Argues Professor Saul Friedländer of UCLA, it is not because the extermination of 6 million Jews marked a major turning point in world history, as in the sense of the French or Bolshevik revolutions, or even the Great Depression.
Rather, the Holocaust, in its most profound sense, forces mankind to face the ultimate questions: What is the nature of human nature? What are the limits of human behavior?
The agonizing questions recur implicitly throughout the first volume of Friedländer's "Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939" (HarperCollins, $30).
While maintaining a rigorous scholarship, much of it based on fresh documentation, the distinguished historian of the Holocaust never loses sight of the human factor -- the response of the victim, the attitude of the German bystander, and even, when possible, the mental processes of the Nazi hierarchy.
Friedländer, a professor of history at both UCLA and Tel Aviv University, documents just how unprepared German Jews were for the trials ahead. On the day of Adolf Hitler's accession to power, the chairman of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith wrote in the organization's newspaper: "German Jews will not lose the calm they derive from their tie to all that is truly German. Less than ever, will they allow external attacks, which they consider unjustified, to influence their inner attitude toward Germany."
Even so keen a mind as Martin Buber's could pronounce two weeks later that "as long as the present condition holds, there can be no thought of Jew-baiting or anti-Jewish laws, only of administrative oppression."
In the months and years ahead, Jews were excluded from Germany's professional and cultural life, step by small step, until the first watershed year, 1935, and the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws "for the defense of German blood and honor."
The minutiae of these laws, with their "scientific" distinctions of quarter, half and full Jews, makes for mind-bending reading even 60 years later -- as witness the following Kafkaesque ruling:
"A full-blooded German who converts to Judaism is to be considered as German-blooded after that conversion as before it; but in terms of the racial belonging of his grandchildren, he is to be considered a full Jew."
The Nuremberg Laws were welcomed by most Germans (and even some Jews), who thought that by designating the Jews as an officially segregated minority, some of the physical "excesses" against them might be controlled.
"The majority of Germans," writes Friedländer, "although undoubtedly influenced by various forms of traditional anti- Semitism and easily accepting the segregation of the Jews, shied away from widespread violence against them, urging neither their expulsion from the Reich nor their physical annihilation."
In this interpretation, Friedländer differs from some Holocaust scholars, notably Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen. In his recent book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," Goldhagen posits that the German people were driven, for hundreds of years, by an "eliminationist" Jew hatred that welcomed the Final Solution.
The reality was more complex, maintains Friedländer. While there was hardly any active, and little passive, opposition to Hitler in the 1930s, most Germans were unenthusiastic about the disorder introduced by Nazi brutalities, fearing civil instability at home and possible economic boycotts abroad.
Of course, the promulgators of the Nuremberg Laws, foremost Hitler himself, saw the new edicts as part of a process to completely disenfranchise the Jews and push them out of Germany.
What drove Hitler and his hard-core followers was, as Friedländer describes, "redemptive anti-Semitism." The term refers to Hitler's maniacal conviction that the world was dominated by international Jewry and that the German and "Aryan" races could only be "redeemed" by a struggle to the death against the Jews.
This "redemptive" obsession runs in a constant line through Hitler's thinking and action -- allowing for occasional tactical deviations -- from his first political statements, in 1919, to his last will, written just before his suicide in 1945.
Just how Hitler came by his "apocalyptic" vision is still not clear. Friedländer traces its ideological paternity to Richard Wagner's Bayreuth circle, which was continued by the composer's son-in-law, the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and by the German journalist Dietrich Eckart, whom Hitler recognized as his mentor.
"Nazi Germany and the Jews" has been greeted by historians and reviewers as the new standard reference on the period. In an interview, Friedländer talked about his own background and the special responsibility of an author writing about the Nazi era and the Holocaust.
Born in Prague in 1932, Friedländer was hidden in a French monastery during the war years. His parents sought refuge in Switzerland but were turned back and later perished in Auschwitz.
He emigrated to Israel in 1948, studied in Tel Aviv, Paris and Geneva, and has published nine previous books on the Nazi era and Holocaust.
Writing on so emotional and tragic a subject as the Holocaust, the professional historian must take exceptional pains "to keep to a rigorous scientific standard," Friedländer says. "One must check oneself continuously so as not to fall into the trap of making facile interpretations."
Friedländer is concerned about the misuse of the Holocaust by some Jewish institutions and organizations, which exploit the Shoah "in a simplistic and emotion-arousing way to push their self-serving agendas," he says.
Even within the academic world, Friedländer fears some "slippage in standards," but he is encouraged by the emergence of a new generation of "very serious and professional" scholars, particularly in Germany, Israel and the United States.
However competent such younger researchers, they cannot re-create the personal memories retained by Friedländer and his contemporaries.
"We are the last generation to have lived through some of the actual events and to have acquired the knowledge produced in subsequent decades," Friedländer says. "It is enormously difficult to retain the image of the immediately experienced moment and meld it with the later-acquired knowledge."
He is now fully engaged in writing the second volume, which will take his history from 1939 to 1945. He will use the same approach as in the first volume, meshing the perspectives of the decision makers, their followers and their victims.
His task will be even tougher in the second volume, says Friedländer, because he will have to go beyond Germany to encompass all of Europe and, indeed, all the world.
In addition, he will have to absorb and interpret the excellent research that seemingly comes out every day, not to mention an immense amount of new and original documentation from the former Soviet Union.
"It is an immense challenge to order this material and keep the structure from becoming utterly chaotic," he says. "However, I have the advantage of having dealt with this subject all my life and can thus draw on a considerable fund of knowledge."
By keeping to a strict writing schedule, which usually starts at 5 a.m., Friedländer hopes to complete the second volume by 1999.