg “Perpetrators-Victims-Bystanders” was a starting point of the discussion led today by prof. Paweł Śpiewak during the second day of the academic conference. To verify the Hilberg’s triad is important to understand the mechanisms behind the Holocaust.

A revolutionary thesis by Hilberg was to analyze the Holocaust from three points of view and at the same time to recognize the witnesses to the Jewish tragedy as elements standing behind the mechanism of the Holocaust.

Prof. Grzegorz Brendt, without referring directly to Hilberg’s book, talked about an inappropriate, and often present in contemporary historiography, tendency to describe the attitudes of entire societies towards the Holocaust. Such generalization usually has no right, because the testimonies that we have access to allow us only to talk about the attitudes of certain individuals. In reference to the presumption of innocence rule, Brendt also disagreed with the belief that the passiveness of the witnesses to the Holocaust is reprehensible. In his opinion, such judgements do not take into consideration the occupation realia, the fact that “the Aryans” also had to fight in order to survive.

Prof. Jan Tomasz Gross started his speech with a remark that the Polish word “świadkowie” (“witnesses”) does not entirely represent the English “bystanders”, which is one of the terms used by Hilberg’s in the title of his book. “Bystanders” means those who “stand by”. It is not obvious at all whether they can see what is happening or if they are standing turned with their backs to the events. According to Gross, the terms “helpers” and “beneficiaries” adequately complement the triad. He is convinced that the primary responsibility of each person is reacting to violence and “standing by” requires special justification. In Poland, everybody knew what has happening to Jews, hence the question involving accusation, “What did you do to rescue Jews?” is addressed to all of the Polish. 

Prof. Paweł Machcewicz defended the accuracy of the classification suggested by Hilberg. He highlighted that such categories have to be vague. It does not refer only to the “witnesses” but also the other two remaining groups of the triad: the perpetrators and the victims. In such context a question emerges, “Are the French or Polish railwaymen who were responsible for transporting Jews to extermination camps perpetrators? The shared, moral responsibility is obvious in the case of Wermacht and even “common Germans” but does it mean that they are perpetrators of the Holocaust?”. Machcewicz considers the vagueness of Hilberg’s categories as an advantage because it inspires the researchers to explore the issue more thoroughly and ask new questions related to the mechanisms behind the Holocaust.

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