Saul Friedlander: Praised for his history of the holocaust and damned for his portrait of Hitler and the Nazis

Historians in the News

... The Germans are not absent from this history of the Holocaust. But by contrast with Friedländer's nuanced portrait of the victims, only his characterisation of Hitler carries any real weight. Friedländer portrays Hitler as what he calls a 'redemptive anti-Semite', who believed that only by the elimination of their racial enemies, above all the Jews, could the German people be saved from their own destruction.

For Friedländer, Hitler's anti-Semitism is an omnipresent motivating force, dictating his entire worldview and his every move. And few, if any, serious historians of the Third Reich would disagree.

Apart from Hitler, however, his treatment of the wider group of German perpetrators is remarkably perfunctory. Insofar as he engages with the many disputed questions concerning the architects of annihilation, he does so in distended footnotes, disconnected from the main body of the narrative.

And when, in a brief passage in the Introduction, Friedländer does attempt to define his own position in relation to that of generations of previous researchers, the result is quite astonishing.

He suggests that we must choose between two schools of Holocaust history: those who consider 'the extermination of the Jews as representing in and of itself, a major goal of German policies' and those who see 'the persecution and extermination of the Jews of Europe' as a 'secondary consequence of major German policies pursued towards entirely different goals'.

Coming from a historian of Friedländer's experience and subtlety such a crass mischaracterisation is really quite staggering.

Although many of us believe that the Final Solution can only be fully understood as part of even wider schemes for racial and territorial reordering in Eastern Europe, that does not mean that the Judeocide was merely a 'secondary consequence' of those policies, or that those schemes for the seizure and settlement of Lebensraum were not intimately bound up with the notion of race struggle, of which the life and death battle with world Jewry formed the epicentre.

Starting from Friedländer's false premise it is indeed quite difficult to paint a compelling picture of the regime that actually perpetrated this horror. The result is a cruder story than one might wish for, a story in which a raging Hitler stands almost directly opposite his millions of struggling, disbelieving victims.

However, it is perhaps also this stark simplicity that gives Friedländer's account its truly awful power and allows him to capture something about the Holocaust that most of us have never grasped before.

No one seriously interested in European history in the 20th century can escape reading this book.
Read entire article at Adam Tooze, in the course of a review of The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany And The Jews 1939-1945 by Saul Friedlander, in the Telegraph (UK)

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