top of page

The basic question 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. As historian Richard Evans states in his book The Coming of the Third Reich:


 "Understanding how and why the Nazis came to power is as important today as it ever was, perhaps, as memory fades, even more so...We need to discover why their opponents failed to stop them. We need to grasp the nature and operation of the Nazi dictatorship once it was established. We need to figure out the processes through which the Third Reich plunged Europe and the world into a war of unparalleled ferocity that ended in its own cataclysmic collapse" (xxi).

Periodization: Historians generally divide the study of the Holocaust into three major periods, each with their own questions:

  • Pre-1933: What caused the Nazi's rise to power?

  • 1933-1939: How did the Nazi's defeat their opponents and establish a totalitarian state?

  • 1939-1945: How and why did the Nazis attempt to exterminate the Jews?


The traditional debate over this issue was called the "intentionalist vs. functionalist" debate. In a sense, this is a question of responsibility. Who was mostly responsible: Hitler or the unnamed functionaries of the German government? But answering that question requires the historian to delve into other issues: at what point was the decision made to exterminate the Jews? Who made that decision? Was it a specific order from Hitler or a general objective?

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 Hitler was actually a weak and disorganized leader and 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 -the Goldhagen Controversy- involves the argument of Harvard professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

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. 


Lucy Dawidowicz, an American historian and Mets fan, was one of the primary American scholars of the Holocaust. 


Saul Friedlander, born in Prague, published "The Years of Persecution" and the "Years of Extermination." 


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.

bottom of page