Jeff Kopstein

Politics, Violence, MemoryIn their new book, Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust (Cornell University Press), UCI political science professor Jeffrey S. Kopstein and coauthors bring critical social scientific inquiry to the study of the Holocaust.

“The lion's share of great research on the Third Reich and the Holocaust was once written by social scientists and philosophers,” says Kopstein. “But after an outpouring of research in the 1950s and 60s, social science lost interest. Now a new generation of work is emerging.”

Through a collection of case studies employing data, tools and methods both established and new, the researchers explore topics from antisemitism and neighbor-on-neighbor violence to legacies of the Holocaust today through a social scientific lens. Below, Kopstein expands on these themes and what they mean in today’s deeply divided landscape.

What new insights does your book illuminate by applying social scientific inquiry to the Holocaust?

In some ways, the journey of Holocaust research is an unexpected one. Unlike historians, until recently social scientists largely ignored the Holocaust. They ignored it despite the centrality of these tragic events to many of their own concepts and theories. The ethics of comparison, data availability, and disciplinary pressures deterred young social scientists building upon the research of their colleagues in the humanities. Fortunately this has begun to change. The fundamental purpose of this book is to highlight important new social scientific research on the Holocaust and to initiate the integration of the Holocaust into mainstream social scientific research in a way that will be useful both for social scientists and historians. Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust brings together new contributions to understanding the Holocaust from a variety of disciplines, including political science, sociology, demography, and public health. Using new concepts, data, and methods, the book examines the main social scientific approaches to the Holocaust; the sources and measurement of antisemitism; the explanations for collaboration, rescue, and survival; competing accounts of neighbor-on-neighbor violence; and the legacies of the Holocaust in contemporary Europe. Many of the chapters bring new data to bear on these important questions and show how older data can be deployed in new ways to understand the “index case” of violence in the modern world.

How is antisemitism measured and what does the data tell us about its trajectory?

Measuring antipathy in history is trickier than it may seem. Antisemitism in the decades running up to the Holocaust was of course widespread, but we are talking here of an era before the advent of surveys and public opinion research, so it is difficult to gauge attitudes with any precision. One way of measuring its prevalence is to look at the electoral performance of antisemitic parties, for the Nazis in Weimar Germany, for example. But we know that people voted for the Nazis for all kinds of reasons and many antisemites voted for other parties. It’s hard therefore to infer antisemitism or explain the geographic distribution or even intensity of antisemitism from voting behavior. Another approach is to look for sites of localized anti-Jewish violence, such as pogroms, and to measure waxing and waning of antisemitism by the occurrence of violence. But, again things are not so simple. How can anti-Jewish violence both be the thing we are interested in explaining and the factor that explains it? A highly original chapter in Politics, Violence, and Memory, by Robert Braun, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, addresses this problem by looking at the prevalence of Jewish “bogeymen” in childrens’ bedtime and “fairy tale” stories told in hundreds of German towns in the years before the Holocaust and with that it predicts with remarkable force where antisemitic parties ultimately perform well. One important lesson of his work is we should be looking for signs of antisemitic bias in unconventional places, such as popular culture, art, and music. We should be thinking of new ways of thinking about antisemitism’s trajectory.

In the stories and data you collected, what explanations did you uncover for collaboration, rescue and survival during and after the Holocaust? Do those explanations carry over/have applications today?

Let me answer this question by highlighting the contribution of Eugene Finkel of Johns Hopkins University to the book. Finkel examines the fate of the Jews in three ghettos: Cracow, Minsk, and Bialystok. He examines Jewish strategies for survival. In Cracow Jews were highly assimilated to the Polish culture, so some could “pass” in the world outside of the walls. In Bialystok, however, there was a stark political and cultural divide between the Jews and their Polish neighbors, and Jews had little hope of rescue or assistance outside the ghetto. In Minsk, which was inside of the Soviet Union before the war, there was a powerful resistance movement that Jews could join if they escaped the ghetto. In short, pre-existing relations mattered a great deal in explaining life and death during the Holocaust. My own work on pogroms shows something similar: where Jews shared a modicum of cultural and political attachments with their non-Jewish neighbors in the years before the Holocaust—where they even simply voted for the same political parties--they had a much better chance of receiving assistance and their neighbors were more likely to resist Nazi calls for localized violence. Where Jews and their Polish or Ukrainian neighbors were polarized politically, horrible pogroms frequently occurred even before the German military arrived or after they had departed. Of course, the lessons for today are important ones. We live in an era of deep political polarization and we need to be aware of the dangers polarization poses when it destroys the bare minimum of solidarity between communities.

What about today?

After the Holocaust, it was extraordinarily difficult for countries to come to terms with their own collaboration in the murder of their Jewish fellow citizens. In her chapter on Holocaust memory in post-communist Europe in this book, political scientist Jelena Subotic shows how official memory in many countries—in museums, textbooks, and film—frequently attempts to deflect or obfuscate local collaboration or at least maintain that whatever the Jews suffered was no worse than what local Hungarians, Poles, Lithuanians, or Croats suffered at the hands of the communists. It’s a sort of perverse historical “whataboutism.” We know in the United States how difficult it is to think through the dark periods of our own history—think about the politics of civil war monuments or building names over the past five years. In post-communist Europe where elites and people feel even less secure about their country’s status in today’s world, admitting wrongdoing is nearly impossible. We in the United States should do better.

Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust is coauthored by Jeffrey S. Kopstein, professor of political science, UC Irvine; Jelena Subotić, professor of political science, Georgia State University; and Susan Welch, previously professor of political science, The Pennsylvania State University.


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