Saul Friedlander: Challenges the view that the Holocaust was simply the result of bureaucrats doing what they were told





In 1997, Saul Friedlander published “The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939,” the first of his projected two-volume history of “Nazi Germany and the Jews.” In the introduction to that volume, he announced his intention of “establishing a historical account of the Holocaust in which the policies of the perpetrators, the attitudes of surrounding society and the world of the victims could be addressed within an integrated framework.” Such a framework has indeed been missing from most historical accounts of this most difficult and challenging of subjects. They have focused either on the processes of decision-making and their implementation or on the world of suffering and death experienced by the victims. Friedländer’s first volume stood out from most other work in this field because it successfully combined both of these aspects. And his second volume does so as well. It now establishes itself as the standard historical work on Nazi Germany’s mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

And yet “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945” is no ordinary academic book. True, Friedlander seems to have read virtually every printed source and secondary work on his vast subject in English, German and French. His judgments are scrupulous and levelheaded. And he treats the historical controversies that have raged around so many of the topics he covers with untiring fair-mindedness. He writes without a trace of polemic or of facile retrospective moralizing. The book meticulously satisfies every requirement of professional historical writing.

What raises “The Years of Extermination” to the level of literature, however, is the skilled interweaving of individual testimony with the broader depiction of events. Friedlander never lets the reader forget the human and personal meanings of the historical processes he is describing. By and large, he avoids the sometimes unreliable testimony of memoirs for the greater immediacy of contemporary diaries and letters, though he also makes good use of witness statements at postwar trials. The result is an account of unparalleled vividness and power that reads like a novel....


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