The basic question of that Holocaust historians have struggled with is also the most important: what caused the Holocaust? We need to understand the answer to that question for us to prevent future genocides from occurring. The traditional debate over this issue was called the "intentionalist vs. functionalist" debate. The intentionalists believed that Hitler was the true cause behind the Holocaust. His hate, power, planning, and orders led to the genocide. The functionalists believed that the cause of the Holocaust was more deeply embedded in the German state and the actions of mid-level government bureaucrats who took the initiative. The most recent controversy involves the argument of Harvard professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who maintained that the root cause of the Holocaust was neither German bureaucracy nor Hitler, but rather the deep eliminationist anti-Semitism of the German people themselves.

As you read, try to determine whether the historians fall in the intentionalist or functionalist camps or whether they are outside of both of those groups.

Who exactly was Adolf Hitler? After you have read the arguments of these historians, you may want to look at this article about Hitler's life.

Here you can meet some of the key historians to better understand those arguments:


Hans Mommsen, a German historian, was a key historian of the Holocaust. He argued that Hitler was a weak leader and the Holocaust happened due to the larger Nazi state and the German bureaucrats who were trying to please a distant leader.


Lucy Dawidowicz, an American historian and Mets fan, was one of the primary American scholars of the Holocaust. She argued that Hitler was the primary driving force behind the Holocaust and had the intention to exterminate the Jews from the beginning.


Saul Friedlander, born in Prague, published "The Years of Persecution" and the "Years of Extermination" which argued that the Holocaust resulted from Hitler's orders.


Raul Hilberg, was born in Vienna and then studied at Brooklyn College and Columbia University. He was perhaps the most widely respected historian of the Holocaust.


Christopher Browning is an American historian who taught at UNC Chapel-Hill. His most famous book was Police Battalion 101. Browning believed the gradual radicalization of Nazi bureaucrats led to the Holocaust as well as obedience and conformity.


Daniel Goldhagen is perhaps the most controversial of the scholars of the Holocaust. A political science professor at Harvard, Goldhagen argues that the eliminationist anti-Semitism of the German people caused the Holocaust. In other words, the government didn't cause the Holocaust -- the German people did as they hated Jews and wanted them dead.