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The Years of Extermination

Dan Diner reviews Saul Friedländer's three-part history of the Holocaust

"On September 29, 1941, at the gorge of Babi Yar, the Germans shot to death 33,700 Jews from the nearby city of Kiev. When rumours of the massacre spread, some Ukrainians expressed doubts. On that day, Irzna Khoroshunova wrote in her diary:

'I know only that something terrible, horrible is going on, something unbelievable that can't be understood, comprehended or explained.' A few days later her uncertainty was gone: 'A small Russian woman accompanied her friend to the cemetery (at the entrance to the gorge), and crawled through the fence from the other side. She saw naked people being brought to Babi Yar, and heard machine-gun fire. There are more and more such rumours and reports. They are so monstrous that it's impossible to believe them. But we're forced to believe them, since the shooting of Jews is a fact. A fact that is starting to drive us mad. It is impossible to live with this madness. The women around us weep. And we? On September 29, when we thought they'd be brought to a concentration camp, we wept too. But now? Can we really cry? I sit here and write, but my hair is standing on end.' Meantime, the war in the East was in its fourth month."

That is how historian Saul Friedländer begins the second section of his massive, far-ranging, three-part work on the Holocaust, entitled "The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945." This section of the book is titled "Mass Murder," and deals with the period from summer 1941 to summer 1942. The first section is "Terror", covering the period from autumn 1939 to summer 1941. The third section bears the emblematic title "Shoah", and runs from summer 1942 to spring 1945. The three large sections are further divided into ten chapters, each dealing with a shorter span of time, such as June-September 1941. That is Chapter Four, which opens with Irzna Khoroshunova's diary entry, in order to capture the power and drama of the looming genocide.

That initial diary entry is followed, one after another, by more testimonies. Their staccato literalness is overwhelmingly authentic. Various perspectives are interwoven, and the layered impressions of victims, perpetrators and uninvolved bystanders vividly depict the shape of events.

Saul Friedländer's mode of representation is truly unusual, indeed bold by the standards of this genre. The short "takes" with which he moulds the text are like those of a Filmmaker, and their impact grows cumulatively. The rational diction of commentary takes a back seat; it is restrained, as if the subject matter cannot tolerate anything more than the whispered word. The author remains in the background, yet is made all the more forcefully present by his terseness and irony. The restraint of the chronicler speaks through him.

The book's style takes its inspiration from that of the chronicle – but it is a chronicle which, unlike the usual ones, does not stand at the beginning of a consideration of historical material, but rather at its end. In its seeming simplicity, the chronicle mode of narrative proves here to be a splendid stylistic form, in the sense that it returns to the source of historical awareness and circumvents, so to speak, the manifold interpretations which have accumulated over decades. Perhaps, after all the years of inflated treatment of the Holocaust, it is the only possible form with which to describe this material. With it, something genuine and crystalline has been captured.

The book's fourth chapter, cited earlier, is probably the clearest example of the approach chosen by Friedländer. In addition to the dense descriptions by eye-witnesses with their microscopically precise view of the organised murders, it lays out the larger international context as well as a carefully detailed accounting of the progression of Nazi decisions and acts. In this way, the micro and the macro are interwoven. Step by step, the processes and perspectives relevant to each particular time period are prepared: the United States' imminent entry into the war; the genocidal actions of Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi death squads, throughout the conquered Soviet territories; the participation of local populations in the massacres of their Jewish neighbours; the docile reactions – born of terror and incomprehension – of the Jews throughout the region from the Baltic to the Black sea, who were beaten, burned, shot and buried alive. To the extent necessary for an understanding of the historical context, Friedländer reaches back into the more remote past, without falling into the trap of an unnecessary broadening of scope. The abrupt "cuts" in the narrative line facilitate rapid shifts of scene during one and the same time frame, switching from Poland to France, from the Netherlands to Hungary, from Bulgaria to Denmark, from the Ukraine to Lithuania. Given the virtually endless variety of circumstances and conditions, this in turn illuminates the unity of what, decades after the events, came to be known under the emblematic label of "the Holocaust".

Is Friedländer's aim, with this extensive history of the destruction of European Jewry, merely to describe and report? Or, considering that this work hardly stands alone given all the prior historical examination of this subject, does the book carry with it some particular historiographic intent? In his lengthy introduction, the author does indeed take a stance and openly reveal his own perspective. And that perspective on these monstrous events focuses on the deep-seated attitude of hostility to Jews (without the need to ascribe anti-Semitism to each concrete action, as Daniel Goldhagen does).

That may seem remarkably self-evident. What else should have led to the murder of Jews beyond the fact that they were Jews? But that obviousness cannot be taken for granted. In years past, those Holocaust books which have achieved greatest popularity – and which have chalked up almost sensational sales figures by the standards of historical works – have tended to disregard hostility to Jews as the central ground for the destruction of European Jewry. The fact that the murdered Jews were indeed Jews has been relegated to the sidelines, to that of a more or less secondary cause. Such an approach is popular because it permits a focus on material considerations: on robbery and plunder, on greed and economic calculation. In this view, such human afflictions are readily understandable to everyone, based upon something like a comprehensible "negative anthropology." The magnitude of the Holocaust may shatter all bounds – so goes this line of thought – but in the final analysis we are dealing here with a process which presents less of a challenge to our hard-earned insights into the ways of the world than do motives which transcend mere utilitarianism. In any case, there has been a decided tendency to reconstruct a Holocaust without Jews.

Saul Friedländer's history of the Holocaust runs counter to that trend. Instead of exposing marginal and offbeat phenomena as if they truly explain everything, he concentrates on the essentials, on the existential processes which were at the root of events. For all his book's multiple viewpoints, his greater emphasis on the victims restores to those events a sharpness of focus which had been progressively lost in recent years by the shift in emphasis to secondary issues. In the final analysis, Friedländer's intention in this work is to make visible once more that which characterises the Holocaust against the background of a still-valid culture of the Enlightenment: an erratic state of bewilderment.

Saul Friedländer: "Die Jahre der Vernichtung. Das Dritte Reich und die Juden, 1939-1945" (The Years of Extermination: The Third Reich and the Jews, 1939-45) is published in German by C.H. Beck, 864 pgs. 29.90 euros. The English edition is due to appear in spring 2007.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on September 30, 2006.

Dan Diner is the Director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig. He also teaches at the Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Translation: Myron Gubitz.

See also Götz Aly's article "I am the people", which explains the National Socialism and the Holocaust as driven by greed and economic calculation.

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