The Years of Exter­mi­na­tion: Nazi Ger­many and the Jews, 1939 – 1945

Saul Friedlän­der
  • Review
By – November 14, 2011

Saul Friedlän­der, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at UCLA, is a child sur­vivor of the Holo­caust who has writ­ten sev­er­al impor­tant books on Nazi Ger­many and the Shoah. This vol­ume is a fol­low-up to the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed Nazi Ger­many and the Jews: The Years of Per­se­cu­tion, 1933 – 1939. It will cement his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most influ­en­tial and per­cep­tive his­to­ri­ans of the Shoah writ­ing today. 

The present vol­ume con­tin­ues an approach begun ear­li­er that claims that the his­to­ry of the Holo­caust should move beyond the analy­sis of Ger­man poli­cies and mea­sures to include the reac­tions and deci­sions of the sur­round­ing world as well as the atti­tudes and behav­ior of the vic­tims. For Friedlän­der, the per­se­cu­tion and exter­mi­na­tion of the Jews of Europe was not a sec­ondary con­se­quence of Ger­man poli­cies, but rather was at the matrix of Nazi ide­o­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al under­stand­ing. Hitler’s brand of anti-Jew­ish hatred func­tioned as a redemp­tive anti-Semi­tism,” as a way of redeem­ing the world by elim­i­nat­ing the Jews. For a regime depen­dent on con­stant mobi­liza­tion, the Jews served as the con­stant gen­er­at­ing myth. The mobi­liz­ing func­tion of the idea of the Jew helps explain the behav­ior of the ordi­nary Ger­mans toward the Jews they encoun­tered, per­se­cut­ed, and mur­dered, as well as the atti­tudes and reac­tions of bystanders. Friedlän­der demon­strates in great detail that there were vir­tu­al­ly no social groups, reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, or schol­ar­ly or pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­a­tions in Europe that declared sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Jews. He also shows how the lev­el of anti-Semi­tism in Europe rose after Nazi occu­pa­tion and after the exter­mi­na­tion process was in full oper­a­tion rather than what might have been expected. 

The books oth­er major con­tri­bu­tion is that it pro­vides the vic­tims with a voice, not a voice that is a mar­gin­al part of the sto­ry, but one cen­tral to the nar­ra­tive. Friedlän­der brings to life the words of the vic­tims through their let­ters and diaries. He uses this resource prob­a­bly more exten­sive­ly and effec­tive­ly than any oth­er schol­ar, help­ing him write a his­to­ry with a novelist’s sense of the human aspects of the tragedy. Keen­ly aware that the role of his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge is to smooth away dis­be­lief, to make his­to­ry seem ordi­nary, Friedlän­der pro­vides a remark­able study of the Shoah with­out elim­i­nat­ing or domes­ti­cat­ing the endur­ing sense of shock or dis­be­lief that must con­front any reader.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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