Years of Persecution, Years of Extermination. Saul Friedländer and the Future of Holocaust Studies.

Scrupulous preservation of memories


Christian Wiese and Paul Betts (Eds)
Continuum, £22.39

With Nazi Germany and the Jews, volume one, The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (1997) and volume two, The Years of Extermination 1939-45 (2007), Saul Friedländer established himself as the greatest living historian of the period. In addition to synthesising a mountain of research into a lucid narrative he established the viability of an approach that integrates the voices of Jewish victims.

By using diaries, letters and testimonies, he disrupted the impression, given in previous accounts based on German sources, of persecution leading smoothly to genocide. Indeed, Friedländer questioned whether the act of writing about these events using the traditional methods of the historian risked domesticating them and neutralising the "disbelief" they actually warrant. In doing this, he forced the reader to confront the bewilderment of Jews who could find no rational explanation for the horrors befalling them.

This book stems from a gathering of historians at Sussex University in 2008 to honour Friedländer and discuss his work. Debating whether he had in fact produced a truly "integrated" history, Michael Wildt, a leading exponent of "perpetrator history" felt that he had - and showed parallels between Friedländer's approach and the technique of the pioneer historian of the "killing machine", Raul Hilberg. But Alon Confino thought Friedländer's "perpetrators" remained elusive.

Zoe Waxman regretted that he did not accommodate the differential experience of Jewish women, while Doris Bergen noted that historians in general have yet to integrate the mentality of the Orthodox Jews who were the bulk of Hitler's victims.

Friedländer's use of testimony was acclaimed, though Tony Kushner lamented the tendency to use these varied texts as if they were not themselves shaped by "literary strategies".

Mark Roseman pointed out that Jewish writing from the events was not only important for revealing what the victims thought and felt; it also offered unique insights into the motives of the killers. Nick Stargardt demonstrated how letters and diaries by Germans exposed their knowledge of the genocide.

Friedländer's explanation for German behaviour inspired the most searching discussion. He hypothesised that Hitler developed a distinctive form of antisemitism in which the salvation of the Volk was predicated on the extermination of the Jews. But can "redemptive antisemitism" explain what Germans as a whole did, let alone their collaborators?

Alan Kramer noted that unrestrained violence towards civilians characterised the way Germany fought its wars from 1870 onwards. In the last year of the Second World War, as Richard Bessel showed, the Nazis lashed out murderously in every direction. Antisemitism alone cannot explain this.

Writing about the Poles, Jan Gross observes that greed and opportunism motivated some to torture, rape, and blackmail Jews. Dirk Moses asks whether research on colonial genocides obliges us to look elsewhere for explanations of mass killing.

Despite the occasional schoolmasterly twang (as if to say, "Quite good Friedländer, but could do better"!) and excessive repetition, this is a rich collection on the state of Holocaust studies.

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