Saul Friedländer: Massive history of the Holocaust is a judicious, authoritative and restrained study

Historians in the News

... The historian, UCLA professor and MacArthur fellow Saul Friedländer, whose parents died at Auschwitz and who grew up hidden among Gentiles in Nazi-occupied France, has been writing about the Holocaust since the 1960s. His new book, "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945," along with its 1997 precursor, "Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939," caps a life's work that includes a memoir, books on Pope Pius XII and the Third Reich, on Hitler and the United States—and on one Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein was a deeply religious Waffen SS man who delivered Zyklon B to the death camps while trying to alert the world; eventually he hanged himself. As both Gerstein's story and the story of the Sonderkommando workers suggest, Friedländer records not just the atrocities but the madness behind them. The Nazis made the unimaginable suddenly real: how could sane people possibly respond? As late as 1943, the Red Cross in Geneva learned that 10,000 Jews had been transported from Berlin—and was "anxious" to get their new addresses.

"The Years of Extermination" and its precursor may be a definitive overview of the Holocaust—and a compact one, even though both volumes if bound together would total some 1,600 pages. But most of us have already heard these facts and figures. And while it's a moral duty—a spiritual duty, if you prefer—not to grow numb from the repetition, turning a deaf ear is a primal human reflex. We're especially prone to it when cries of pain are coming from six decades ago. Or, say, from some country you couldn't locate on a map. If you've ever had the impulse to skip one more op-ed about Darfur in The New York Times, you can be only so indignant about good Germans. Friedländer seems to understand that the same old horrors don't hold our attention anymore.

Some people may be disappointed by the lack of grisly photographs (he should have included a map, though). Friedländer doesn't soften the atrocities nor try to minimize our revulsion—as the excerpt from Gradowski's notebook shows—but he focuses on the larger narrative and doesn't indulge the prurient with gratuitous detail and imagery. Josef Mengele, for instance, rates only a brief reference. When he calls a Nazi functionary "sadistic," Friedländer generally leaves it at that. He finds dread enough in everyday details: a deported woman, for instance, dragging a bundle of possessions and provisions, with a thin stream of rice pouring out. What he offers is his radar for the weird, the inadvertently revelatory, the absurd, the downright insane. Lunacy, perhaps even more than thuggery, sadism and deliberate cruelty, was the essence of Nazism.

This seems overobvious: of course they were crazy. ("Evil" is a theological term—which isn't to say it doesn't fit, too.) But this very obviousness might be why we seldom see the Nazis' sheer lunacy emphasized lately, either in the academy or in the culture at large. (Prominent exceptions, such as the cult TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" and Mel Brooks's "The Producers," date back to the 1960s.) It might be a useful perspective to recover today. The deader Hitler gets, the more he becomes an emblematic, almost disembodied figure—a metonymy for Evil—despite such recent efforts as Norman Mailer's novel "The Castle in the Forest" to reimagine him as a nasty creature of flesh and blood. In wartime America, however, Hitler was a real, living menace—Kim Jong Il times 100—to be fought with every weapon from air raids to ridicule.....
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