Saturday, February 9, 2008

Saul Friedmander's The Years of Extermination: a true magnum opus

I have previously mentioned Saul Friedmander's latest book The Years of Extermination. It appeared in English last May [it appeared in a German edition late in 2006]. I have recently returned to it in anticipation of a class I will be teaching. Looking at it again convinces me that I should say more about it.

It is overpowering. It is an all encompassing work of history that is not afraid of touching the reader. It is never overstated. In fact its strength comes from its understatement.

Friedlander also demonstrates how synthesis, in the hands of a brilliant historian, can be art. He cites the work of numerous other historians but does so in a way that gives added insight and depth to their works. On occasion, simply by adding a sentence of his own, he gives important context to what they have already done.

His use of memoirs, letters, and personal stories is also masterful.

For Prof. Dan Diner's fine review of this work click here.

1 comment:

Steve said...


I couldn’t agree more about Freidlander’s masterpiece. Here are some of the things I took away from it.

1) Probably because of his own experience, he offers one of the best and most nuanced and richly detailed takes on Vichy I have ever read. Unbearably sad.

2) He shows that many supposedly "minor" diarists -- surviving and non-surviving -- were in fact as or more profound than the well-known ones.

3) He completely, yet fairly and carefully and with evidence, demolishes almost every pocket of "good news" history that had come to see some countries and/or national groups as having shown special compassion toward the Jews. Scattered individual heroes remain, and the Danish are relatively unscathed, but almost everyone else is"outed."

4) The view of the Catholic Church (the second Pius especially) is devastating, yet fair. The Church emerges as completely and totally morally and criminally negligent, yet also as having correctly calculated that little they could have done would have substaintially changed the course of events.

5) He fully eleveates the diaries of Victor Klemperer to the central place they deserve in the historiography of the period.

6) Even the sympathetic Protestant and Catholic leaders are seen as overwhelmingly more concerned about mischlinge and converts than full Jews.

7) The basic anti-Semitism of even many of the most noted righteous gentiles is illustrated. Again, he does this without rancor but by using indisputable evidence. It is almost stunning how many dedicated anti-Nazis, people who opposed the Jewish laws, also just happened to despise Jews.

8) Himmler's ideological fanaticism is of course seen as a motivation for extermination, but his focus on the logistics and business at hand seems to trump his admittedly salivating anti-Semitism.

9) The almost complete strategic futility of the Warsaw or Treblinka uprisings is reinforced. They remain acts of courage, but sad acts of desperation.

10) Despite the well-known exceptions of noted individuals, the Netherlands comes across as stunningly and complicit and vicious. I vividly recall documents Freidlander cites in which Gestapo members themselves marvel at the zeal of the Dutch anti-Semites.

11) Extensive efforts by Italian civilians at almost all levels of society to rescue and hide Jews is described.

12) Anne Frank's diary, in the context of all the nuanced and perceptive diaries and memoirs he uses, to some extent shrinks in impact.

Which leads to the book’s great triumph: He gives voice to a slew of diarists heretofore known either only by specialists or not known at all.

They speak with eloquence.