Saul Friedlander: History as Moral Obligation (Interview)

Historians in the News

Saul Friedlander was born in Prague and spent his childhood in Nazi-run France. When he was nine years old, his parents hid him in a Catholic monastery. Orphaned after the war, Friedländer lived a peripatetic life. He joined the Irgun, fought in Israel's War of Independence, studied in Geneva, and eventually became an esteemed historian of the Holocaust at both Tel Aviv University and UCLA. Dissent's Jon Wiener ("The Weatherman Temptation") spoke with Friedländer in Los Angeles about his new book, The Years of Extermination, the second volume of Nazi Germany and the Jews.

Jon Wiener: You open your book The Years of Extermination by describing a photo—an ordinary graduation photo, showing a Jewish man at his graduation from medical school in Amsterdam in September 1942. What’s the significance of this photo?

Saul Friedländer: I wanted to write an integrated history of the Holocaust. Usually, the various aspects are taken separately—German policy, the actions of bystanders, and the experience of the victims. I wanted to show them together, almost simultaneously. In that photo you see all those elements at once. This was the last Jewish student at University of Amsterdam. The Germans had forbidden Jews to study there after September 16, 1942. The University of Amsterdam allowed him to get his medical doctorate the weekend before the Monday that the German decree took effect. So we see, in the same scene, not only the German order, and the last Jewish student, but also the Dutch attitude. Then in the background you see a few relatives who will be deported—most probably to their deaths—in the next few weeks and months. 75 per cent of Dutch Jews were deported and never came back. Thus in this one photo you have an integrated history of the holocaust.

JW: The Nazis worked to rid Germany and Europe of other groups in addition to the Jews, especially gypsies and homosexuals. Was the Nazis’ hostility toward Jews any different from their hostility to these other groups?

SF: The Nazis didn’t start with mass killing of Jews, they started killing the mentally handicapped. The difference between their attitudes towards Jews and others was this: for Hitler, and for his entourage, and for the true believers in the Party, the Jews were not only the enemy of “the New Germany,” and of Aryan humanity, but they were also an active enemy—their only active enemy in the world, the only enemy bent on destroying Germany. In order to prevent them from accomplishing that, they had to be exterminated.

JW: But at the beginning of the war, extermination of Jews was not an official German war aim. You show that, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and the SS massacred Jews, the German army, the Wehrmacht, court-martialed the perpetrators. The Nazis didn’t set a policy of extermination until the end of 1941. The policy before that was expulsion. The difference between expulsion and extermination of course is the difference between life and death.

SF: That is correct. The earliest policy, before the war, was expulsion from Germany. That worked for the Nazis to a point, but there were still 200,000 Jews living in Germany when the war started. Then when Poland was occupied and the Germans “inherited” two million Jews, the question became where could they find someplace to expel all those Jews to. They had what they called territorial plans: first the Lublin area of Poland, then, after France was defeated, they considered the island of Madagascar. And finally, after they attacked the Soviet Union, they thought of northern Russia. ...
Read entire article at Jon Wiener in Disssent

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