The Argument About Holocaust Studies -- Martin E. Marty

One of the most heated public controversies over a religious theme in America has to do with Holocaust studies

By Martin E. Marty|May 4, 1999

One of the most heated public controversies over a religious theme in America has to do with Holocaust studies. And none has been more heated and more public than that between Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior editor of COMMENTARY (published by the American Jewish Committee), and Franklin H. Littell, a noted Christian researcher and writer on the Holocaust.

Schoenfeld started this round of controversies with a regular round of COMMENTARY articles in which he spent much energy attacking feminist scholars and those on what he sees to be the left. Along the way he attacked "Holocaustology" and "the careerism of 'Holocaustologians," which Yehuda Bauer had warned against in 1977, and what Robert Alter called "naturalizing the horror." Schoenfeld's bottom line: the Holocaust is unique in history; study of it should not be connected with study of other human tragedies and horrors; most places that study it do so badly, especially if they coordinate their views of the Holocaust with other horrors. Most should be silent.

Littell, a pioneer in Holocaust studies, is the 81-year-old founder of the Annual Scholars' Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches. He not only felt himself and his colleagues dismissed and disdained by Schoenfeld but turned around and made the gravest charge one can make in these fields: by rejecting "Holocaustology" and "Holocaustologians," he said, Schoenfeld was engaged in "Holocaust denial."

Littell described three types of denial. First, "the familiar denial of the vulgarians," those of the "there was no Holocaust" school. Second, the "'soft denial' of some sectors of the Christian establishments," who always change the subject and talk of victims of other crimes. Third, "Schoenfeld's kind of 'subtle denial'" that shifts the subject to academic intrigue and discouragement of Holocaust studies.

I saw Littell's library on this subject at a nearby seminary 35 years ago. Back then he was sometimes criticized for being so pro-Zionist, pro-Israel, pro-Semite, pro-Jewish, pro-Judaist, etc., that he was embarrassing the Christian cause. Now, ironically, this doughty fighter is attacked by Jews of Schoenfeld's stripe. Numbers of Schoenfeld defenders have spoken up and are quoted in the April 16 FORWARD. Some of them are Jews who have been zinged by Schoenfeld but think Littell is "too harsh" and that Schoenfeld, for all his hard-swinging, is "absolutely" not a denier.

FORWARD reports that Father John Pawlikowski, another Christian veteran on the Jewish-Christian scene, finds Schoenfeld's "writing very disturbing" because "it seems to me, if not to deny the Holocaust, to deny the continuing importance of studying it." Yet he "would not personally use the term Holocaust denier" for Schoenfeld. What the two vituperators are talking about are urgent issues. If they would both lower their voices, the rest of us could hear them better and might act intelligently.