The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945|
by Saul Friedlander (Author)
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In the second volume of his essential history of Nazi Germany
and the Jews, one of the great historians of the Holocaust provides a rich,
vivid depiction of Jewish life from France to Ukraine, Greece to Norway, in its
most tragic period, drawing especially on hundreds of diaries written by Jews
during their ordeal, depicting a world collapsing on its inhabitants, along with
the thousands of humiliating persecutions that Jews suffered on their way to
extermination. Friedlšnder also provides insightful discussions of the many
interpretive controversies that still surround the history of Nazi Germany. He
has been party to many of the debates, and he remains attuned to the most recent
historical research. Friedlšnder knows the bureaucratic workings of the Third
Reich as well as anyone, but refuses to see in that alone the explanation for
the Holocaust. Instead, he focuses largely on cultural and ideological factors.
He considers other factors, such as "the crisis of liberalism," but these were
not the essential motives for the Holocaust, which, Friedlšnder says, was driven
by sheer hatred of Jews, by "a redemptive anti-Semitism" espoused by Hitler, a
belief that Germans could thrive only through the utter destruction of Jews.
This is a masterful synthesis that draws on a lifetime of learning and research.
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Reviewed by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Saul Friedlšnder, born in 1932, has now finished his magnum opus, the second
volume of his history of Nazi Germany and the Jews (the first, covering the
years 1933-1939, appeared in 1997). The Years of Extermination may prove to be
the last major general history of the Holocaust produced by a leading scholar
who lived under the Nazis. For this reason, and because it relies heavily on the
findings and perspectives of recent scholarship, it presents a kind of appraisal
of our understanding of the period.
Friedlšnder brings together a vast array of evidence -- including the Nazi
leadership's public and private pronouncements, the testimony of bystanders and
the testimony of victims -- to ground his basic contentions about two principal
concerns: how the decisions about the persecution of the Jews unfolded, and how
Germans and other Europeans reacted to that persecution. He does this through a
detailed chronological recounting of the events, in which he follows the thread
of the regime's anti-Jewish initiatives while repeatedly cutting to different
European countries for snapshots of their implementation.
The evidence is overwhelming, Friedlšnder shows, that anti-Semitism not only
motivated Hitler and the Nazi leadership in their persecution and extermination
of the Jews, but that it led Germans to accept and implement the regime's
policies, and most of the peoples of occupied Europe to aid or watch, with
little sympathy, the destruction of the Jews among them. Until a decade ago this
was generally denied by scholars, who, focusing almost exclusively on the Nazi
leadership and enamored of misleading structural and social psychological
theories, ignored the evidence from victims and perpetrators alike about the
pervasiveness of anti-Semitism.
Friedlšnder confirms that, while the Nazi leadership and many Germans wanted
desperately to rid their country and Europe of Jews, actual anti-Jewish policy
moved forward in a pragmatic, not entirely linear way -- from ghettoization and
expulsion schemes to regional killing to total annihilation. After all, the
Germans' assault on the Jews encompassed a continent and evolved in the context
of changing military, political and economic constraints and opportunities.
He also leaves no doubt that it is transparent nonsense to exculpate ordinary
Germans involved in the persecution, as well as the conquered peoples of Europe
who aided the Germans, with claims that they did not know of the mass murder or
were terrorized into compliance by the Nazis. Following a growing trend, he
rejects the convention of referring to the German perpetrators as "Nazis," which
many of the Germans were not, and calls them instead "Germans."
Approval of the mass murder was indeed widespread in Germany and across Europe.
But what was singular, which Friedlšnder does not sufficiently emphasize or
analyze, is that the project was ideologically driven forward from Germany by
Germans who alone sought the total elimination of the Jews from Europe and
ultimately from the world. Whatever substantial local aid Germans received from
Dutch, French, Poles, Ukrainians and others, it was principally Germans who
imagined a world without Jews.
For all the book's virtues, Friedlšnder's failure to explore this and other
critical themes makes The Years of Extermination little more than a dressed-up
chronicle. Covering an entire continent's record of persecution inevitably
yields superficial treatments and omissions. Still, he does not include, aside
from the Nazi leadership, this genocide's central actors -- the actual killers
themselves -- let alone examine them, their motives and deeds in depth. This
astonishing omission compromises his overall project.
The central idea of his first volume, "redemptive anti-Semitism" -- that
anti-Semitism is a quasi-religious belief system that offers to redeem the world
of its troubles -- barely appears here. In that earlier work, he also explicitly
rejected the conception of Hitler's and other Germans' anti-Semitism as
"eliminationist" -- that anti-Semites believed Jews posed such a threat that
they had to be eliminated somehow, whether by ghettoization, deportation or
annihilation. Yet in this volume, without comment, Friedlšnder redefines
redemptive anti-Semitism as a mission to save the world precisely "by
eliminating the Jews." That may be because his earlier, woolly concept is
useless when considering the central analytical problem of this book, the
relationship between anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Jewish action. After all,
many anti-Semites who did not seek world redemption willingly took part in the
expulsion and mass murder of Jews. Now that Friedlšnder must deal with actual
eliminationist policies as his main subject, he alters his earlier concept and
then drops it after the introduction, leaving his book analytically disarmed.
Friedlšnder repeatedly fails to explore the larger significance of the many
events he describes, such as the relationship among the Germans' various plans
to deport Jews, to slaughter "only" the adult Jewish males in one region, and to
annihilate them totally. And he fails to place the Germans' and other Europeans'
extermination of the Jews in any broader context, including the Germans'
large-scale but systematically different brutalizing and killing of non-Jews.
Friedlšnder's book offers a useful, updated panorama of the events of the
Holocaust. But readers seeking more than an introductory narrative will have to
Paperback: 896 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 1, 2008)